Violence and Sex Permeate Childhood -- With Strong Effect

Marketers Need to Recognize the Balance Between Old and New Truths Confronting Kids

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Beaver Cleaver probably wouldn't recognize childhood as kids know it today.

Today's kids still enjoy the joys of childhood: having summers free, making new friends, learning about the world. But childhood now also includes a dose of adult life, as kids become too familiar with grown-ups' problems like violence and sex.

For advertisers that serve this market, comprised of about 52 million kids age 13 and under and estimated at $100 billion annually, understanding today's kids means recognizing the balance between the old and new truths about childhood.

The emotional needs of kids are still the same, but the influences on kids, both inside and outside the home, have changed.

Kids "can't recognize the difference with what other generations went through. Their reality is their reality," says Dan Acuff, president of Youth Market Systems Consulting, a youth products consultancy.

Today's kids seem to be more immersed in the world's problems than previous generations. In fact, 42% of youths between the ages of 9 and 17 are concerned about contracting the AIDS virus, while only 28% worried about being beaten up or attacked, according to a Yankelovich Youth Monitor survey.

Some of this knowledge comes from personal experience. One in six youths between 10 and 17 years old has seen or knows someone who's been shot, according to a Newsweek and Children's Defense Fund poll.

The adult world also reaches kids through media coverage, such as the outcry after the Polly Klaas kidnapping and mur der last year. In addition, it also reaches kids through television and other enter tainment media. It's bad enough to make 82% of adults surveyed by the Cor poration for Public Broad casting say TV programming is too violent.

"They are a more serious group because of the images they get exposed to," says Karen Flischel, senior VP-research and development worldwide at Nickelodeon.

This exposure makes kids smarter than some adults might think, children's market specialists say.

"I think a lot of times the tendency is [for adults] to give kids less credit" for their intelligence than they deserve, says Ellen Sackoff, partner at partner at Discovery Group, a youth-market researcher. "The fact is, they see it going on in the world."

Yet it's not just the world outside that's changed. Children still receive messages about how the traditional two-parent home is the social norm, and their parents-most of whom were baby boomers-grew up in that environment. But this type of household is less prevalent today.

According to U.S. Census Bureau, the number of households headed by a single parent jumped from 3.2 million in 1970 to about 7.8 million in 1990. Single-parent families accounted for 24% of households with kids in 1990, up from 11% in 1970. In addition, the number of married mothers working or looking for work jumped from 10.2 million in 1970 to 16.5 million in 1990, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With the traditional household becoming less of a fixture, kids' market observers say more children are having their emotional needs go unmet.

Kids "need all the stuff that was all about `Father Knows Best.' They still need that ideal family and the security and bonding. What's happened is that kids are feeling insecurity," says Rachel Geller, senior VP-senior planner at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

The rise in single-parent and also dual-income families has forced children to handle daily chores that were once the domain of parents. According to Yankelovich, the percentage of children who said their chores included making their own meals jumped from 13% in 1987 to 36% last year.

But these responsibilities have brought kids closer to buying decisions, market analysts say.

"They are forced to have responsibilities at an earlier age, but I think a lot of them are taking advantage of that responsibility earlier on. They're really becoming partners in the brand decision process," says Bob Horne, managing director at Kid Think, a market consultancy.

Yet despite their knowledge and responsibilities, today's kids, like their predecessors, are still individuals learning about themselves and their surroundings.

"The `job' of kids is to play," Ms. Flischel says. "This is still a group that thrives on humor, and fun is still the main currency. They look for things that are fun and amusing."

As a result, observers say marketers should beware of treating children as half-size adults, despite what they may know about the world.

The brain structure of kids to age 7 is set up for fantasy and play, says Robert Reiher, exec VP at Youth Market Systems. "But their brain structures seem to be short-circuited by the imposed reality," Mr. Reiher says.

"Cognitively, they're not ready to plan for the future until the age of 12. They can't think in gray, only in black and white," he adds.

The parameters of today's childhood mean marketers must walk a tightrope between showing fun and reality in their ads.

If having fun is the job of kids, then it would follow that ads directed at them should appeal to this sense of fun, observers say.

Mr. Reihel says Nike's Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny commercial is one that works well because it hits upon the most powerful dimensions with those under age 12: identification with a hero, and "process variables" such as speed, humor and slapstick.

"This ad appeals to that and also combines reality and fantasy," he says.

This notion of fun should be something that can be shared. Shelley Pazer, another partner at Discovery Group, says the Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. commercial starring Miami quarterback Dan Marino, who plays a rented football videogame as his son watches, is an example.

"The products or services [marketers] talk about should come across with a sense of doing it on your own, and how you don't need parents to do this. But yet it shouldn't totally wipe out the idea of family interaction," she says.

Ms. Geller says there are opportunities for marketers to use their commercials to show the new reality of families, grappling with single parenthood, child independence, peer pressure and the questioning of authority.

"These are major themes that marketers could be dealing with," Ms. Geller says. "These images are not just appealing to kids but also to parents."

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