Food Fight!

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Pancakes with syrup poured in the shape of a smiley face. Spaghetti thrown against the wall and made to stick. Mashed potatoes molded into peaks and valleys. Peas shoved up the nose. Ever since the first parent crawled out of the slime and plunked down a plate of victuals in front of the first kid, children have played with their food.

Today's kids still mess around at mealtime and still consider the objectively gross extremely cool. Nothing new there. What is new is that savvy manufacturers and marketers are creating delectables that play right back, or at least encourage a sense of play. Take Tongue Splashers. One of four new Popsicles just out from Good Humor-Breyers, the Tongue Splasher is literally a big red mouth of strawberry and lemon ice, complete with dangling tonsil and lolling tongue, atop a Popsicle stick. Embedded in the tongue is a gum ball which releases food dyes that turn one's mouth different colors, or "awesome hues," as Good Humor puts it.

Geez, what's wrong with a good old ice-cream sandwich? Born in an era when change is as much a part of life as rising in time for Saturday morning cartoons, today's kids have different standards of what's a treat. Their taste for the new and exciting has accelerated, and, to keep pace, treats aimed at children are growing more outrageous every year. The key words bandied about-extreme, mega, fun, surprising, interactive-are not ones I immediately associate with something that goes in my mouth. But then, my idea of food fun when I was a kid was letting my ice cream melt into soup and then slurping it up. Cool!

Things are much more complicated now. Last year, 6-to-11-year-olds, as the kids market is generally defined, spent $25 billion of their own money and influenced another $187 billion of spending, according to Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, a Manhattan-based advertising agency that specializes in marketing to kids and families. Those are big numbers from such little people, especially considering kids spent less than half that five years ago, Kurnit says. The increase is due in part to the country's growing affluence in recent years, but also to a tendency toward bigger allowances, more dual-income families, and greater childhood freedom, generally. Raised by baby boomers and Gen Xers who encourage them to participate in family decisions, and exposed to media from all sides, kids are becoming active and sophisticated consumers at an extremely young age. At the same time, marketers say, their very childishness makes them particularly good targets.

"Carving out a niche for yourself is what childhood is all about," says Johann Wachs, a senior partner and director of planning and research at Ogilvy & Mather and a children's marketing specialist. "Products can help define who you are."

Other marketers agree that kids possess the combination of being "fundamentally insecure and trying to find their place in the world," according to Kurnit. Translation: they're really into new stuff.

So what do these little consumers want? Well, they want things that seem disgusting to their parents. They want products that will be the subject of school-yard chatter. They want to interact with and be entertained by what they purchase, whether it's a toy, a pair of sneakers, or an ice-cream cone. Good Humor-Breyers' 1999 summer line of Popsicles, which hit the shelves last month, satisfies all of the above. Besides the Tongue Splasher, with its exploding-color gum ball, the ice cream giant has developed the Big Bang, a layering of sweet and sour ice embedded with little popping candies. There's also Micro Pops, made of tiny water ice beads of different flavors that explode when you bite them.

"The products seem right on," says Ogilvy & Mather's Wachs. "If it grosses out Mom, if it empowers me [the kid] by setting me apart from my parents, then it's good." And really, what self-respecting adult is going to buy a Popsicle that turns the teeth funny colors, explodes, or comes in the shape of a giant tongue? It's a pretty safe bet that Tongue Splashers, Micro Pops, and Big Bangs will be the domain of the 6-to-11 crowd, which already spends the largest percentage of its income on snacks.

"The products say, 'Come play with me,' " notes Kurnit of Griffin Bacal. "They will appeal to kids across the board."

It's good to know kids are still united in their appreciation of a good treat. While we old folks often shy away from products and brands that would identify us with the wrong demographic group-too white, too black, too working class, to upper crust-kids don't pay attention to such things, Kurnit says. They really do bond over the longing for the newest Popsicle. In fact, Popsicles do roughly as well across economic, regional, gender, and ethnic lines, according to Brian Manning, director of marketing at Good Humor-Breyers. This is due partly to the fact they still cost less than 80 cents a pop. But it's also about the idea that kids have a well-developed sense of what is kid stuff, and what is not. And nothing else really matters.

"Kid culture is a culture unto itself," Kurnit says. "It cuts across demographic origins."

I have no doubt that Tongue Splashers will be easily absorbed into the highest realms of kiddie culture. I keep wondering, though, how parents feel about this. There's no way my mother would have condoned Tongue Splashers, unless it was my birthday, or I'd recently fallen off a roof, or lost a limb. Apparently, though, fighting over food is as passe as the anti-consumerist values my mother preached. Parents today, exhausted by their work lives and loathe to waste precious family time arguing, have loosened the reins of control when it comes to food, marketers say.

"Today's parents don't have the time or the energy," Wachs says. "They pick their battles extremely carefully and they decide what is really worth fighting over." Food does not make the short list.

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