Bulls Eye Babies and Targeted Teens

– By Walt Mueller
1998, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

During an appearance on a television talk show, I shared the stage with an advertising executive who offered eye-opening insight into her profession’s formula for success: Find a point of weakness and lust in every man, woman and child, and target that weakness to make them want to buy a product. Couple that philosophy with the increased buying power of the under-18 market segment, and it’s no wonder marketers have declared open-season on our kids.

Business Week (June 30, 1997) recently ran a cover story on this all-out advertising assault on young hearts, minds and wallets. In Hey Kid, Buy This!, columnists David Leonhardt and Kathleen Kerwin report that this intense and intentional marketing offensive pounds kids from the moment they are born. In fact, by the time infants go home from the hospital, they are already pursued with assorted samples, coupons, and freebies from Pampers, Johnson & Johnson, Enfamil, and a host of other corporations.

Today’s world is truly a consumer culture where kids are bombarded by ads, logos, and labels designed to feed weakness and lust so they grow up seeking personal peace and satisfaction in the philosophy spend, spend, spend. Consider some of the following facts cited by Leonhardt and Kerwin:

By the time they are only 20 months old, children will already have developed brand recognition.

By age 7, the average child will see some 20,000 television commercials a year.

Today’s commercials focus less on the product and more on the image associated with using the product, creating a sense that positive self-worth and acceptance hinge on the product’s purchase and use.

By age 12, most children already have their own entry in the massive data banks of marketers.

During 1997, kids under the age of 14 will directly spend an estimated $20 billion (allowance, earnings and gifts) and influence the spending of another $200 billion.

Fewer and fewer children’s products are pitched to parents. Dads and moms used to decide what their child would wear, eat, and play with. Today, advertisers market adult products directly to kids, who in turn influence parental spending. One recent example is the two-page Chevy Venture minivan ad in Sports Illustrated for Kids, a magazine catering to 8-to-14-year-old boys!

From 1993 to 1996, advertising in kid-specific media (magazines, web sites, and entire TV channels aimed at kids) grew more than 50%, to $1.5 billion.

Many of their cultural encounters with books, television and movies have become nothing more than sales pitches for a host of products and licensed toys. During 1996, 38% of all money spent on toys went to licensed toys. Experts believe that with the popularity of the films Star Wars, The Lost World, Batman and Robin, and Hercules, that number will be closer to 50% this year.

Since children playing with licensed toys tend to play by following the program or movies story lines, they are less and less involved in truly imaginative play.

School children are victims of strategic philanthropy as companies give away equipment, curriculum and services to schools in exchange for opportunities to flash their corporate name in those schools.

Channel One, a commercial-supported daily TV news program for secondary students is now seen by 8 million kids every school day. In addition to the news, captive young viewers are treated to a steady diet of commercials for soft drinks, sneakers, food, and other products.

As the marketing industry’s aggressiveness towards children grows, parents would be wise to increase their overt counter-efforts to expose the lies of advertising so that their children will learn the real difference between needs and wants. The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding offers the following suggestions:

Teach your kids that in today’s world, advertising is everywhere. Make a game out of working together to journal all the places you and your child are exposed to advertising during the course of a normal day. You’ll be surprised at how brand-names pop-up in the most unusual places.

Discuss how ads deliberately create a need based on image rather than the value or necessity of the product. A good question to ask of every ad is: What does this ad say will happen in my life if I use this product? Again, you’ll be amazed at the ridiculously far-fetched and deceptive nature of advertising.

Watch how you spend your time. Too much time with movies, magazines, and in front of the television equals more time with Madison Avenue. More family-time spent in creative play and interaction will pump up the volume of positive parental influence.


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.