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THE CUTTING EDGE | INNOVATION / JONATHAN WEBER

Marketers Take a Major Look at Ads Aimed at Minors

May 12, 1997|JONATHAN WEBER

NEW ORLEANS — The conference was called "Kid Power," but the subject was really "adult power"--or, more specifically, how adults might empower themselves to sell more effectively to kids. For two days, a bevy of consultants and corporate marketing executives assured attendees that kids were a hot market, with plenty of disposable income and a range of needs that might be sated by a well-presented toy or candy or computer game.

Dan Acuff and Robert Reiher, a pair of Glendale-based child-marketing consultants, discussed the psychological processes of early childhood development and gender differentiation, and how that might apply to product sales.

Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal Inc., pointed out how social trends--the growing number of single-parent and two-income families, for example--create new marketing opportunities.

Bruce Friend, head of research for the children's TV network Nickelodeon, described a new online survey of kids being conducted in conjunction with school software vendor Computer Curriculum Corp. Both companies are owned by Viacom Inc., and CCC enables Nickelodeon to reach kids in an environment that many marketers covet: the classroom.

It's hardly news that advertising and marketing campaigns are often aimed at children, and the people involved often have plausible explanations as to why the individual project they're involved with is good for kids, or at least not bad for them. A set of voluntary standards in place since the 1970s limits the most manipulative and deceptive kinds of kid-targeted ads, and children today are indeed very savvy about the media.

That said, I must confess I found many of the discussions at the conference--sponsored by a Little Falls, N.J., company called International Quality & Productivity Center--to be a little bit surreal.

It seems obvious, after all, that subjecting children--and especially very young children--to the full-on corporate marketing fire hose might not be good for them. Many of those involved in the kids business even acknowledge as much, while insisting there's nothing they can do about it.

Remarkably, there doesn't appear to be any significant psychological research on the effects on children of a continuous barrage of advertising and marketing messages.

"I personally think it's an important question," says Dan Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of the nation's leading authorities on children and the media. "The engine is speeding down the track to greater and greater commercialization of kids' environments without much examination of the impacts."

The need for closer scrutiny of these questions is especially urgent in light of the dramatic arrival of personal computers and the Internet in homes and schools: According to the latest surveys, about 60% of all households with kids have PCs, and nearly all children now have some kind of computer access at school.

These new technologies have been touted as powerful new educational tools, and they certainly have the potential to bring fascinating new dimensions to the learning process. At the same time, though, the Internet has evolved into a furious commercial battleground. Kids are considered fair game, and there are now myriad Web sites designed to collect information from kids and sell them things. And marketers have only begun to exploit the potential power of the new medium.

Responding to concerns about some of the most questionable kid-directed online marketing practices--and eager to fend off possible regulation by the Federal Trade Commission, which will hold hearings on the issue next month--the ad industry's self-policing group, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, recently came up with a set of voluntary guidelines for online marketing to children. They aim to restrict the collection of personal data from kids, and extend the existing TV rules to the new medium.

But children's advocates, led by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media Education, say the guidelines don't go far enough. And the proposals don't pretend to address the broad issue of whether the steady intensification of kid-targeted marketing might be a dangerous thing.

Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York child psychiatrist and a member of CARU's advisory board, has little doubt that it is. "The kind of message [kids] are constantly given is that you can solve interpersonal problems with stuff, and that's very destructive," he says. "Everybody knows it's nuts, and everybody feels impotent to do anything about it."

In this era of triumphant high-tech capitalism, it's almost un-American to challenge--even in a limited way--something as basic to the system as marketing and advertising; kid-directed sales efforts are, after all, only a logical extension of the consumer culture that most Americans embrace enthusiastically.

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