Marketing to kids comes under fresh attack

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Assuming that it's ok to market to 11-year-olds as if they were 16-year-olds is shocking to some media and advertising critics who have taken up the battle against marketing to kids.

Marketing efforts playing into tweens' aspirations to adopt attitudes of much older teens are one alarming development that author Susan Linn sees. "The message they're getting," she says, "is that playing with toys and not being interested in the opposite sex is babyish and they ought to be acting out in sexual ways."

Ms. Linn, associate director of the Media Center at the Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children's Center, sees such efforts as part of a marketing maelstrom surrounding kids that puts normal childhood development at jeopardy.

The question of whether marketing to children does them harm isn't new, nor are efforts to curtail it. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission earned the moniker "national nanny" by calling for a ban on ads to children under age 7, a proposition Congress overruled.

More than 20 years later, that concern has spread to even the most cutting-edge marketing tactic of "word-of-mouth." The National Institute on Media & the Family this month called on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association to prohibit the "exploitation" of young people, after the association released a draft of an ethics code. Among the institute's concerns are word-of-mouth campaigns that take place in Internet chat rooms.

OBESITY PART OF THE DEBATE

With this and other issues like obesity providing fresh fuel for the debate, Ms. Linn is among a new generation of critics taking aim at marketing to kids.

She was one of six psychologists appointed to the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Advertising to Children, which is pressing for federal restrictions on all advertising to kids under age 8, citing research that shows these youngsters cannot "recognize persuasive intent."

Although the political support to enact sweeping restrictions isn't likely to coalesce soon, the proposal has alarmed some youth-market experts. "How can you possibly ban advertising to the 7-year-old who lives with his 9-year-old brother," asks Paul Kurnit, president of KidShop, "and tell him he can't watch `SpongeBob SquarePants' with his brother?"

Rising childhood obesity rates have focused attention on food marketers in particular. As health experts raise red flags and define the situation as an epidemic, author Juliet B. Schor questions why "the No. 1 product marketed to kids is junk food."

Food marketers have increasingly begun to respond. As part of a "balanced lifestyles commitment to children," McDonald's Corp. now offers healthy food and beverage choices with its Happy Meals, while Altria Group's Kraft Foods recently scored PR points by announcing a shift of marketing dollars to its "Better for you" kids label, Sensible Solutions.

Although Ms. Schor, who's on the faculty of the sociology department at Boston College, commends action along these lines, she says: "Most children's marketers need to face up to more than they're facing up to right now."

consumption=coolness?

Too often, she says, children's advertising equates consumption with coolness, unnecessarily linking children's identity to products. Marketers would do well to dispense with advertising that sells the "social symbolic value of the product," says Ms. Schor, in favor of "a more utilitarian message, like `this toy is fun' and `this food tastes good."'

The counterpoint is that young consumers' media savvy makes them less susceptible to the wholesale packaging of cool than critics contend. Author Alissa Quart partly agrees with that assessment but adds she found kids' sophistication "gave them a false sense that they were somehow in charge of consumer culture. At the end of the day, they were hypnotized by overspending."

As a result, young people are learning the habits of debt accumulation before they understand the value of money, Ms. Quart says. While the responsibility of teaching children this lesson is currently shouldered-or shirked-by parents, Ms. Quart suggests that corporations help families "bear the brunt" by funding school programs that teach money management.

"If we claim to care about children differently in so many areas of life," she asks, "why don't we care differently in advertising and marketing to them?"

In fact, marketers say they do. "There already is a commitment within the industry to advertise and market responsibly to kids," says Julie Halpin, CEO of WPP Group's Geppetto Group, New York. Ms. Halpin sits on the board of the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. CARU is the ad industry's self-regulatory watchdog for what it calls the "uniquely impressionable and vulnerable child audience."

This points to a patch of theoretical com- mon ground on which the two camps might meet, but CARU comes under fire because of its voluntary compliance structure. "Repeated- ly," Ms. Linn writes, "it's been government regulation, not self-regulation, that causes industries to curb exploitive practices."

most changes accepted

In response, Ms. Halpin says that of the 138 ads CARU deemed inconsistent with its guidelines in 2003, 134 were discontinued or modified to adhere to the principles.

"Marketers are parents and concerned citizens, too ," says Ms. Halpin. "People within this industry generally want to do what's right, fair and responsible for children."

In Mr. Kurnit's view, the critical distinction between marketers and their critics is the negative prism through which the latter see the lives of children: "Many of the critics who would set themselves up as proponents for kids come across as just the opposite. So much of their perception about kids suggests that kids are out of control and life is very difficult for them. Talk to kids, and they won't tell you that."

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