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Get 'em While They're Young : With Kid Flavors, Bright Colors and Commercials That Make Children Masters of Their Universe, Advertisers Build Brand Loyalty That Will Last a Lifetime

August 15, 1993|Karen Stabiner | Karen Stabiner is a contibuting editor to this magazine. Her book about the Chiat/Day advertising agency, "Inventing Desire," has just been published by Simon & Schuster

I took my 3 1/2-year-old daughter grocery shopping recently, to a market we have walked through dozens of times. We rolled past the yogurt case that we always pass on our way from free-range chickens to lowfat milk--and like a child possessed, she screeched to a halt, pointed to a package on the uppermost shelf and announced, "I will like that. Let's get some."

This from a child who willingly ate plain yogurt only until she was able to hold the spoon herself, who has never so much as glanced at this display before. Why did she want a four-pack of Dannon Sprinkl'ins, two strawberry-banana and two cherry-vanilla four-ounce servings, each topped with a clear plastic envelope of rainbow-hued candies?

"It has sprinkles," she explained, as though our house were not a candy-free zone, as though she knew what a sprinkle was.

"Have you seen them before?"

"Annie has them in her lunch box." She was fairly quivering with desire. "Put them in the cart, mommy."

So I did. Just to see what would happen.

For The Dannon Co., that purchase represented a successful step into the marketing equivalent of the Promised Land. Children are among the few consumers who still have time and money on their hands. The recession gnaws away at adult discretionary income and at the exalted position that name brands have always held over their discount competitors. The children's market continues to grow: American children between the ages of 4 and 12 spent $8.6 billion in 1991, and their spending power is on the rise. According to James U. McNeal, Texas A&M University marketing professor and co-author of a recent magazine article entitled "Born to Shop," children with two working parents have become involved in an increasing number of purchase decisions. He estimates that the 12-and-younger set has a vote on about $147 billion in spending each year.

More to the point, children have decades of buying power ahead of them--and unlike their parents, who carry awareness of 1,500 brand names in their heads, they have no preconceived preferences. They are a blank slate.

The combination--money to spend and an open mind--makes children irresistible to American business, and places them at the center of a heated controversy over whether, and how much, to sell to an audience whose critical faculties are still in the caterpillar stage. Critics like Peggy Charren, whose Action for Children's Television advocacy group waged a 25-year war for regulation of programming and commercials, believe that advertising takes advantage of impressionable youngsters. "Children," says Charren, "are the only unpaid sales force in the history of America. Advertisers don't expect kids to buy the product. The kids are being used to sell the product to the parent."

"The point is not that advertising is wrong, but that often it plays unfair," says Cynthia Scheibe, assistant professor of psychology at Ithaca College and director of the Center for Research on the Effects of Television, until recently a joint project with Cornell University. "Some of the tricks are really outrageous. Makeup artists, to make food look better? Kids are taught it's wrong to lie, but they have to mature enough cognitively to understand what's happening."

The opposing camp, the business community, believes that advertising sparks the commercial equivalent of patriotism--a pure faith in the value of certain brands, one that fosters the growth of a competitive economy. It is hardly ever too soon to start building allegiances. "Every kid is different," says Kidvertisers Creative Director Deyna Vesey, who opened her eight-person New York agency in 1989 with the motto "The Agency that Majors in Minors." "But the general rule of thumb is that when a kid is 3, you can go after them on television."

What no one argues about is how important children are. Advertisers annually spend about $471 million on children's television advertising, according to recent trade estimates, and the investment grows while the rest of the advertising industry attempts to extricate itself from a three-year decline. Convenience-food manufacturers, toy companies and fast-food restaurants spend the most to reach kids.

"We have living proof" of the long-lasting quality of early brand loyalties "in the cradle-to-grave marketing at McDonald's, and how well it works," says McNeal. "We start taking children in for their first and second birthdays, and on and on, and eventually they have a great deal of preference for that brand. Children can carry that with them through a lifetime."

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