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Childhood for sale

Companies spend billions to reach young consumers

By Christina Quick

Susan Pagan was appalled recently when she saw her fourth-grade daughter’s report card from Red Bug Elementary in Casselberry, Fla.

The girl’s grades weren’t the problem. What bothered Pagan was a McDonald’s promotion printed on the envelope, offering free Happy Meals for students with good grades, attendance or citizenship.

As a health-conscious parent, Pagan objected to the idea of associating fat-laden foods and sugary soft drinks with academic achievement.

“My daughter worked so hard to get good grades this term and now she believes she is entitled to a prize from McDonald’s,” Pagan says. “I’m the bad guy because I had to explain that our family does not eat at fast-food chains.”

Whether it’s Happy Meals, violent movies or revealing clothing, many parents find themselves in the sometimes-awkward position of screening the messages advertisers send their kids. As the industry resorts to more aggressive tactics, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult task.

In 1983, U.S. companies spent $100 million annually to market to kids. Today the figure has soared to $17 billion.

“This is advertising and marketing that bypasses parents and targets children directly,” says Harvard psychologist Susan Linn, author of the book Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising.

Children view more than 40,000 commercials per year on television alone, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many of those ads are designed to appeal to kids.

Linn says advertising executives routinely seek advice from child psychologists on ways to exploit children’s vulnerabilities so the kids, in turn, will influence their parents’ spending habits.

“Kids are spending about 40 hours a week engaged with media, most of it electronic and most commercially based,” says Linn, who heads a child advocacy organization called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “They are encouraged and taught to believe that shopping is a solution to life’s problems and that they are incomplete without brands.”

Research suggests the marketing efforts are yielding dividends. In a study last year involving kids ages 3-5, participants overwhelmingly preferred food in McDonald’s packaging to identical items in plain packages.

For instance, almost 77 percent of the preschoolers said McDonald’s-labeled fries tasted better than unlabeled ones even though the containers held the same products.

Even carrots — an item McDonald’s doesn’t sell — were judged tastier when served in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

Children with more television sets in their homes were more likely to prefer the McDonald’s packaging, the study found.

Dr. Victor Strasburger, author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, says the study shows too little is being done.

“Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about — to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessive desire for a particular brand-name product,” Strasburger says.

Food products, especially junk food such as candy and sugarcoated cereals, are heavily marketed to children. In 2004, youngsters between the ages of 2 and 11 saw approximately 5,500 food commercials, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Half of those advertisements appeared on kids’ shows. By contrast, in 1977 only a quarter of food ads seen by kids were on children’s programs.

Meanwhile, childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. If the trend continues, nearly 50 percent of North American kids will be overweight by 2010, according to a recent report by Yale University researchers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that TV commercials contribute to childhood obesity.

Empty calories aren’t the only things being foisted on young consumers. Forbes magazine’s Web site recently reported that Victoria’s Secret, known for its lingerie and risqué ads, plans to focus on the teen market to help boost revenue. The chain recently began selling products such as “panty pops,” underwear rolled up in a container to resemble a lollipop, and advertising on the social networking site MySpace.

This is just one example of products normally associated with adult consumers being sold to kids as a way to increase profitability. Some argue the result is a generation of children who are growing up too fast.

“Little girls are immersed in the rush toward becoming teenagers before they’re in kindergarten,” Linn says. “The culture is really robbing them of childhood.”

Darla Knoth, managing editor for Assemblies of God Women’s Ministries publications, says she worries about the effects of sex-charged advertising on her sons, ages 13 and 16. She says she is especially disturbed by an ad that features a female entertainer who is popular among teens.

“Her movements, dress and lyrics are so suggestive, and the commercial runs so frequently, I cringe every time it comes on and my boys are watching TV,” she says.

Knoth says she is also alarmed by the violence prevalent in many ads and products intended for young people.

“The commercials for video games are often so violent, I can’t imagine the amount of violence teenagers are exposed to when they play the actual games,” Knoth says. “Even though my sons don’t have these games, I know some of their school friends are affected by them.”

Even as many parents attempt to screen their children’s exposure to traditional media such as television, radio and magazines, advertisers continually find new ways to reach the lucrative juvenile market.

“It used to be that all parents had to worry about was television,” Linn says. “Now there’s marketing on the Internet, in DVDs and video games, cell phones and MP3 players.”

The Internet is quickly catching up with television as an advertising medium for products aimed at kids. A University of Notre Dame professor found that 85 percent of the top food brands that target children through TV commercials also use branded Web sites to market to children online.

“Essentially, children are viewed as commodities in the marketplace,” Linn says. “They’re bought and sold as audience share.”

As commercialism infiltrates childhood from all directions, Knoth says blocking every manipulative message is an impossible task.

“Even if parents could always protect their own children from these images, the culture is influenced by them, indirectly impacting all of us,” Knoth says. “As Christian parents, we have to instill in our children and teens the responsibility for guarding their own hearts and teach them methods for this task.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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