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Is Madison Avenue taking ''Get 'em while they're young'' too far?

At 1:58 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, in Houston's St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, a consumer was born. Her name was Alyssa J. Nedell, and by the time she went home three days later, some of America's biggest marketers were pursuing her with samples, coupons, and assorted freebies. Procter & Gamble hoped its Pampers brand would win the battle for Alyssa's bottom. Johnson & Johnson offered up a tiny sample of its baby soap. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. sent along some of its Enfamil baby formula.

Like no generation before, Alyssa's enters a consumer culture, surrounded by logos, labels, and ads almost from the moment of birth. As an infant, Alyssa may wear Sesame Street diapers and miniature pro basketball jerseys. By the time she's 20 months old, she will start to recognize some of the thousands of brands flashed in front of her each day. At age 7, if she's anything like the typical kid, she will see some 20,000 TV commercials a year. By the time she's 12, she will have her own entry in the massive data banks of marketers.

Multiply Alyssa by 30 million--the number of babies born in this country since 1990--and you have the largest generation to flood the market since their baby boom parents. More impressive than their numbers, though, is their wealth. The increase in single-parent and dual-earner households means kids are making shopping decisions once left to mom. Combining allowance, earnings, and gifts, kids 14 and under will directly spend an estimated $20 billion this year, and they will influence another $200 billion. No wonder they have become the target of marketing campaigns so sophisticated as to make the kid-aimed pitches of yore look like, well, Mickey Mouse.

Forget, for now, the hullabaloo over alcohol and tobacco ads that attract kids well under the age of consent. Yes, the makers of such ''sin products'' are under fire for the cartoon characters they use to sell their wares, as are trend-setting designers such as Calvin Klein, whose ads feature sexualized waifs barely out of puberty. But what goes on in the name of more legitimate children's fare is far more pervasive--and in many ways just as insidious.

Marketers that had long ignored children now systematically pursue them--even when the tykes are years away from being able to buy their products. ''Ten years ago, it was cereal, candy, and toys. Today, it's also computers and airlines and hotels and banks,'' says Julie Halpin, general manager of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising's Kid Connection division. ''A lot of people are turning to a whole segment of the population they haven't been talking to before.''

Those that have always targeted kids, such as fast-food restaurants and toymakers, have stepped up their pitches, hoping to reach kids earlier and bind them more tightly. Movies, T-shirts, hamburger wrappers, and dolls--all are part of the cross-promotional blitz aimed at convincing kids to spend.

Together, the new efforts represent a quantitative and qualitative change in the marketing aimed at children. As any parent who has struggled to find kids' underwear without a licensed cartoon character on it knows, virtually no space is free of logos. And traditional ads have more venues than ever, with a gaggle of new magazines, dozens of Web sites, and entire TV channels aimed at kids. From 1993 to 1996 alone, advertising in kid-specific media grew more than 50%, to $1.5 billion, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The cumulative effect of initiating our children into a consumerist ethos at an ever earlier age may be profound. As kids drink in the world around them, many of their cultural encounters--from books to movies to TV--have become little more than sales pitches, devoid of any moral beyond a plea for a purchase. Even their classrooms are filled with corporate logos (page 68). Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important, today's marketing-driven culture is instilling in them the sense that little exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is something you buy at a shopping mall.

''No one ad is so bad,'' says Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and author of The Shelter of Each Other, a current best-seller about family life. ''But the combination of 400 ads a day creates in children a combination of narcissism, entitlement, and dissatisfaction.''

BRAND BARRAGE. It also can leave parents feeling as if Madison Avenue were raising their kid. Paula Goedert, a tax attorney in Chicago with two sons, ages 15 and 6, has noticed big changes in kids' marketing over the past decade. ''Brand awareness has become an incredibly abusive experience--the relentless requests to go to McDonald's, to see movies that are inappropriate for 6-year-olds that are advertised on kids' shows,'' Goedert says.

In the end, the barrage may hurt the marketers themselves. Parents and policymakers are increasingly unnerved by the notion of marketers gathering information about children's preferences and then hiring psychologists to analyze it. In the last year, the federal government has shown a new interest in regulating advertising, be it commercials over the Internet or those for tobacco and alcohol. Meanwhile, some parents, unwilling to expose their children to the unceasing ad blitz, are trying to shield them from consumer culture altogether. ''We have deliberately tried to keep Madeline from becoming brand-aware,'' says Nancy Brophy, an Arlington Heights (Ill.) mother of three, including 5-year-old Madeline. ''If something's hot, like Beanie Babies or Power Rangers, I'll avoid it.''

Marketers, for the most part, say the concerns are overblown--and that critics don't give kids and their parents enough credit. ''I have a high regard for the intelligence of kids,'' says Tom Kalinske, president of Knowledge Universe, a new education company, and the former CEO of Sega of America and Mattel Inc. Kalinske and others in the industry believe that kids today are more sophisticated consumers than the generations that preceded them, well able to recognize hype and impervious to crude manipulation. But at least a few worry about the effects of what they do. ''As more companies go after kids, the more pressure on kids there will be,'' says Tom Harbeck, Nickelodeon's senior vice-president for marketing.

For better or for worse, the marketing barrage has created a generation hypersensitive to the power of brands. For teens, insecure as ever about fitting in, the barrage of brand names offers the irresistible promise of instant cool. The onslaught begins so early--and continues so consistently--that even children who recognize it have trouble putting it aside. ''My father always tells me that I could buy two pairs of jeans for what you pay for Calvin Klein,'' laughs Leydiana Reyes, an eighth-grader in Brooklyn, N.Y. ''I know that. But I still want Calvin Klein.''

Helping to create that lust for brands is a plethora of new ad vehicles. Walt Disney Co. is launching a 24-hour kids' radio network. At Time Warner, Time, Sports Illustrated, and People have all started or are about to start new editions for kids and teens. In addition, there are Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, and a bevy of new girls' magazines.

Underlying much of the new kid advertising is an implicit challenge to one of society's basic assumptions: that there is a fundamental difference between kids and grown-ups in judgment and taste. At one time, marketers pitched their children's wares mainly to parents, who would decide what their kids ate, wore, and played with. To appeal to the immature judgment of children was to take unfair advantage.

CARS, TOO. But today that reticence is gone. ''We're relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than going straight to the mom,'' says Barbara A. Martino, a vice-president in Grey Advertising Inc.'s 18 & Under division. Why? In part because it's harder for advertisers to eke out domestic sales growth and in part because busy parents no longer act as filters between their kids and the outside world.

Kids are being tempted with more than just toys. In an era when children are seen, heard, and catered to as if they were smaller versions of grown-ups, some nontraditional kid marketers are figuring out that the fastest way to mom and dad may well be through junior. In the May issue of Sports Illustrated For Kids, which attracts mostly 8- to 14-year-old boys, the inside cover featured a brightly colored two-page spread for the Chevy Venture minivan.

This is General Motors' first attempt to woo the group that Karen Francis, the Venture's brand manager, calls ''backseat consumers.'' Francis is sending the minivan into malls and showing previews of Disney's Hercules on a VCR inside. ''We're kidding ourselves when we think kids aren't aware of brands,'' says Francis, adding that even she was surprised by how often parents told her their kids played a tie-breaking role in deciding which car to buy.

Marketers of other big-ticket items are also pursuing kids. Delta Airlines Inc. publishes an in-flight magazine for kids, while United Airlines serves McDonald's Happy Meals. Stein Roe & Farnham Inc., a Chicago money-management firm, runs a mutual fund for child investors consisting largely of favorites such as Disney and Nike Inc. And IBM has teamed up with the National Basketball Assn., hoping sports-crazed kids will sway their parents to choose its Aptiva when they shop for a personal computer.

MARLBORO KIDS. Kid marketers have also recognized the power of nontraditional marketing such as loyalty programs. Last year, PepsiCo launched its enormously successful Pepsi Stuff, which lets customers trade bottle caps for merchandise, including mountain bikes and phone cards. This year, it's aiming the program even more directly at teenagers, increasing the trade-in value of the 20-ounce bottles they favor and using endorsers with kid appeal, such as basketball's Lisa Leslie and baseball's Derek Jeter. ''It's more important for us to be successful with teens,'' says Dave Burwick, vice-president for marketing. ''If there are 12 million people out there with our stuff, let's have them be 12 million 18-year-olds.''

Tobacco companies have also seized on the giveaway programs. Philip Morris Co. denies that Marlboro Gear, largely made up of cowboy-like outerwear, is aimed at teens. To get the gear, participants must mail in a form stating they are over 21. But Marlboro is now the brand of choice for 60% of teen smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Camel has a similar program called Camel Cash, which features Joe Camel on its ''dollars.'' Despite talk of a legal settlement with tobacco companies that could ban such programs, new initiatives that appeal to teens are appearing. U.S. Tobacco Co.'s Skoal brand and Philip Morris' Virginia Slims are both sponsoring rock concert tours.

Other tobacco and alcohol ads appeal to even younger kids. Close to 90% of 10- to 17-year-olds recognize Joe Camel as a cigarette booster, studies show. The California-based Center on Alcohol Advertising recently found that 9- to 11-year-old children were more apt to recognize the Budweiser frogs and be able to recite the beer's slogan than they were to remember that Tony the Tiger says, ''They're grrr-eat.'' On the fringes, there are even brasher efforts to woo kids with questionable products. A California candy company called Hotlix markets a line of cocktail-flavored lollipops, including a margarita version that comes with salt and a tequila-flavored pop with an edible worm inside of it.

Ad campaigns that blur the line between adulthood and childhood are especially troubling--and especially effective--because parents have largely lost their role as ''gatekeeper.'' Just take a look at the grocery-store aisle, where kids are confronted with plenty of messages on their level--literally. Frito Lay Inc. last year rolled out a display called Chip City that allows kids to measure themselves, look at themselves in a funhouse mirror, and press a button to hear Chester Cheetah, spokescharacter for its Chee-tos. Since kids want their chips now, the display includes plenty of one-ounce packages on sale for a quarter.

Everywhere, the target is younger. Companies that have already saturated the grade school market are turning toward the crib. Overall sales of licensed sports gear are flat, but the National Football League saw 37% growth last year in sales of clothing for tots. Across all lines, sales of licensed products for infants grew 32%, to $2.5 billion, in 1996. That means that even before kids can recognize symbols, they are surrounded by the brands that will soon beckon. ''Kids are the most pure consumers you could have,'' says Debra McMahon, a vice-president who follows media for Mercer Management Consulting. ''They tend to interpret your ad literally. They are infinitely open.''

That description fits Nicholas Rouillard, a 9-year-old from Westfield, Mass. The difference between an ad and a TV show is simple, he says: ''Commercials are shorter. A commercial is one minute long, but a cartoon can last up to two hours.''

He's right. The line between the sponsor and the sponsored has all but disappeared. Much of kids' entertainment, featuring characters whose licensed images are immediately stamped on toys, sheets, clothes, even food packages, is almost indistinguishable from the commercials that support it. Amid the media clutter, commercials try to entertain, focusing less on the product and more on creating an image. At the same time, movies and TV shows are more intricately linked to the selling of toys than ever before. Hasbro Inc., for example, helped design the car in Warner Bros.' new Batman flick. New, long-term licensing deals between studios and master marketers such as Mattel and McDonald's mean the trend will continue.

BUILT-IN SCRIPTS. ''Toy companies used to be a font of creativity,'' says Seth M. Siegel, co-chairman of Beanstalk Group, a licensing company representing the latest craze, Tamagotchi dolls. ''Now, what they sell is little more than three-dimensional celluloid.'' Indeed, Louis Marx Toy Co., the largest in the country back in the 1950s, never signed a single license. Last year, 38% of all dollars spent on toys went to licensed toys. Thanks to Star Wars, the Jurassic Park sequel, Hercules, and the next Batman installment, that number could near 50% this year.

The slew of licensed toys leaves less time for imaginative play, and that, too, is causing worries. When toys come with built-in scripts, there's less room for creativity. ''You learn flexibility when you play imaginatively. You learn self-control and how to delay impulses,'' says Dorothy G. Singer, a child psychologist at Yale University and the co-author of House of Make Believe. ''If the toy comes from TV, a kid tends to follow the story line.''

Of course, making a toy appeal to a kid isn't as simple as slapping a licensed character on it. Figuring out which hero is the right one brings in the market researchers. ''Twenty years ago, you had maybe a dozen companies'' researching kids, says Deborah Roedder John, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in kid marketing, adding that back then she knew practically everybody in the field. ''Now, there are many firms out there I've never heard of.''

Their goal is to know more about children's preferences than even parents do. Researchers host online chats, where kids are more apt to talk openly about personal matters. They hire toddlers to play with new toys and then watch from behind a two-way mirror, often joined by psychologists. Nickelodeon alone surveys 4,000 children every week in its offices, at schools, over the phone, and on the Internet.

Thanks in part to recent academic studies, marketers now know more than ever about the child psyche. That has helped them translate the urges and obsessions of different age groups into bigger sales. By limiting the number of each new Beanie Baby and announcing on its Web site which dolls it had discontinued, Ty Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill., for example, cashed in on the desire of 7-year-olds to collect. That urge used to be satisfied by sea shells or baseball cards, back before the latter became an investment opportunity.

BACKLASH? At the same time, the new research has allowed some companies to shatter long-held assumptions about kids' behavior--such as the belief that female images work with girls but alienate boys. Nickelodeon discovered that kids were changing and didn't hesitate to launch a series of live-action shows with girls as the protagonists. One, The Secret World of Alex Mack, now has an audience that is 53% male.

Some of the new kid marketing draws on more troubling trends. It's no secret that images of sexuality and other forbidden pursuits appeal to many teenagers. And marketers, fighting to be noticed, are increasingly calling upon such symbols. Think about the current controversy over ''heroin chic'' images in fashion magazines. Or last year's Calvin Klein campaign that mimicked cheesy child pornography videos. That may have been the most egregious example of sexualizing children in order to sell to them, but it's not unique.

In fact, there are already signs of a backlash against the constant marketing assault facing kids. In Massachusetts, the Boston Children's Museum is running an exhibit that teaches children to understand commercials by allowing them to experiment with lighting and backdrops to change the look of an object. The purpose, says the museum's director of cultural programs, Joanne Rizzi, is ''to show the manipulative aspect of commercials.'' In California, meanwhile, the state government is investigating Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.'s new giveaway program--called ''Buy the Beer, Get the Gear''--in part out of concern over its appeal on college campuses. And in Washington, the Federal Trade Commission has proposed banning Joe Camel, while Bill Clinton has used the bully pulpit of the White House to chastise alcohol and tobacco companies for targeting kids.

None of those efforts, however, is likely to deflect the massive sales machine now directed at children. As long as kids have money to spend, marketers will fight to reach them. ''Every 10 years, we begin to ask these questions, and no one has come up with a satisfactory answer,'' says Minnesota's John. The solution probably lies where it always has: with parents. They will simply have to be more vigilant than ever, knowing that wherever their children go--from day care to the Internet--there's now a marketer close behind.

By David Leonhardt in New York, with Kathleen Kerwin in Detroit and bureau reports


COVER IMAGE: Hey Kid, Buy This!

TABLE: The Evolution of a Consumer

PHOTO: Three-Year-Old with Batman Toy and Other Branded Products

PHOTO: Seven-Year-Old with Barbie Doll and Other Branded Products

PHOTO: Thirteen-Year-Old with Coke and Other Branded Products


TABLE: Web Sites for Kids


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Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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