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The socialization of children into market behavior and their indoctrination into the values of consumption are vital to the continuity of a capitalist society like the United States. This chapter focuses on the period of childhood when new consumers are coming of age, the ways marketers shape their buying behavior, the images and values that ads associate with childhood, and the controversies and ethical questions that emerge from marketing to children. It examines these issues from the various perspectives of the advertising industry, government regulators, parents, and activists.
1. The History of Childhood
In his influential book Centuries of Childhood (1962), Philippe Ariès examines conceptions of childhood historically and claims that 20th-century children lived lives of leisure and indulgence unknown in the past. Ariès notes that children in the past were variously conceived as simply little adults, uninteresting, merely tolerated, frequently ignored and, given the precarious conditions under which they lived, liable to disappear at any time. Until the concept of a period of life designated as childhood emerged in the 19th century, children were typically called on to assume their adult roles as much as a decade before being allowed to do so today (at 8–12 years of age).
Similarly, anthropologists studying childhood in a variety of other cultures have noted the uniqueness of our own culture’s attitudes about treating children. Kalahari Bushmen, for example, keep children close at hand as they forage and hunt, thereby providing not only constant supervision but also powerful models of culturally appropriate behaviors for children to emulate.3 In traditional Samoan culture, the period of life known as adolescence to Westerners is not as stressful or as problematic as in Western societies because adolescents are not faced with a myriad of life-determining choices as they are in the West.4
Scholars have uncovered additional historical and cultural evidence that points to a simple, but powerful, understanding of childhood as a cultural construction rather than a biological given. This understanding necessitates an interrogation of the social and cultural factors that make childhood and the experiences of children what they are in any particular society. In contemporary America, advertising and consumerism—along with parents, school, and other agents of socialization—make contemporary childhood a historically specific and culturally unique phenomenon.
2. Just How Important Is Advertising in a Child’s Life?
Reliable statistics on the significance of advertising in children’s lives and their roles as consumers is difficult to come by. Parents do not need statistics. They know that television, brands, and commercial messages of all sorts are large parts of their children’s lives from a very early age, and that as they mature, they will experience intense marketing along the way. Several statistical estimates of advertising and consumerism’s significance in children’s lives have attempted to quantify this influence. The following list will surely convince even the most skeptical of its importance:
• Today, companies spend nearly $17 billion annually marketing to kids. That is more than double what it was in 1992. In 1983, they spent $100 million.9
• Marketing firms and advertisers are looking to a younger demographic, increasingly targeting tweens and even younger children. And these kids have huge control over the flow of parents'; spending, statistics show—8- to 12-year-olds spend $30 billion of their own money each year and influence another $150 billion of their parents'; spending.10
• Nickelodeon’s website, Nick.com, took in $9.6 million between July 2004 and July 2005—more advertising revenue than any other website for either children or adults.11
• The average 8- to 13-year-old is watching an average of over 3 ½ hours of television a day. American children view an estimated 40,000 commercials annually. They also make approximately 3,000 requests for products and services each year.12
• Advertisers’ efforts seem to work. According to marketing expert James U. McNeal, PhD, author of The Kids Market: Myths and Realities (Ithaca, NY: Paramount Market Publishing, 1999), children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year. Teenagers spend $100 billion. Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents.13
• The average child watches about four hours of television a day and sees more than 20,000 commercials a year, often for high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt snacks and foods.14
• By the time American children finish high school, they have spent nearly twice as many hours in front of the television set as in the classroom.15
Sociologist and noted authority on children and consumerism Juliet Schor writes about the influence of brands and commercialism on children. She notes:
The typical American child is now immersed in the consumer marketplace that dwarfs all human experience. At age one, she’s watching Teletubbies and eating the food of its “promo partners” Burger King and McDonald’s. Kids can recognize logos by eighteen months, and before reaching their second birthday, they’re asking for products by brand name. By three or three and a half, experts say, children start to believe that brands communicate their personal qualities, for example, that they’re cool, or strong, or smart. Even before starting school, the likelihood of having a television in their bedroom is 25 percent, and their viewing time is just over two hours a day. Upon arrival at the schoolhouse steps, the typical first grader can evoke 200 brands. And he or she has already accumulated an unprecedented number of possessions, beginning with an average of seventy new toys a year.16
3. How Children Respond to Advertising
Several studies on children and advertising (termed consumer socialization research) have examined children’s ability to discern deception in advertising. When asked whether commercials always tell the truth, older children tend to be skeptical. The findings are startling: 88% of third graders and 97% of six graders believe that advertising does not always tell the truth.17 By contrast, only half of kindergartners believe that advertising never or only sometimes tells the truth. The overall results of the research show that skepticism about advertising develops early in childhood and increases as children get older—perhaps as a result of their increased understanding of the persuasive intent of advertising, more developed experiences with television itself, and parental influences.
There are at least two other areas of psychological research that are relevant to understanding children’s comprehension of advertisements. Piagetian developmental psychology provides an understanding of a series of cognitive phases through which children develop. These theories conclude that children prior to 11 years of age lack adult-like reasoning that allows them to understand the role of commercial messages as not simply informative but also persuasive and to distinguish clearly commercials from programming materials.
Information-processing theory, another area of psychological investigations, provides findings that children under age 11 or so have not fully developed their abilities to acquire, encode, organize, and retrieve information. This means in practice that they do not have adult-like abilities to use the information in commercial messages, but deal with it in more piecemeal fashion.
The bottom line in all this research is that children are different from adults because they think differently, take in and assess information differently, and behave differently. They are not, as the historian Ariès found, simply the “little adults” of society from other centuries of Western history.
4. Advertising to Children in the Earliest Years of Television
When television came on the scene as a commercial medium in the late 1940s, special programs directed to child viewers were some of the earliest programming. Afterschool and Saturday-morning programming provided entertainment for children and thus freedom from childcare for parents. For advertisers, it provided a new and highly targeted means of selling to children.
The novelty of television more than compensated for the slow-paced and often haphazard programming of the early years. Just watching a person talking with a hand puppet would not carry much interest for contemporary children, but in the 1950s shows following such a format were a hit. Often children were included in studio audiences of syndicated programs like NBC’s Howdy Doody Show and ABC’s Mickey Mouse Club as well as many local shows like WTCO’s Hot Dog Party, which featured children from Savannah, Georgia, watching a short movie together, enjoying hot dogs around a picnic table, introducing themselves, and answering brief questions. Moreover, the actors and performers often talked about or presented the sponsors’ products during programming as well as commercial breaks.
5. Advertising to Children in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s
This section examines the content of some TV commercials directed to children during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. These were still early years in the development and evolution of the TV commercial as a form of commercial communication. Although a prototype of television existed as early as the 1930s, commercial television broadcasts only began in the post-war years of the late 1940s. In the 1950s, in particular, it was common for TV commercials to be presented by the same actors in the accompanying programming, resulting in a lack of clarity in the demarcation between commercial messages and programming. A clip from “Miss Frances’s Ding Dong School”19 shows how this worked. During the show, Miss Frances talked directly to young children using age-appropriate language. She read books and poems to them. She also taught them simple tasks and games. At various points in the program, Miss Frances would deliver commercial messages, often asking the child to fetch a parent, caretaker, or responsible adult in the house to come to the TV set in order to hear an important message. The clip below shows how the “message” for the adults included both a review of what the children had seen and heard as well as a special selling message directed to adults.
Similarly, the show “Rootie Kazootie”21 also merged commercial messages with programming content. In the clip, the puppet Rootie gives a Power House candy bar to co-host Big Todd who speaks directly to the audience about the virtues of the candy bar as the puppet “eats” one. The use of the same talent appearing in the programming to deliver commercial messages virtually disappeared a few years later as seasoned presenters and actors refused to do commercials.
The early years of television are poorly documented in archives because most programming was live and videotape did not yet exist. However, the examples from “Ding Dong School” and “Rootie Kazootie” provide a sense of the way ads spoke to children as well as the content of commercial messages. Only in the 1970s did the Federal Trade Commission begin to look into the amount of sugared food advertised to children. In response, the advertising industry itself set up CARU, the Children';s Advertising Review Unit, as a form of self-regulation in order to stave off government management of advertising directed to children.
Commercials from the 1960s and 1970s provide a window into gender modeling and other social information that ads provided for children. Moreover, these years are somewhat easier to study because commercials in general shifted from live to filmed presentations.
The commercial for Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (below) exemplifies toy commercials of the 1960s. The product itself is inexpensive and suitable for both genders. However, the style of the commercial reinforces the cultural ideas of male dominant/female subordinate through the use of a male (albeit child) voiceover and the fact that it is the boy, not the girl, who actually makes the figures. These may seem subtle aspects of a commercial message, but they are in line with cultural conventions about the assignment of gendered roles to males and females.
A commercial for both Frisbee and Hula Hoops teaches a different lesson to children. The children in the commercial never fail to deliver a Frisbee where they want it to go, to catch one, or to rotate a Hula Hoop perfectly. In real life, things are never like this, but in the magical world of advertising, perfect people perform perfect actions, setting up for failure children who try to mimic the commercial.
Barbie25 doll commercials taught cultural expectations to girls. Barbie was (and is) thin, “beautiful,” sociable, affluent, and heterosexual, reflecting conventional American notions of femininity. The commercials invite girl viewers to think of themselves as Barbie. Few children in real life look much like Barbie. Critics have noted that the comparisons girls make between themselves and Barbie are only the beginning of a series of invidious comparisons that will continue throughout life, as women compare themselves to advertising’s imagery of women and femininity.26
While girls were targeted by Barbie commercials, boys were encouraged to buy GI Joe.28 The doll for boys has always been referred to commercially as an “action figure” rather than a “doll,” a term reserved for girls’ toys. The GI Joe commercial below contrasts in many ways with Barbie-type commercials in its depiction of masculinity as more active, outside, less emotional, and violent. These two toys—Barbie and GI Joe— almost single-handedly represent the culture’s definition of gender roles and attributes in the 1970s. These same roles and attributes are repeated in other commercials from the period, although often not as dramatically as in these two instances.
The commercial below models gender roles for girls and boys further by introducing the Ken30 doll to represent Barbie’s boyfriend. Ken, like Barbie, had a line of fashion accessories for outfit changes that allowed him to be appropriately styled for Barbie’s diverse outfits. Unlike GI Joe, Ken is a doll intended for girls. The commercial even suggests that Barbie and Ken may get married and notes the availability of appropriate wedding costumes for each.
The Betsy Wetsy32 doll offered little girls their own baby and allowed them to fantasize about being mothers. Betsy Wetsy drank water and wet her diaper—“just like a real baby.” In the ad, a girl is pictured in a dream state while a voiceover speaks her thoughts, “When I grow up, I want to be a mommy.” A female announcer tells her that she can be a mommy right now with the Betsy Wetsy doll.
Another TV commercial advertises a girl’s game that deals with dating. In “Mystery Date” girls play a board game that shows pictures of their “dates,” as either “dreams,” who take them swimming or to dances, or “duds,” who are inattentive and less well dressed. The game idealizes notions of romance, heterosexuality, and coupling, figuring as a further step in the acquisition of culturally determined gender roles.
Toys for boys teach a different set of roles and expectations. In a commercial for the Battlewagon toy, boys appear stoic as they shout battle commands, play with toy guns, and watch torpedoes fire. Girls are nowhere to be seen in the commercial, and unlike “Mystery Date,” gender relations—no matter how conventional—are not taught. It is the absence of girls that is perhaps the most important statement this commercial makes about the male domain of culture.
Other toys like “The Best of the West” feature boys and girls in an action setting but clearly assign different roles to them. The boys are active, as they engage in fighting. They are responsible for saving the girls. In the commercial Indians are portrayed as the bad guys.
6. Regulating Children’s Advertising—Industry Initiatives, Government Standards, and Parents’ Groups
Study the details of federal regulations regarding children.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US mandates certain requirements for children’s programming and accompanying advertising. The FCC’s basic standard in the first decade of the 21st century is that stations must provide some programming directed to children and that the accompanying commercial messages must not exceed 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. The FCC also accepts complaints about violations of the rules it has promulgated and investigates such charges.
Visit the website of CARU to read its guidelines for advertisers to children.
The advertising industry generally seeks to avoid federal intervention through active and involved self-regulation. The Children’s Advertising Review Board (CARU) was established in 1974 and provides guidelines and principles of best practices for advertisers to children. It reviews advertising to determine whether it meets current standards and occasionally refers violators to the FCC for further review. In practice, advertisers who adhere to CARU principles are typically exempted by the FCC from scrutiny and review.
Read about Action for Children’s Television (ACT), a grassroots parents’ group, which changed the content of children’s television and advertising.
In addition to government and industry oversight of advertising to children, various parent groups have also sought to shape or limit both media programming for children and advertising directed to them. Perhaps the best known of these groups is Action for Children’s Television (ACT) founded in 1968 by Peggy Charren and a group of self-described “housewives and mothers” in her home in Newton, Massachusetts. ACT petitioned the FCC for better children’s programming. Over the years, ACT was responsible for many cases brought before the courts related to the FCC and its regulations of children’s television. ACT was a major force behind the Children’s Television Act of 1990, after which the group disbanded. Today, ACT’s imprint on both FCC regulations and CARU’s self-regulatory activities may be clearly seen. The interaction of a concerned citizen’s group, government, and industry has eliminated some of the excesses and misleading activities of early children’s television and advertising.
Visit the Center for Media Literacy and examine its MediaLit Kit.
Some other groups such as the Center for Media Literacy are more strident in their criticism of consumerism in general and advertising to children in particular. The group’s website urges parents and educators to educate children about how commercial messages work and provides materials designed to promote media literacy, a critical approach to media and media sponsorship. The Center’s materials are used widely in American primary and secondary schools.
7. The Scope and Content of Current Advertising Directed toward Children
There is no question that advertising directed to children operates differently today than in the early years of television and even in more recent decades. First, the industry has become pro-active in its self-regulation and has thereby cut down on some of the most egregious examples of inappropriate communications with young children. The core principles of CARU illustrate the spirit of what the industry hopes to achieve.
The following core principles apply to all practices covered by the self-regulatory program:
• Advertisers have special responsibilities when advertising to children or collecting data from children online. They should take into account the limited knowledge, experience, sophistication, and maturity of the audience to which the message is directed. They should recognize that younger children have a limited capacity to evaluate the credibility of information, may not understand the persuasive intent of advertising, and may not even understand that they are being subject to advertising.
• Advertising should be neither deceptive nor unfair, as these terms are applied under the Federal Trade Commission Act, to the children to whom it is directed.
• Advertisers should have adequate substantiation for objective advertising claims, as those claims are reasonably interpreted by the children to whom they are directed.
• Advertising should not stimulate children’s unreasonable expectations about product quality or performance.
• Products and content inappropriate for children should not be advertised directly to them.
• Advertisers should avoid social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice, and are encouraged to incorporate minority and other groups in advertisements and to present positive role models whenever possible.
• Advertisers are encouraged to capitalize on the potential of advertising to serve an educational role and influence positive personal qualities and behaviors in children, e.g., being honest, and respectful of others, taking safety precautions, engaging in physical activity.
• Although there are many influences that affect a child’s personal and social development, it remains the prime responsibility of the parents to provide guidance for children. Advertisers should contribute to this parent-child relationship in a constructive manner.
Nonetheless, many consumer groups and parents’ organizations believe that even greater regulations should be in place. Canadian broadcasters have stricter regulations, such as only four minutes of commercials per half hour of children’s programming, and in Sweden advertising to children has been eliminated completely.
A useful exercise is to watch television programming directed to children on channels like the major networks (afternoons and Saturday mornings) and cable (such as the Cartoon Network) and to ask such questions as: (1) How well do the CARU principles apply to the content and style of commercials directed to children?, (2) How much time is devoted to commercials and where are they placed in the programming?, (3) Does there seem to be a clear and distinct break between the programming and the commercials?, and (4) What values does the advertising (and the programming) teach child viewers about such issues as the role of commodities in their lives, the source of commodities, money, consumption, ownership, and so on?
8. Contemporary Practice in Advertising to Children
In order to gain insight into how advertising practitioners approach the issue of marketing and advertising to children, please read the original interview in 2000 and then the follow-up discussion with Paul Kurnit.
In 2000, Paul Kurnit, former president of Griffin Bacal, a New York advertising agency specializing in children’s advertising, discussed a wide range of issues associated with advertising to children. The interview is available online in Advertising & Society Review. In 2008, Kurnit, now head of his own marketing consulting company, KidShop, revisited the topic in another interview.
William M. O’Barr’s Interview with Paul Kurnit, an Update Since 2000
WMO: I’d like to discuss how advertising to children has changed since we met in 2000. For example, what happened to Saturday morning television for kids and how do you communicate to kids through means other than the traditional TV commercial? I’ve recently screened some ads directed to children in the early years of TV. What you see there are the powerful stereotypes of traditional male and female roles, a world where almost all of the kids are white, and a world where kids sometimes have mothers but almost never fathers who interact with them. We see boys operating the toys while girls look on. Voiceover announcers are almost invariably male. Things seem remarkably different nowadays—perhaps because of the efforts of industry self-regulation and the effort to speak to a diverse market but also because society is itself very different. I hope we can talk about questions like these and about the general environment for advertising to children. Peggy Charren (and ACT) closed up shop, but we do hear from time to time about specific issues. The environment for advertising to children seems very different today from the one in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and even from the year 2000.
PK: I recently re-read our 2000 interview and was struck by how compelling it still is. The issues are still germane, but there have been some groundbreaking changes and trends. One of them clearly is the media and the Internet. Another is 9/11 and what has happened in terms of a recalibration of family: parents, mother, father, and children. Another development has been the proliferation of traditional media 24/7. You raised the issue of Saturday morning television. It’s a very relevant issue. Another issue has been the dramatic reinvention of other traditional media like cinema. Animated feature films have returned and the Academy Awards now recognize feature-length animation as one of the few new awards. Another issue is the rise of the obesity epidemic, and what it means in the US and around the world. It obviously has implications socially and culturally, but also for advertising—for marketers and advertisers and how they respond to it. Another issue would be literacy, books, and the Internet, and the interaction between those media. A recent newspaper article praised the positive virtues of the Internet for children in terms of literacy, social networking, and social development.
WMO: Let’s take the issues up one by one by starting with the Internet. One of the concerns of parents is that kids are on the Internet in the first place. On the other hand, just as you say, parents have a feeling also that there are good reasons children should be there because of what they can access and learn. But the Internet is a highly charged environment for kids. What are the actual patterns of Internet use by children?
PK: Here’s the long view. We talked about the Internet in 2000, but not so much. And back in 2000, Internet 1.0 was blowing up. The idea of a new economy proved to be bogus. Internet businesses were going under and the idea of the new economy was blowing up with it. What’s happened in these eight years since is the Internet has been reinvented and now we’re in version 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever. We’ve moved from a print analog medium, where we used to talk about page views and scrolling, to a dynamic interface. The dynamic interface is a comfortable space for kids. Remember when we talked last time, we discussed how quickly children can process information on television. It’s the MTV phenomenon—the idea that in a commercial we can mix different forms, such as computer animation, cell animation, live action, and quick cuts. Kids can process the quick pace of content as well as the different content forms much more readily than adults. Kids have taken to the Internet like ducks to water. It’s a very comfortable and convenient tool for them, it’s an entertainment medium for them, and it’s also an access medium for them. Kids don’t drive, so the Internet gives them transportation to a world out there of social interaction, information, and entertainment.
WMO: From what age?
PK: We see kids on computers as early as age two. They are playing basic games. Very active, robust interaction with the Internet really sets in later, starting in a major way with tweens. The “8–12s” is the kid group that is really beginning to ramp up on the Internet. But interestingly, much of the uproar and concern about really young kids on the Internet is simply not true. I’ve done three different tween studies in 2003, 2005, and 2007. The idea for these came out of asking myself, “Do we really know what’s going on with kids? Do we really know what kids think?” In concert with C&R Research in Chicago, their KidzEyes division, I went with a proposition to get the kids’ eye view. I called the studies “The Tween State.” The research dealt with how kids feel about a range of different things, and some of the issues addressed were media behavior and the Internet. What we found in 2003, 2005, and 2007 is that kids were definitely on the Internet, but the amount of time was not nearly as much as the critics and other observers have suggested, at least not through age 12. And from the CARU perspective, children are defined as 12 and under.
WMO: How do marketers communicate with kids via the Internet?
PK: First of all, commercial messaging for kids on the Internet has been grossly overstated.
WMO: The amount of it?
PK: The amount of it, the tactics, the presence of it, the kid interaction. The number one thing that kids do on the Internet is play games. More than 70% of kids 8 to 12 go to the Web to play games. The games they most often play are corollaries to the TV programming they watch. So they go to Nick.com and play games from the programs they most watch on Nickelodeon. The second online activity for kids is surfing the Web. We don’t get any feedback from kids about advertising that they specifically see on the Web. I don’t know if they’re fully aware of the advertising that may be there. That notwithstanding, the purview of CARU has virtually changed in focus in the last 10 years from TV to Internet. Also, the same rules the FCC originally formulated for TV and commercials also apply to kids and advertising on the Internet. There has to be a separation of programming content from commercial content on the Web. That’s a CARU rule. It’s much more difficult on the Internet, because how do you know when you’re moving from entertainment or programming content into advertising content? The Internet is a self-controlled medium, not a temporal one. This is something that is closely monitored by CARU.
WMO: Like not having the characters in the game be the spokes characters for products? Don’t the CARU rules state that about television?
PK: Yes, yes they do. The same rule applies. The genius of what we did in the rule making at CARU was rather than setting new guidelines for every new medium that comes along—and there was a lot of discussion about this—was articulating fundamental principles and guidelines that apply across all different types of media. For example, when the 1–900 telemarketing numbers, such as “talk to Barbie” and “talk to GI Joe,” came out kids didn’t realize that there was a cost associated with it and we had some horrific situations where the $500 phone bill showed up. And what we did originally in CARU—I’m on the advisory board, and have been for many years—was to write a whole new set of guidelines for telemarketing which were effective enough that even though there was nothing in the guidelines that said, “One shall not telemarket to kids,” the principles and guidelines wiped out telemarketing to children. There was no longer a profit incentive if you had to fully disclose that it was going to cost you a dollar, two dollars, or five dollars to talk to Barbie. We realized that having separate guidelines wasn’t the wisest way to go, and the original guidelines and principles for telemarketing have since been incorporated into the basic guidelines.
When the Internet came along—and you may recall that CARU jumped on the issues of child protection and privacy long before the FTC did—our discussions centered on the idea that many of the guidelines and principles and protections that we had put in place for other media such as TV and telemarketing should apply to new media, including the Internet. So the Internet guidelines, from the beginning, were woven into the fundamental fabric of the CARU guidelines.
WMO: Reading the CARU guidelines and listening to you gives the impression that CARU is doing a thorough job and keeps FTC regulators at some distance. Is this really the best way to handle regulation, where an industry or industry-based organization polices its activities, rather than allowing governmental supervision? If you read the CARU website carefully, it seems constructed with regard to how to keep the government at arm’s length. There’s even a statement about how you can be put under an umbrella or function in a “safe harbor.”40 If you follow the CARU practices then you won’t be liable, because it’s been agreed with the FTC that the supervision will take place through CARU. Is it your personal view that this is the best way for society to manage this sort of thing, and if so, why?
WMO: What about separation of powers?
PK: I think that self-regulation is a brilliant idea because where it works, it’s a much more elegant idea than government regulation. The CARU situation has been very robust and complex in that it has taken on issues such as children’s privacy and safe harbor long before the FTC did, probably to the tune of about 18 months to two years. We had our guidelines in place before the FTC started to consider these issues and put its own guidelines together. Interestingly, self-regulation done well, being closely tied to the industry, can anticipate more readily some of the upcoming issues, and confront the issues as they develop before government will. Interestingly, when the FTC wrote its guidelines, they were less stringent than CARU. From a CARU perspective, we were not very happy because the more stringent guidelines would be more elegant in protecting either laissez-faire marketers or “bad actors” in terms of issues of child protection, commercialization, manipulation, and children’s privacy protection. Today the CARU and FTC guidelines are in sync. CARU’s activities have largely moved from TV to the Internet because most of the players, the advertisers, get it. The models of TV advertising have been in place for so long that unless you’re a brand new company coming into TV advertising, for the most part people understand what appropriate messaging in the TV medium should be with regard to children.
WMO: Let me ask you about a specific case from the past, about “Miss Frances’s Ding Dong School,” a Chicago-based program that went national in the 50s. Miss Frances used to talk to the children, and at a certain point she would say, “And now kids, go and get your parent, or the adult that’s taking care of you because I have an important message to deliver to them.” Music would play while the parent was brought in, and Miss Frances would carefully review what they’d covered like what she had read to them and the games they had been taught. Then she would whip out a breakfast cereal and start talking about it. It turned into a commercial.
WMO: The child had been recruited through the program to bring the adult to the TV.
PK: Child as commercial shill.
WMO: And later, Peggy Charren’s group referred to children being taught to ask parents for things as “pester power,” but this was really recruiting the child to take the message to the adult.
WMO: Yes, but we’re a long way away from that now. Or are we really? Is it just that the techniques for the child taking the message to the adult to buy things are not quite so much in your face, because it doesn’t take much to see through that trick?
PK: I wasn’t aware of that one, but we are a long way from that. It’s very clear-cut in the CARU guidelines that that kind of child manipulation and parental pressure dynamic is verboten.
WMO: But why? Where did those guidelines come from?
WMO: Do you know the process of deciding what was allowable and what was inappropriate? I suspect that parents didn’t actually like this kind of thing very much. Was the establishment of an industry’s self-regulatory body a response to public complaints?
PK: No, I don’t think so. Part of the elegance of CARU when it came on stream was its construction as an advisory board of academics and industry people. When I joined CARU more than 25 years ago, there were as many—and I even think more—academics on the board than industry people. The representation was quite impressive. Most of the academics were working in child research. They were sociologists, anthropologists, and child psychologists from Harvard and a number of other prestigious schools that formulated the original guidelines. They based them on psychological research about how children gain and process information, the age at which they can distinguish between programming content and advertising content, and so on. They also based them on a sociocultural standpoint by asking what are appropriate messages for kids as well as how those messages are likely to get activated at home and in the marketplace.
WMO: Why is there no adult version of CARU?
Visit the NAD website.
PK: There is. It’s called the NAD, the National Advertising Division of the National Advertising Relations Council. So CARU and NAD both come through NARC. NARC is a joint venture founded and supported by four bodies: the Better Business Bureau, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Advertising Federation. Lee Peeler, president of NARC, comes out of the FTC so he’s been a very good and leader for NARC both in terms of strong sensitivity to self regulation as well as a deep understanding of the content and context of Federal rules and regulation.
WMO: Let’s talk about Saturday morning television. I went looking for it. I didn’t find it. I remember it from years ago with my own kids. Saturday morning had cartoons and lots of commercials aimed at kids.
PK: We baby boomers grew up with Saturday morning TV. After Modern Farmer at seven a.m., the children’s shows came on. And mom and dad could sleep in because they had TV as the babysitter. And the answer to your question is: Saturday morning kids’ TV is still there, but it’s not when and where you would have previously found it. It’s later in the morning. What happened is we have a lot of adult programming now. About 10 or 11 a.m., it kicks over to kids’ programming for a couple of hours. It’s not just an ABC, CBS, and NBC world anymore. We have the other three networks, the CW, UPN, and Fox, which are running kids’ programming as well. That’s broadcast. The bigger part of the equation is the channels totally dedicated to children’s programming. What Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have done is basically create access to children’s programming 24/7. In 2000, it was all kids all the time on Cartoon and Nick, but even they have developed their programming to recognize the kid in all of us with different demographic entertainment at different times of day, including an adult block of programming (Adult Swim). So we’re continuing to see a fine-tuning of kids’ TV offerings. But the Saturday morning prevalence of kids’ TV has changed quite dramatically.
WMO: What about the advertising that goes into those programs? How is it different from what we might have seen 10 years ago?
PK: Ironically, not a lot. Remember when we talked about My Little Pony, which we brought to market in 1983? My Little Pony is back. That’s another point, the issue of retro. Some of the big issues of the 1980s—Transformers, GI Joe, My Little Pony, they’re all back, and they’re back strong, but they’re “old but different.” And the biggest difference is the technology. The animation in the original advertising was hand-drawn, cell animation. Today, it’s all computer animation. Commercial structure and storylines are basically the same as they were 25 years ago. There has been surprisingly little innovation in children’s advertising. Perhaps that’s because the advertising formulas were very effective and kid audiences keep turning over. So, what worked for one generation—with updated animation—works for another.
WMO: The same phenomenon in the animated movies, computer animation?
PK: It’s not an accident that the Walt Disney Company acquired Pixar, the engine of Disney animation today. Virtually all of the big animated hits are 3D computer animation today.
WMO: And the content is the same?
WMO: How so?
PK: Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Shrek—these storylines are quite rich and varied. The attention to the script is frankly far greater than many of the adult films that we’re seeing. So it’s not an accident that feature-length animation has become a new Academy Award, as I said earlier, but it’s a far cry from the original Disney model which was a princess-and-ogre kind of thing: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast. We’re getting more interesting, more intricate, original plots.
WMO: Madagascar, that kind of thing?
PK: Really different, quite fresh. Good social values, like teamwork in Madagascar, a lot of positive, pro-social values that represent the positive change that we are seeing in society, also being reflected in kid and family moviemaking.
WMO: As you know academics are going to take things apart in a critical way no matter what’s done. One of the things that has been said about Disney’s Tarzan from a few years ago was that they had conveniently replaced all African people with animals. There aren’t any problems of black people doing things in the movie because despite the fact that it’s set in Africa, there isn’t a single black person in it. There are different animals that take on humanlike qualities. It’s like Bert and Ernie where you have green and blue Muppets who in one sense represent human diversity, but you don’t have actual black and white categories. What does it mean when you tell a story about Africa in a kids’ version of a story that is quite racist in its own ways? It’s been dressed up and brought into the modern period. They fixed some things, removed the overt racism, but there’s a much more subtle form of racism, which is Africa without Africans. That’s the kind of thing that ends up happening, it’s a myth that’s being created about something. A story that’s been told that offers to replace reality. And then of course this moves into marketing, like selling Tarzan toys and various product tie-ins that go along with the movie. People have also complained about Mulan and the representation of China. There’s stuff to be found there and talked about. Race may be the central issue in American culture throughout history. It’s certainly floating around and out of the closet all of a sudden after Obama’s election. Has advertising to children solved this race problem through the way it talks about diversity in America?
PK: That’s a rich one. Solved it, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous! It’s gone a long way, but let’s go back to the Tarzan question because it’s an interesting one. I think reality is tough; fantasy is often easier. So if you have a story that is fundamentally racist, or has some fundamental problems in terms of the depiction of ethnicity, moving to a fantasy play is obviously an easier and less attackable turf to play on. Stephen Sondheim is revising West Side Story and apparently all of the Latinos in the film are going to speak Spanish. They’re going to change the lyrics in an attempt to update it. Even though it was widely praised in its day, the ethnic depiction was pretty vanilla. We were all singing and dancing along. So updating culture to deal with a new reality or revising one that was unfortunate is a very complex matter.
When we last spoke, a big part of what we talked about was the work that we did in our advertising, not only to reflect culture as it was but hopefully to project a more positive view of culture as it was emerging. We talked about the great attention that we paid to mixed casting—to gender as well as ethnicity. That continues to be a focal point. You remember that we discussed the game Operation. The spot had two boys and two girls as doctors, and you praised it for its gender depiction, but criticized it for its lack of African- American representation. And I thought about it because …
WMO: … because he or she might grow up to be President!
PK: And hopefully he or she will also be an able doctor, because many things need mending!
One of the things I didn’t say then was that we were always careful not to do what I call “United Nations” casting, where every commercial has to have a boy, a girl, an African American, and an Asian or Latino. We have seen a smattering of commercials like these, but they don’t ring true to kids. It was as if this diversity-in-representation thing is fundamentally positive, but it doesn’t happen in every single social situation. At the time, our agency was involved in an Advertising Council commercial about acceptance. And in this spot we had every ethnicity and a kid in a wheelchair. It was so PC that when I looked at the final commercial, I went, “This doesn’t ring true,” because we worked so hard to have this representation of everyone. So, what a lot of agencies do, both in adult and kids advertising, is monitor their casting across a body of work for a client and across the entire agency spectrum to ensure that they have been representative in casting. I think that the kids industry really lags behind the adult industry, though we’ve come a long way in having commercials for a mainstream product depicting an African-American family. We didn’t see it in 2000, but there’s more of that today.
WMO: What about boys taking the lead roles in activities in ads and commercials?
PK: There’s a pretty glib line that goes, “Boys will be boys, girls will be both.” It’s the idea in game commercials that we stumbled upon. If there is a four-person game the conventional wisdom about casting is three boys and a girl. Maybe two and two, but never three girls and a boy. And the reason is that every time we’d research a commercial like that or consider casting three girls and a boy, the boy audience would feel squeamish about it—they’d think the product or play pattern wasn’t intended for them. The irony was this wasn’t a statement about boys somehow being more dominant or more confident, it was that girls were more relaxed in their skin. It may have been a parental dynamic. It may have been just that girls were more comfortable in terms of acceptance.
WMO: That’s very interesting about gender, but how about race? Can we have three black kids with one white playing at the table? It strikes me that it’s still very much the black kid in context of a group rather than a group of black kids with a white one tossed in the mix. You don’t see that very much.
PK: No, you don’t, and I think there are a lot of reasons for it. I think that if you had three black kids and a white kid—and we’ve seen this in society—the white kid would want to be the black wannabe. There’s a lot of dynamics.
WMO: He tries his hip-hop …
PK: Yeah, the urban lifestyle has become a very attractive lifestyle. I’ve written about this, having seen it in the last ten years, the continuing rise of rap and hip-hop. The uppermiddle class Scarsdale kid, the Great Neck kid, who is wearing his pants baggy and hanging down, is emulating the hip-hop attitude. He is wearing the chains and all that kind of stuff and doing it on some level because there is a dynamic tension in that lifestyle. “I’m hip, I’m cool, there is jeopardy in my life.” And he comes home to his life in Scarsdale and mom puts the hot meal on the table and hugs and kisses him and puts him to bed. The white, upper-middle class lifestyle is so serene and sedate that there’s no peril in it. There’s something kind of attractive about that gangsta, perilous lifestyle to a kid.
There’s a wonderful commercial for Budweiser that came out of Canada a few years ago. A couple of grown white guys were walking along emulating that urban attitude, and these two African-American guys come by who are very well appointed and they just shake their heads at these two guys like they’re idiots. It was part of the “True” campaign. It just says, “Bud. True.” So that’s part of why we don’t see it. On some level it runs the risk of demeaning both the white kids and the African-American kids.
WMO: But this doesn’t happen in reverse when the black kid is in a group of three white kids?
PK: No, because black kids are way more “cool” than white kids. Really, I think it’s partially a reflection of the society, at least for the moment. It’s changing dramatically. Caucasians won’t always be the dominant percentage of the population in terms of the mass market. The other is if you have dominant African-American casting, there would be the inference that …
WMO: … that the product somehow is for African Americans?
WMO: That doesn’t work in reverse for minorities? They see a white kid playing with a thing, but they know they’re in second place, is that it?
PK: I think they know that it is a mass-market product. There is far more multicultural advertising being created and run today than there was ten years ago, with multicultural agencies specializing in the African-American market, in the Asian market, in the Latino market. I was asked by an interviewer if multicultural advertising will be the first to be cut in the current financial crisis. I suggested that it might be just the opposite. Multicultural marketing and Internet advertising have the ability to pinpoint audiences much more carefully than mass-market advertising. So in a tough economy it may make more sense to go to the more careful targeting than to the mass audience. Take brand Pepsi, for example, which has spent huge money over the years in mainstream advertising but also spends significant amounts in multicultural advertising and has specific agencies that create advertising for those groups. In that African-American advertising, you will generally see all African-American casting. It may run in some of the mass channels but more likely it will run in the more targeted television media and print that the African-American population will more likely view and read in a more concentrated way.
WMO: That makes sense.
PK: It’s a targeting question. One of the huge issues about areas of focus in media today is the ability to pinpoint audiences and to target audiences both in traditional media (TV, print, radio) as well as Internet media. And we’re only on the tip of the iceberg in terms of how it’s going to work in the long run. It goes back to your Saturday morning television question—why aren’t there more traditional Saturday morning cartoons for kids? Because they weren’t as revenue producing on CBS, NBC, ABC as adult programming is in those time slots. With the proliferation of kid TV, adult advertising on the original three networks is more profitable at least in those early Saturday morning hours.
WMO: So in the typical marketing mix today, where does an advertiser like Kellogg’s, for instance, put breakfast cereal advertising to get their message to kids?
WMO: You gotta eat a lot of corn flakes before you get fat. Not like McDonald’s.
PK: One of the great ironies of the obesity epidemic is that in the first wave of it, the marketers were absolute deer in headlights. It was like, “What are you talking about? We’re not doing anything differently than we did 40 years ago. We’ve had Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes and virtually every major breakfast cereal for three generations.” Through the boomers and generations X and Y and this new generation—four generations, actually. In kid food advertising—just as in toy advertising—the advertising formulas are almost identical to what they have always been. Are kids eating more breakfast cereal than they did before? Are the ingredients worse? No, it’s the same. Nevertheless it was all wrapped up in a major attack on industry that said, “You created obesity.” There’s been a lot of research. I was part of the Institute of Medicine report on food marketing to kids that became the published book Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity (2006) where we went back and looked at every major study that had been done about the link between advertising and obesity. No linkage was found. No linkage at all. That notwithstanding, there has been a proliferation of different products, a change in convenience society, a proliferation of high-calorie packaged foods, an increase in portion sizes, a decrease in exercise, less focus on home cooking and balanced meals for the family, and America and the world have gotten fatter.
So Kellogg’s and the other cereal people have confronted the obesity epidemic from an advertising standpoint basically in three movements. The first movement was the denial stage in concert with the identification of the problem. The marketers and the advertisers said, “What are you talking about? We didn’t do this.” The second stage was “Whether we did it or not, there’s a pervasive problem out there and if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. And if we’re not part of the solution, we will get legislated, regulated, etc.” The second stage was all about the taking out the “bad stuff.” A lot of the companies really got in front of it and took big risks. Frito Lay removed all the trans fats from their snack products. General Mills reformulated all of their cereals to be whole grain. Kellogg’s took a lot of the sugar out of their cereals and reformulated them as well. A number of the companies basically voluntarily—there was pressure—but they said voluntarily, “We will not advertise our less-good-for-you products to kids.” Kraft said, “We will not advertise full-sugar Kool-Aid to kids. We won’t advertise some of our products to kids.” The carbonated soft-drink people agreed collectively, “We will take all of our soft drinks out of elementary schools. We will take our full-sugared drinks out of high schools.” Individual policies were set up at companies. At PepsiCo, for example, a corporate-wide edict stated that at least 50% of all new products must adhere to a series of standards that qualify as “Better for You Foods” in terms of nutrition, calories, fat, etc. Most companies have by now put similar product development policies in place.
The third movement, as far as I’m concerned, we haven’t really seen yet. It will be the development of new foods, built from scratch, which are truly better for you. Not just taking out the bad stuff, but building goodness from the ground up. I think that’s the next exciting iteration for food invention, manufacture and marketing, at least I hope so. Building better products for kids will need to meet a triple standard. For kids the ante will be: the food must taste good, and it’s got to be fun. That’s how all kids’ foods have been built since the beginning of time. Certainly the breakfast cereal business is that way. It’s not an accident that they were character-driven and character-drawn and relatable on that level. The fruit rollup type products where you play with your food and a lot of those successful kid foods. The change in the kid food future equation will be the third element beyond “It’s got to taste good and it’s got to be fun.” The third standard will be “It’s got to be good for you.” The “good for you” piece is the tough part of the equation. How do you build these good-tasting foods that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup, fat, or heavy carbohydrates out of other ingredients that are better for you and lower sugar, lower fat, and lower calories?
I’m hoping that we’ll get beyond the band-aid of 100-calorie packs. The food is not necessarily better, but it provides a service to the consumer in saying, “You don’t know how to regulate yourself. We don’t understand portion size in America, we’ll help you regulate yourself.”
WMO: And make money doing it?
PK: And make money doing it, and—in some cases to your point—make more money doing it. We’re moving the obesity problem to a sustainability problem with more packaging and more plastic, so we’re putting a band-aid on one problem and creating another environmental problem that’s also very real.
WMO: You’ve described the improvements in products and that’s a really nice answer, but how does Kellogg’s get the message to kids about what is available to them. Where do they put it?
PK: Thank you for bringing me back to that. Kellogg’s gets the message out in much the same way they always did. They’re still doing kids advertising. You’ll still see Tony the Tiger on advertising Frosted Flakes on TV, but Tony is now slimmer, he is more athletic, and if you go to the Frosted Flakes website you’ll see that Tony is now tied in with littleleague baseball and an Earn Your Stripes program, which is all about kids getting outside and being active. What’s happening is that the brands are looking to have more of a prosocial halo around them.
WMO: All this while Aunt Jemima is getting thinner. These are changes in advertising that try to fit the times and show greater social awareness.
PK: Kellogg’s, too. Traditionally the kids’ cereal advertising was targeted to kids in Saturday morning commercials with the occasional cents-off coupon for mom as added incentive. The marketing programs for a lot of the cereals today have reverted to some of the strategies that we saw 30 and 40 years ago, with mom being more fundamental to the equation. We are seeing more adult-directed TV and print advertising. Less focus on kids, per se. It’s relationship marketing. If there are four to six cereals in the American pantry at any one time, and we know there are, then Kellogg’s obviously wants to make sure that Frosted Flakes is one of them as the other cereals rotate. Mom plays a role in that.
WMO: One of the things that Juliet Schor writes about in her book Born to Buy (2004) is how it’s necessary for a system like we live in for there to be new consumers constantly generated and socialized into consumption. From an advertising point of view, you talked about this as “age doubling”—the situation of children’s perceived age doubling very quickly and their moving quickly through different stages. When this happens, you can’t depend on the repertoire of things you taught them because there’s always a new set of people coming out and a new set of consequences. But what about larger systemic things, in terms of what children learn about adult behavior and adult marketing behavior through early exposure to advertising? Is kids advertising training for a life of consumption?
Bratz dolls have been controversial since their inception.
PK: Yes, it is. Advertising is pervasive and kids see a lot of it whether it is targeted at them or not. Advertising in this country has always, on some level, been a training tool for product interest, if not desire. There’s good news and bad news within the sense of what society looks like and how kids emulate behaviors reflective of how society acts. Since we last spoke we’ve seen the rise of Bratz dolls, which have been tremendously controversial. They took on Barbie, and Barbie was controversial enough in her own right, right? She had bombshell measurements that very few human beings could ever have, yet a generation of moms grew up with Barbies. Then along come Bratz who were built to a different scale, shorter, bigger heads with a rude, hip-hop, overly made-up, scantily dressed attitude, very much the kind of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, hotchick, pop-star kind of look that came in earlier this decade. Is this a reflection of society or a projection of society? Barbie was mom’s kind of plaything. Barbie’s pretty sedate by today’s kid style. And in a world of hip-hop and rap and gangsta, the kind of rude teenage emulation and rebellion suggested by Bratz became quite appealing to a lot of young girls. And became very concerning to a lot of adults.
But that’s not the answer to the question you asked. Your question is “Is advertising training kids for adult society on some level?” I think it is. It is teaching kids to be customers and consumers. To your point about Juliet Schor, this is a big piece of what alarms and concerns her, and Susan Linn as well, in looking to advance the idea of a commercial-free childhood.
WMO: I ask this partly because I’m wondering what lessons kids actually learn through advertising. In my experience, children will move quickly from “I believe it all” to “I don’t believe anything they say.” In the process of learning to be critical, they often jump to the “It’s all false,” instead of knowing in an adult-like way how to reason through information before them.
PK: That’s actually new. The conventional wisdom, as recently as ten years ago, was kids love advertising. And why wouldn’t they love it? Advertising is about all kinds of neat, cool, fun, delicious stuff. It’s about play-things and tasty, fun food, entertainment for them, and all kinds of other kid fun things. Other than social messaging, that’s what advertising is. It’s not about toothpaste and dishwashing detergent and housecleaners and stuff like that. So in the tween research that I’ve done over these last five years, I asked, “How do you feel about advertising?” A startlingly unexpected response came back. Among tweens, 8–12 year olds, more than half the kids said that they don’t like advertising. They don’t like it and they don’t want to be sold. This is a big deal to advertisers. Part of what’s happened is a lot of kids have become more commercially savvy, and, yes, cynical and don’t want to be sold. And it’s the rise of the Internet and the ability to communicate with their friends and the buzz network, which convenes every Monday morning in school. The fastest way to kill a bad movie is negative word of mouth on a Monday morning. The kid comes in and says, “I saw this movie, it’s terrible.” We’ve seen plenty of films that open to a nice box office, and a week later, box office drops off a cliff.
WMO: It’s interesting what you say about the research, but I wonder whether kids’ experiences with what they’re promised in advertising versus what’s actually delivered contributes to this attitude. You hear kids saying things like, “The toys don’t really work,” “I didn’t realize you had to put it together,” or “I didn’t realize it would be so hard to do.” I asked my students in summer school to talk to kids who were selling lemonade about their experience with it. They came back saying the kids were disappointed about what they’d learned because nobody but their parents came. They put a lot of work into it, and their mom wanted money back for the supplies, and their experiences were not positive lessons about entrepreneurship but instead negative ones about capitalism. They were saying, “This is a rotten system. You work hard. You don’t make much money.” So it may be the reality, but it wasn’t a happy experience that came through this kind of thing. And I wonder in a similar way, are the experiences that children have with advertising not just teaching them to be consumers, but teaching them to be incredibly cynical about what they get told? Maybe it’s a similar thing.
WMO: Is that the lesson they need to learn?
PK: They do learn that on some level. One of the questions I ask in my research is “What’s the best thing about being a kid? And the worst?”
WMO: Being short?
PK: Well, that was one of them. If you’re short you can ride all the kids’ rides! But one of the responses that came back—out of the mouths of babes, and surprisingly it came back a lot—“I don’t have to work, I don’t have to pay bills, I don’t have any of those pressures.” And it came back verbatim from a number of kids. It shows an awareness of what parents go through.
I mentioned that 9/11 was a game-changing event. One of the changes has been a closer connection in the family—a genuine connection between mom, dad, and the kids and a greater awareness that kids have about the pressures on their parents. It can be financial or marital. The corollary is the worst thing about being a kid. School is number one. Number two is the fear of somebody getting seriously sick or dying—usually a grandparent because that’s kids’ first experience with death. A huge debate immediately following 9/11 was whether parents should shelter their kids from the facts of what happened. And I think the prevailing view was “You can’t.” The event and its horror were so pervasive that to try to be overprotective of kids can be far more damaging. There were all kinds of stories about kids trying to deal with the 9/11 fall-out, including one about a young preschooler playing with Legos and reenacting the invasion by violently knocking down a Lego tower. Kids were playing out this horrible drama. Bottom line, kids do understand that economy, commerce, work, and world events are the purview of adults, a tough space and a tough place to be … but also that these are issues that affect their lives directly and indirectly.
WMO: What’s the future? Where are we going? In eight more years what do you expect to be telling me then?
PK: Well, you know how positive and optimistic I am about children and the children’s market. Look at the election. We got the youth vote out, and 18% of youth voted versus 17% in the last election. It doesn’t sound like a big number, but it was a million people. I’m a great believer that social movements are often motivated and driven by youth— kids of all different ages. Seatbelt safety in America happened not because we put laws in place in different states but because a five- or an eight-year-old got in the car and said, “Mom, buckle your seat belt.” Today, 88% of Americans buckle their seatbelts. The Green movement is largely being driven by wonderfully Green-conscious kids who are saying, “Mom, shouldn’t we recycle this?” That whole movement is bubbling up among youth. They’re learning it in school. It makes sense to them and it’s easy to activate. They’re helping us as adults clean up our old, lax, laissez-faire behaviors about sustainability, recycling, etc. I think that we have a much more aware population of kids today than ever before. Part of it is that information is everywhere. It’s pervasive. You can’t keep information from kids, and they just know. In our research I asked, “Who should the next president be?” And there was an uncanny awareness about some of the different candidates early on in the presidential nomination process.
Regarding the obesity epidemic, one of the statements I’ve regularly made is “Show me a fat kid and I’ll show you two fat parents.” It sounds glib, but it’s intended to refocus the problem where it should be. It’s not about villainizing the food companies. It’s about engaging the family. Where’s the too-much or not-so-good-for-you food getting into the family? Snacking, overeating, portion sizes, and all of the critical issues related to a healthy lifestyle. Painfully, the government offered up a new food pyramid that’s more convoluted and confusing than the old one and it’s not helping the issue. I’ve asked questions about diet, nutrition, and exercise in each of the three Kid State studies I’ve done, and kids are more confused than ever.
We’ve not done a good job at the educational level in clarifying the issues about what a good, healthy lifestyle is, what a good diet is, as opposed to dieting. Research consistently shows that people who diet are seldom successful. We boomerang, gain and lose weight. The answer is going to be a new generation of balanced-lifestyle, balanceddiet kinds of people. If we can get the communication in place, I think that kids can lead that movement as well, just as they did with the Green movement.
We have just achieved a remarkable milestone with the election of our first African-American president. I think this portends all kinds of opportunity among and for kids. On the night of the election the shots of Harlem, the celebration in the streets, and around the world demonstrated a sense of new opportunity, a milestone in America turning a page on our shameful history relative to race. And when you have Barack Obama saying, Only in America can these kinds of things happen, or “Change we can believe in,” these are very resonant messages for kids. Kids of all ethnicities. They want change they can believe in. We talk a lot about ethnicity and multiracial attitudes. And in the research we asked kids how many of you have a friend of a different ethnicity. We know that America still has many relatively segregated communities. Yet fully 90% of kids said they had a friend of a different ethnicity. It’s not startling to me in terms of what we call the colorblindness of kids and multicultural receptivity. But what is impressive is that the percentage is so big relative to access. A lot of kids living still in a “lilywhite” community are saying they have a friend of a different ethnicity. These are very encouraging trends.
WMO: What about getting the message to them? How has that changed? What do we see happening in the media in the near future and the way of communicating with kids?
PK: I think we are going to see not only kids’ advertising, we’re going to see much more pinpoint targeted marketing throughout diverse populations. We are rapidly moving to a situation where advertising will be opt-in. That I will choose, even as a kid, I will choose the advertising that I want to see. It will come in all different forms. Television is a pristine medium at this point. It exists in time, the prevailing form is a 30-second commercial, maybe 15 or 10. We all know what that looks, acts, and feels like. The Internet is limitless in its possibilities and its forms. We’ve already innovated and rejected one form, pop-ups which everybody hated, so we no longer see them as a prevalent advertising technique. We resented them, because we didn’t want a commercial invasion while we were doing something else on the Internet. We still have banners and skyscrapers, and now we’re getting webisodes and blogs and Twittering. Just the other day, Motrin was Twittered to death because moms were offended by a message about pain management for mothers carrying their babies. Motrin immediately pulled the advertising and posted an apology for offending mothers.
So we’re going to see all kinds of different messaging, much of it through the Internet. I think that television, that thing called television, won’t be delivered through a conventional television set in the future. It will come to us through increasingly sophisticated computers. We won’t care because it’s still coming out of a big screen, and the consumers—kids and adults—will be able to choose. It’s no accident that Ad Age’s Agency of the Year last year was the consumer. Time Magazine’s person of the year was a mirror, it was you. This idea is very resonant with kids.
We talked about kid mastery last time we spoke, the idea that “I can be in charge of my universe! My entertainment universe now and even my commercial universe are very empowering.” The other thing that we’ve already seen in the media is that once upon a time, what I now refer to as TRaP—television, radio and print—were all one-way media. Today media increasingly are two-way. I get an opportunity to talk back or to create. We have something called YouTube that is a mere three years old. It has been a total game changer to the point where you do it, I do it, and I can pull up material like commercials I want to use in my class!
WMO: They’re all on YouTube.
PK: It’s quite remarkable. You can be an Internet star tomorrow if you have a piece of content that’s sticky, such as “Where the Hell Is Matt?” This is a guy who quit his job and decided to travel around the world, and he’d send a video blog to his parents of all the locations he went. He’s standing up in Tanzania and he’s doing a crazy dance. Stride gum finds out he’s doing it, and they say, “Would you like to do more?” And he says, “Will you pay?” And they say, “Yes.” So he goes back to 42 countries in 14 months and does his silly dance sponsored by Stride. He’s an Internet star. Matt is a former unknown who’s now become one of the most popular video stars.
This is tremendously appealing to kids in terms of obstacles to stardom: “I don’t have to be Britney Spears, I just have to have some idea that gets up on the Internet and I have access.” Doritos, a couple of years ago, used user-generated content. They invited people to produce a Doritos commercial to run during the Super Bowl. It cost $12,000 to produce. PepsiCo agencies were likely apoplectic about this because their commercials often cost between $200 thousand and $500 thousand dollars. Frito Lay comes back this year and says, we’re looking for a new Doritos commercial and, guess what, if it scores number one on the USA Today ad meter, we’ll pay you a million bucks. The likelihood of winning is pretty remote, but the likelihood of Frito Lay getting many submissions is pretty great. This world, our conversation ten years from now, is going to be very different because we don’t know now what the pervasive forms of commercial communication will be at that point. But what I will predict is it’s going to be very kidfriendly, very opt-in, and democratic, in the sense that we’re all part of the conversation.
9. Controversies in Advertising to Children
Paul Kurnit’s interview ends on an optimistic and positive view about children and advertising, indeed one that points hopefully toward better practices, less exploitation of children, and a much more sensitive approach to children and consumption than has occurred in the past. There is another side to advertising to children that can easily dampen this optimism, and it is recurrent controversies surrounding children and advertising when the public decides that some advertisers have simply gone too far.
Joe Camel—A Controversial Character
The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company used the character of Joe Camel in its ads from 1987 to 1997. The character, which had been invented for European campaigns and later imported to the US, used an anthropomorphic camel to embody the idea of “coolness” by having him engage in various activities, like playing pool, standing next to a red convertible, playing a saxophone, dating voluptuous women, and so on. The ads contained few words, but the American public quickly attributed a new trendiness to the familiar brand.
The problem arose when the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 1991 that more young children could recognize Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone. Although Reynolds Tobacco maintained that the ads were targeted to young smokers of legal age, not young children, the criticism mounted. The Surgeon General and the American Medical Association called on Reynolds to stop using the cartoon-like character that necessarily attracted small children and got them interested in smoking, but the company refused.
In the 1990s Reynolds promoted a youth smoking-prevention program called “Right Decision, Right Now.” There is some evidence that anti-smoking campaigns by the American Legacy Foundation directed to youth have in fact reduced rates of smoking among youth.
The positions of the critics and the tobacco company pitted fundamental propositions about advertising and society against one another. The tobacco company maintained that its goal was to induce smokers of other cigarette brands to switch to Camels and to reinforce the brand loyalty of Camel smokers. The advocacy groups, despite the lack of hard evidence that the ads induced children to take up smoking, nonetheless wanted the character banned on the grounds that it might have that effect. The debate continued throughout the remainder of the ten years that Joe Camel appeared in the ads. Reynolds eventually replaced Joe Camel with a newer campaign for adults. The debate still exists as to whether children as recipients of ads and as real and potential consumers of products need to be treated differently from adult customers. Joe Camel was eventually phased out after 10 years for reasons other than the controversy, but he still survives as a popular collectible icon and a reminder of the debate.
Calvin Klein—Pushing the Envelope Too Far?
The Calvin Klein Company does not employ an external advertising agency but produces its campaigns and ads “in-house.” The Calvin Klein style of advertising has been variously described as “cutting-edge” and “pornographic,” but one thing is certain: it attracts attention. This attention in turn gets a lot of free publicity, and the various controversies surrounding some Calvin Klein ads seem to have increased consumer demand rather than dampened it.
Two notable campaigns featuring children as models in 1995 and 1999 not only produced publicity bonanzas for the company but brought the public, several advocacy groups, and the federal government to consider when the line between attention-grabbing fashion advertising and pornography is crossed. The Media Awareness Network, a Canada-based advocacy group promoting critical media literacy, describes some of the 1995 Calvin Klein ads on its website:
The advertising campaign—which used images of models who were reportedly as young as 15—was meant to mimic “picture set” pornography of the ’60s. In the magazine ads, young models posed suggestively in a sleazy suburban “Rec Room,” complete with cheap paneled walls, a paint splattered ladder, and purple shag carpeting. The TV spots left little doubt that the images intended to imitate pornography. In one of these ads, the camera focused on the face of a young man, as an off camera male voice cajoled him into ripping off his shirt, saying, “You got a real nice look. How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? That’s a real nice body. You work out? I can tell.” In another, a young girl is told that she’s pretty and not to be nervous, as she begins to unbutton her clothes.51
The website quotes Klein’s response to critics: an insistence that the ads were not meant to be pornographic but to use ordinary people instead of models to show that “quality can be found … in the most ordinary setting.” Klein’s response raises the question of whether the declared intention of the producer of an ad is what matters or whether the consumer/audience/viewer’s reaction and opinion are more important in judgments about appropriate advertising.
In this case, consumer groups were unwilling to accept the company’s position and called the ads “disturbing” and “exploitative.” The US Justice Department initiated an investigation to determine whether the ads violated child pornography laws.53 Under pressure, Klein relented and withdrew the ads but not before the controversy and publicity surrounding them made Calvin Klein jeans one of the hottest fashion items of the season.
In 1999, Klein was once again in the spotlight for his children’s underwear campaign. Three controversial photos appeared in full-page newspaper and magazine ads as well as a huge billboard in Times Square. The images pictured either little boys or little girls wearing nothing more than underwear. Public outcry rose once again and the ads were withdrawn within a day. The company defended itself once again by saying that the ads were intended to mimic family pictures of young children playing around. Many of the critics, however, remembered the 1995 campaign and considered it in their evaluation of the images of small children in underwear.
Just how far should the public go in its criticism of advertising imagery? The next spot contains a commercial for Waterman pens made and shown in France. Understanding the language is not necessary to understand the adult-like behavior of the boy and girl in this commercial. But is it pornographic or just “cute” behavior on the part of children? The answer resides with the ads’ viewers and interpreters, not with their producers—no matter how “innocent” they claim their intentions to be.
10. Children as Commodities
Most representations of children in advertising show healthy, well-off, happy, acquisitive, and satisfied (or about-to-be-satisfied) young consumers. However, there is one area where this is not the case. Save the Children ads and other aid organization ads urge affluent Americans to “adopt” one or more poor children. The ads typically show somewhat unkempt, but nonetheless attractive, children, often with large, “sad” eyes staring directly into the camera. Such ads urge altruistic rather than ordinary consumer actions from those who see them. Readers are told that for a few dollars a day, they can make a difference in the life of a child in some other part of the world.
Despite all their positive contributions to social assistance efforts, these ads treat children themselves as commodities. A child can be adopted for a certain price. The donor can request a male or female child—much as an ordinary consumer can choose the model, style, or color of a product. And the specific benefits to the “donor/consumer” are spelled out: feeling good, getting the child’s picture and regular letters, and so on.
These comments are not meant to minimize the importance of such programs, only to note that they employ the rhetoric of commerce in making their appeals and that their discussion of the recipients is grounded uncannily in the language of commodities.
Advertising to children is one of the thorniest and most controversial areas of contemporary advertising. Children are both young consumers and the next generation of adult consumers in training. However, convincing research argues that children process information and behave differently from adults in the marketplace. Current advertising practice restricts certain ways of addressing and marketing to children, but some advocacy and parent groups question whether current restrictions are sufficient. As marketing communications move beyond television and print media and become more interactive, questions about children and their involvement will remain.
William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke';s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising. He is author or co-author of 10 books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Brazil, China, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O';Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings. In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.
Paul Kurnit is an internationally renowned marketing, advertising, and entertainment executive, founder and president of Kurnit Communications, KidShop and PS Insights ( www.psinsights.com ). Kurnit consults with a wide range of companies, speaks at conferences, and is called upon by the news media for his expertise in business and brand strategy, new product development, and cultural and marketing trends. Formerly, as President of Griffin Bacal, a DDB agency, he played a key role in Hasbro';s dynamic growth into a leading international toy and entertainment company. As Executive Vice President at Sunbow Entertainment, Kurnit’s credits include hundreds of syndicated network and international TV programs and feature films, including Transformers, GI Joe, My Little Pony, The Tick for Fox, and The Mask for CBS.
Kurnit is Clinical Professor of Marketing at Pace University, teaching marketing and advertising. He is the co-author of Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity and two upcoming books Marketing Plan To Go and That Will Never Sell.
1. Francis Anderson. http://francisanderson.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/ronald-mcdonalds.jpg .
2. Courtesy Humanitiesweb.org.
3. Lorna Marshall, “The !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert” in Peoples of Africa, ed. James L. Gibbs, Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965), 264.
4. See, for example, Margaret Mead’s classic ethnography entitled Coming of Age in Samoa (New York: William Morrow, 1928). Although controversy surrounds some of Mead’s findings, the anthropological evidence that childhood varies culturally is incontrovertible.
5. © Peter Johnson/CORBIS.
6. Paul Kurnit, “Kids Getting Older Younger,” Advertising Educational Foundation Paper, 2000. http://www.aef.com/on_campus/classroom/speaker_pres/data/35
7. According to Paul Kurnit (see interview later in this unit), “The concept of tweens is a relatively new phenomenon. Legend has it that McDonald’s coined the term about 25 years ago. But, it didn’t resurface and become common use until about 15 years ago. People define tweens differently in terms of demographics. But, the common understanding is that tweens are kids between 8 and 12 who are graduating from kid things and emulating teen lifestyle. They are generally upper elementary school children who have interests and behaviors grounded in their carefree kid lives as they explore and enter their future teen preferences.”
9. Christine Lagorio, “Resources: Marketing to Kids,” CBSNews.com. May 17, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/05/14/fyi/main2798401.shtml
11. Mike Shields, “Web-based Marketing to Kids on the Rise,” Media Week, July 25, 2005. As quoted in Susan Linn, The Case for Make Believe (New York: The New Press 2008), 30.
12. Juliet Schor, Born to Buy (New York: Scribner, 2004), 20.
14. The New York Times, June 2, 2002.
15. The New York Times, August 3, 2004.
17. Deborah Roedder John, “Consumer Socialization of Children: A Retrospective Look at Twenty-Five Years of Research,” Journal of Consumer Research 26 (December 1999), 189.
19. “Ding Dong School” began airing in the Chicago area in 1952 and became a nationally syndicated program on NBC in 1954.
20. From the author’s collection.
21. “Rootie Kazootie” ran in the New York area in 1950 before national syndication began a year later.
22. From the author’s collection.
23. From the author’s collection.
25. The Barbie doll came on the market in 1959 and has been an important part of the toy fashion doll market for nearly half a century. In addition to selling millions in the US and abroad, the doll has been the subject of numerous controversies, parodies, and lawsuits. The Internet is a rich source of information about Barbie’s place in cultural history. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie .
26. The popularity and success of Dove Soap’s Real Women Campaign is perhaps due in part to the relief many women felt at the relaxation of the standards to which they were being held in advertising.
28. GI Joe dates to 1964 when it was introduced as a toy for boys that would be equal in importance to Barbie for girls. It has gone through various iterations since 1964, such as the reshaping of its body, with a proportionally larger torso and musculature than the earlier versions. As in the case of Barbie, a variety of Internet sources discuss GI Joe’s evolution and place in American cultural history.
30. Ken was introduced in 1961 and since has held over 40 occupations, ranging from Olympic medalist to hair stylist.
32. The Besty Wetsy doll dates to the 1940s, but only in the 1960s did TV commercials show the doll ingesting water and wetting its diaper. Like the dolls already mentioned, Betsy Westy is one of the classic children’s toys of the 20th century.
33. From the author’s collection.
35. From the author’s collection.
37. People, October 13 2008.
38. Parenting, October 13 2008.
39. Mom & Baby, Fall 2008.
43. Parents, October 2008, 21.
48. Girl’s Life, November 2008, 41.
52. Courtesy of Commercial Closet.
53. According to the Media Awareness Network’s website, “In the United States, five criteria are used in determining pornographic images: focusing on the genital area, showing unnatural poses, depicting children as sex objects, implying that the children are willing to engage in sex, and suggestive settings.” http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/handouts/ethics/calvin_klein_case_study.cfm
54. Martha Stewart Living. March, 1999. 31.
55. From the author’s collection.
56. From the author’s collection.