Marketing Madness

– by Paul Robertson
2001, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

When I was 10, I wanted a pair of black leather train engineer boots more than anything in the world. They were similar to cowboy boots except they had rounded toes and thick heels. What made them really cool — at least in my mind — was the small leather strap with a silver buckle that went over the front of the ankle. I wanted them so much I was even willing to trade my old dog, Taffy, for a pair of those boots.

Every day I’d come home from school, pull out the Sears catalogue and scrutinize those engineer boots. I would dream about the day when they would be mine — about the day when I would wear them proudly in front of all my friends and they would drool with envy. Every eye would be on my new footwear and me. My life would somehow take on new significance.

I never did get a pair of those boots (my mother decided I was quite fulfilled without them) and my dog remained by my side for many years. However, I was thankful for that old Sears catalogue. Everything a little boy could ever want was wrapped up in its tattered pages. It was my sole source of product information, not only for my clothes, but for toys and school supplies as well. I never had to worry about advertisers trying to peddle their wares to me on TV and over the radio.

I grew up in a time when, as strange as it may seem, marketers had little interest in the children and adolescent market. If they had something to sell to me, they would let my mother know. As a result, if I knew anything about the products I should have, the department store catalogues were my main source of data. I was never made to feel like I was less than adequate if I didn’t have everything in the catalogue. I guess I never really had an advertiser tell me how disappointed I should be with my lot in life.

Today, commercial America is in the business of selling disappointment to our kids. Every ad targeting our children is designed to make them unhappy with who they are and what they own. Adolescent life is always incomplete. You will never achieve personal happiness and fulfillment because there will always be one more product or service you can’t live without. Dissatisfaction by deliberate design has become the marketplace mantra in North America.

The size of this marketing assault on our kids is formidable and begins early. Consider these facts:

  • More than $2 billion is now spent annually on advertising directed at children, over 20 times the amount spent just 10 years ago (McCann-Erickson U.S. Advertising Volume Reports).
  • Channel One’s 12-minute in-class broadcast, 42 percent of which is ads and filler, has a daily teen audience comparable to that of the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV event of the year (Business Wire, 1/22/97). In fact, 50 times more teens watch Channel One than watch MTV (Channel One Network, Teen Fact Book 1997-1998, New York: Channel One Network)
  • A 1998 Federal Trade Commission survey examined 212 Web sites aimed at kids and found that 89 percent solicited personal information such as name, postal address and social security number, while only 23 percent told children to ask their parents’ permission before providing information (Federal Trade Commission, “Survey of Commercial Web Sites,” March 1998).
  • It’s estimated the average child sees between 20,000-40,000 commercials every year (Business Week, 6/30/97).
  • At six months of age, the same age they begin imitating sounds like “mama,” babies are forming mental images of corporate logos and mascots. Experts say a lifetime customer may be worth $100,000 to a retailer, making effective “cradle to grave” marketing strategies extremely valuable (American Demographics, 6/93).

So, why all the attention on our young people? First, just sheer numbers makes them worthy of corporate America’s attention. Generation Y (born 1979-1994) is 63 million strong, of which 31 million are teens. The teenage population, and its buying power, is expected to increase until at least 2010. By then, it is estimated there could be as many as 34.9 million teens.

Second, these kids have a lot of personal discretionary money to spend. Children’s spending has roughly doubled every 10 years for the past three decades, and tripled in the 1990s. Kids ages 4-12 spent $2.2 billion in 1968, and $4.2 billion in 1984. By 1994 the figure climbed to $17.1 billion, and only three years later, in 1997, their spending reached $23.4 billion (James McNeal, “The Kids’ Market: Myths and Realities,” Ithaca: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc. 1999). Last year, teenagers as a group spent $155 billion, a number that has been growing at about 6 percent a year (International Marketing News, February/March 2001).

In addition, it is estimated kids under 12 influence about $300 billion in family purchases a year, from breakfast cereal to minivans (American Demographics, 5/1/99) with teenagers influencing about the same amount (Horizon Media Research).

Third, there is a trend among some busy parents to appease their children with material possessions. Due to busy schedules, many parents have diminished time with their kids. If parents can’t have quality time with their children, at least they can provide them quality goods that should make them happy. Vendors are always happy to help parents placate their offspring.

So what is the effect of all this advertising and marketing being thrust upon our children? We may never know for sure but some things are clear. First, our kids are being taught that materialism is a good thing that will make them happy people. Advertising teaches them the answer to life’s tribulations lies not in superior ideals, hard work or education, but in the acquisition of material things. In a lot of ways, products have become more important than people. We shouldn’t be surprised when advertisers “personify products” in their appeals to our young people.

Second, the ultimate impact on our children may not be in the individual ad or commercial. On the contrary, its insidiousness may lie in the cumulative effect. Professor Herbert Schiller, author of Culture Inc. says, “There is a growing base of these kinds of images, impressions and ways of looking at the world … which will not help kids when they become teens, and adults, to grow up healthy.” We are spawning a generation of young people who believe that getting, not giving, is the ultimate avenue to joy.

Third, the push for material acquisition can put our kids in conflict with their parents. As the corporate culture continues to convince our children of the need for more and more “things,” the stress will rise in their relationships as parents struggle to keep up with the demand-often out of feelings of guilt for either not being able to provide or not being able to be with them in the first place. Three out of four parents thought materialism and the negative influence from TV, movies and music were a “serious problem” in raising children (USA Today, 10/1/98). A survey done by the Center for a New American Dream found that 87 percent of the parents polled said advertising and marketing geared to kids ages 2 to 17 makes them too materialistic. Almost half of the parents said that by age 5 their kids were asking for name brand products. Parents also said advertising and marketing aimed at kids hurts their self-esteem, has a negative effect on their values and world view, and is even causing many parents to work longer hours just to pay for the things their children feel they need.

Fourth, as the competition for our children’s attention increases, the methods to reach them will continue to deteriorate morally. Marketers have a tendency to approach our children the way they do adults. As our young people become more desensitized to the sex, violence and rudeness already being used in their advertising, marketers will have to continue to push the envelope. A perfect example occurred here in Canada on our MuchMusic station (similar to MTV) when Levi jeans showed two nude teens lying on a couch, apparently just having had a sexual encounter. The commercial showed the two teens slowly dressing each other with the ultimate experience being slipping into their Levi jeans. Who knows what comes next?

What can we do as parents to shield our kids from a corporate culture that seems bent on wounding our children? How can we defend our young people against the onslaught of materialism and warped values? The Center for a New American Dream ( offers some great advice in their online brochure “Tips for Parenting in a Consumer Culture.”

Shopping, money and “stuff.” We need to work with our kids to help them be responsible stewards of their money. Teach them the value of money and encourage them to save and donate to charity as well. Help them to understand the pressure to purchase that friends and the media can bring into their lives. Encourage them to trade toys, games and sports equipment with friends and neighbors.

Do the obvious: turn off the tube. Knowing the impact of media on our kids, let’s establish limits on television viewing and encourage them to seek alternative activities. Mute commercials or watch them with your children and help them to understand marketing techniques.

Guard your time. Free time has become a precious commodity. Spend time creating memories for your children. Make dinnertime special and use it to get reconnected. Take more time to be outdoors and away from the rush of daily life. Encourage your kids to read, draw or develop a hobby. Devote 20 minutes just before bedtime to your children — reading, praying, talking, and listening.

Commercial-free schools. We need a cultural wall around public institutions, limiting commercial intrusion into our children’s lives. Work with your local PTA to study commercialism in schools, including the impact of Channel One.

Teach your child to be a responsible consumer. Teach your child about the impact of all this consumption on the environment, especially as it relates to the use of non-renewable resources. Seek out earth-friendly products. Be a role model by avoiding impulse buying and limiting your own obsession with material goods.

CPYU also encourages you to consider missions and other related Christian service opportunities. We believe that in service to others we are fulfilling one of our highest responsibilities and callings as Christians. It is also a great way to counter the enticing and destructive call of consumerism.

Several years ago I took a couple of kids with me on a shopping excursion to get food and supplies for a single mom who had an 18-month-old baby with cancer. We delivered the food, clothes and special baby formula to a dingy apartment in the downtown Toronto area. I had to personally move the empty beer and whiskey bottles off the table to make room for the groceries. We never received a thank you from the young mother. However, as we walked down the street, my two young friends were struggling to put into words something they felt deep in their souls. All they could say was that it just felt good to help someone. Jesus called it joy — the joy of giving, even giving of oneself. The mystical is always hard to put into words. My young friends had been transformed and they had taken a step forward in spiritual maturity.

Let us be reminded that our children are much more than the sum total of their worldly possessions. They were made in God’s image, not Abercrombie & Fitch’s. The world may have changed since we were kids, but that doesn’t mean we have to be conformed into its consumeristic image.


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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.