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Marketers targeting kids – What do you think about commercialized childhood?

What do you call a consumer who wants to buy everything you have, doesn’t care what it costs and is less than five feet tall? A marketer’s dream? Nope. You call them kids. — AdRelevance Intelligence Report, 2000Ralph Lauren children ebook

I read a lot of blogs and news sites everyday. The ads in those sites are almost always invisible to me. But a flash ad on NYT with a lot of cute little kids caught my eye last week. Apparently it is “The first Shoppable Children’s Storybook” from Ralph Lauren. It is essentially their back-to-school catalog disguised as a children’s story book. You can mouse over the video and as it plays, pop ups give more information about the look/outfit of each character in the “story” (which was rather poor). Essentially each character changes their outfit 3 times during the course of the story, allowing Ralph Lauren to display their back-to-school collection. Even though it’s a brilliant marketing idea, I hate it. Read on for more on my reasons.

WSJ had a story on this and said – Since it’s never too early to teach children to shop online, young readers will also be able to click and purchase fall pieces, including the ones worn by characters in the story. Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that marketers are trying to teach kids to shop online as early as they can?

Advertising and Kids

Advertisements targeting kids are not new. But they seem to have exploded in recent years. Starting from branding products like M&Ms, Cheerios, etc using brightly colored packaging to attract kids, keeping the products in the lower aisles, movie & toy tie-ups at the fast food stores… there is something everywhere targeting kids. I am not even getting into TV and internet ads. Are books being converted into ads as well now?

Why kids are easy targets?

Well, they are cute, aren’t they? Who can refuse the request from the little munchkin? If that fails there is always (what the experts call) – the “nag factor” or “pester power” – the ability of kids to nag adults into buying them a specific product or toy. Plus kids these days have a lot of disposable income. An average child watches Television 1680 minutes a week whereas the number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is 3.5. No wonder it is extremely easy for the companies to build brand loyalty. These are after all very impressionable and naive minds.

Why I hate these ads?

toddler skinny jeans

Does this make my back look fat?

The companies are in the market for profit and they are not doing anything illegal. I get it. But these ads bother me for a lot of reasons.

  • They pry on insecurities : Many of the ads targeting children and teens works best by creating insecurities about something, mostly their body image. Skinny jeans anyone? Even toddlers have skinny jeans now.
  • They equate the idea of “buying” to happiness
  • They promote the idea that excess is better
  • They sometimes show inappropriate behavior as “cool”
  • Finally, some of the messages they send are an outright lie.

What can we do about it?

It is probably impossible to shield children from all the marketing messages. Here are some of the tips provided by the Media Awareness Network:

  • Start young. Children are influenced by marketing from a very young age. [Success story: Get Rich Slowly had an article on How to Inoculate your kids against advertising? Great idea and great results!]
  • Limit children’s exposure to advertising on television and on the Internet. Don’t allow them to have televisions or Internet-enabled computers in their rooms, and limit TV time to one or two hours per day.
  • Talk to your kids about how advertising works and what advertisers are trying to accomplish. Explain that advertising is a multi-billion dollar business whose goal is to get people to buy things, and that they are very good at it.
  • Encourage kids to think critically about marketing messages. You can start as small as you like: last year a Grade 6 math class in Thunder Bay, Ontario debunked a “fun fact” on a package of Smarties, which claimed that Canadians eat enough Smarties each year to circle the earth 350 times. They found that in order for the claim to be true, either the earth would have to be a lot smaller, or each Smartie would have to be 3.5 meters in diameter.
  • Help kids to understand the strategies used by advertisers. Talk with kids about specific ads: “How do you feel about the people in the ad? Do you want to be like them? Why or why not? Does the ad make you feel uncool for not owning the product, or that you’ll feel good about yourself if you buy the product? What are some other ways you could get those feelings, without buying the product? Has the ad used any ambiguous words or impressive-sounding facts and figures to make the product sound better than it is? At the end, did the announcer say anything like ‘some assembly required’ or ‘batteries not included’?”
  • Explain product placement: if characters in a movie or TV show are using a particular brand, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there.
  • Discuss how your kids can be smart, responsible consumers by knowing what is good for them and what isn’t, what is good for the environment and what isn’t, and what is good value for money.
  • Educate children about nutrition using Canada’s Food Guide. Discuss whether eating only things you see on TV makes for a healthy, balanced diet. Make a distinction between “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods.
  • Before going grocery shopping, decide exactly what you plan to buy, including snacks and treats. Having a list that you and your kids have discussed ahead of time makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases and set limits in the store.
  • Monitor your own media habits and buying habits, and change them if necessary. Children pick up early on what’s important to their parents.
  • Make sure TV, Internet and video game “screen time” is balanced with family time, active, creative play, playing outdoors, reading, and other activities without marketing attached.
  • Know that you’re probably not alone. Share your concerns about advertising with other parents. You may be able to find other parents who feel the same way you do, and you may be able to settle on consistent rules for TV-watching.

Here are some excellent resources for teachers and parents to deal with kids and commercialization

  1. Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture : A 32 page booklet packed with tips and resources to help parents deal with the effects of advertising and marketing on children.
  2. PBS Kids : Don’t buy it, get media smart!
  3. Admongo.gov : A FTC campaign to boost advertising literacy
  4. MNet : Media Awareness Network

Do you think it is right for the marketers to target kids and try hard to make them the prime consumers? How do you deal with it? How do you “save” kids from these advertisements?

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