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Young Buyers, Beware

Because marketing aimed at youngsters has reached 'epidemic levels,' a group of psychologists wants co-workers to get out of the business of advising marketing companies on how to lure children.

May 24, 2000|ARTHUR ALLEN | SALON.COM

A 7-year-old boy and his mother sit at play behind a two-way mirror, research subjects scrutinized by an ad team seeking ways to sell a new breakfast cereal. An interviewer probes the child's feelings about some established brands, eliciting heartfelt opinions about Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch. After a while the boy begins to tire, though, and when he's asked about a particular brand, he turns to his mother and asks, "Do I like that one, Mom?"

For Langebourne Rust, a developmental psychologist who works for corporations that want to sell more stuff to kids, this moment of childish confusion yields an insight that can be spun into gold. The 7-year-old "couldn't remember, but he trusted his mom's judgment," Rust concluded. "In the real world, lots of kids don't know what they want and look eagerly to Mom to direct them."

Rust converts knowledge of kids and their families into messages that sell. But not all psychologists think this is such a great application of the profession.

In the fall, the American Psychological Assn. was petitioned by some of its 159,000 members to create new ethical standards and discipline those members who "use psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children."

Marketing aimed at children has reached "epidemic levels," the unhappy psychologists wrote to the psychological association. It is an "enormous onslaught" that constitutes "arguably the largest single psychological project ever undertaken." Psychologists who lend their services to this business, it went on, "are not using their knowledge to mitigate the causes of human suffering. They are using it, instead, to promote and assist the commercial exploitation and manipulation of children." (A committee of the psychological association is due to take up the issue next month.)

The use of psychologists and their insights in advertising is hardly new. Over the decades, kid-oriented marketing firms and branches have sprouted like rain forest fungi as the direct buying power of the 4-to-12 set grew from $2.9 billion in 1978 to $24 billion in 1998. The same age group influences an additional $200 billion in family spending, according to Texas A&M University's James U. McNeal, the psychology-trained market researcher who is considered the godfather of marketing to kids.

Over these same two decades, surveys of high school seniors have revealed a dramatic shift toward materialistic life goals.

"Since 1979, I've been asking kids what they want to do when they grow up, and 'Make a lot of money' is now the most common answer," says Allen D. Kanner, who has a psychotherapy practice in Berkeley. "The rich kids are depressed because they don't think they'll make as much money as their parents. The middle-class kids all want all these things. Even the very poor kids are obsessed with what's cool to buy."

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At the very least, psychologists working for Madison Avenue firms agree that commercials shouldn't encourage children to smoke, drink or have sex.

Whiton Paine, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of Kid2Kid, a Philadelphia market research firm, last year developed an ethics audit to help companies avoid sending messages that "either delay or unduly accelerate a child's development." Stimulating desires for drugs, tobacco, sex and booze are taboo in Paine's code, as are messages that promote "addiction" to products.

A lot of what he does, Paine says, is advise companies not to do what they'd like to do.

"If you look at Internet usage, you notice an enormous bump at 2:30," he says. "That's when the kids come home and the parents aren't. Everyone talks about parental responsibility, but the fact is that parents are relying more and more on companies to protect their kids. My argument is that any company that markets to kids takes on ethical responsibilities."

Paine's company provides a network of bright teenagers, "peer guides" or "influencers" in the lingo of the trade, which leads younger kids in focus groups that examine ads and products from corporations like Nabisco, Kraft and AT&T.

"We picked the color of the SnackWell's cookie box. It was green, an unusual color for a cookie box," says Natalie Dorazio, 19, a Kid2Kid peer guide for five years who enjoyed it so much that she's now studying marketing. "We picked those little canteens of Pringles."

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The basic advertising model for kid products is the "nag and gatekeeper" model, the idea being to maximize the nag until the gatekeeper lowers the bar. But Langebourne Rust, the psychologist/marketing consultant, targets the mother and child as a snug team instead of adversaries.

". . . Kids are attracted to novelty only when they feel safe and comfortable," he says. "There's a wonderful intensity in their way of seeing the world, a concreteness, very deep, very vivid. . . . But that way of seeing does not equip you to cope with new things, and we have a social pattern in our society . . . where kids are constantly being ripped from one environment to the next. One of the reasons for the tremendous and, in many ways, regrettable clutching that young children do toward brands," he adds, "is their need to fill their lives with familiar things. So, sure, they look for Disney. And Mom looks for that too."

This should not come as a surprise, Rust says.

"Parents want to line the nest with familiar and predictable experiences for their children."

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