Born to Buy

Born to Buy

By Juliet B. Schor

Chapter 9: Empowered or Seduced?
The Debate About Advertising and Marketing to Kids

A line has been crossed . . . advertising and entertainment and all mediums are blurred now. I think we are reaching a point of an overall degrading of values. . . . And it seems like people get desensitized, and then they have to cross yet another line.
Richard Goldstein, creative director, major New York ad agency

As marketers have become more brazen, parents, educators, and health professionals have begun to fight back. This is not the first time advocates for children have tried to rein in marketers. In the 1970s, television advertising was the focal point, because it was the major avenue for reaching children. In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission explicitly recognized children’s vulnerability to ads and enacted regulations that prohibited host selling and program-length commercials, mandated separators between ads and programs, and restricted advertising time to nine and a half minutes per hour on the weekends and twelve minutes on weekdays. Action for Children’s Television, a public interest group, argued that the 1974 regulations were inadequate and pressed the Federal Trade Commission to enact a ban on all advertising to children. In 1978, after considerable deliberation, the FTC issued a report that concluded children under age seven “do not possess the cognitive ability to evaluate adequately child-oriented television advertising.” However, by 1981, the agency was unwilling to take on industry, and in any case, Congress stripped it of its ability to do so. At about this time, the FCC reversed its stance on program-length commercials, which remain legal.

The next decade and a half was relatively quiet, but opposition began to surface in the second half of the 1990s. This time, critics took aim at a wider range of practices than television commercials. Ralph Nader, a long-standing opponent of corporate marketing to children, published The Parents’ Guide to Fighting Corporate Predators and founded Commercial Alert, which has become a major catalyst for activism, organizing professionals and parents on a variety of issues from school commercialization to junk food marketing. George Gerbner warned that corporations were becoming our children’s “story-tellers” and the dominant transmitters of culture. Consumers Union opposed the growing commercialization of schools, as did the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education and the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. In August 1999, the Center for a New American Dream launched its Kids and Commercialism Campaign, just in time to help parents cope with the annual marketing blitz associated with back-to-school sales. Some months later, a group called the Motherhood Project, associated with the right-wing Institute for American Values, put together a broad-based statement titled “Watch Out for Children,” which attacked the larger consumer culture being sold to youth. Not long afterward, a new coalition called Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children developed, on the success of a series of events countering the industry’s Annual Golden Marble Awards for the best children’s ad.

Major national organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Education Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have also entered the debate about kids and consumer culture. The American Psychological Association began studying whether it should amend its code of ethics to prevent members from conducting marketing research on children. The issue reached the political mainstream in the 2000 elections, as Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that “too many companies simply see our children as little cash cows that they can exploit.” Clinton called for a ban on ads to preschoolers and in public elementary schools. The debate heated up and one industry publication declared that “marketing to kids is now officially under the gun.” As I’ve described, 2002 was a watershed year for opponents of food marketing. By 2003, the annual KidPower conference was taking note. “We are accused of manipulating and exploiting kids,” the conference brochure intoned. “The kid industry is under attack for selling products to children that are presumed to make them greedy, violent and fat.” Organizers added a session that would enlighten participants about “how worried” they should be about growing criticism in the press and the spread of advertising bans now in place in some European countries.

Under attack from many sides, industry has mounted three lines of defense. The first is that they are empowering kids. The second is that advertising to kids is necessary for the economic health of the industry. The third is that parents are the guilty party.

The New Discourse of Kid Empowerment

The core of what I call the new discourse of kid empowerment is the idea that ads and products help children to feel powerful. It says that kids need to feel independent and master their environments to feel in control of their parents. Lisa Morgan argues that “kids want to be in control in a world where they create their own rules . . . we always try to put them into situations where they . . . demonstrate mastery of a specific situation.” Gene del Vecchio contends that “kids have very little control over the world in which they live. Therefore, they love to gain any measure of control over their sphere of existence. . . . Control touches a strong need that children have to be independent.” Del Vecchio and others argue that a sense of control can be achieved through learning how to operate a toy, having the opportunity to choose among products, even something as simple as choosing among color variations, or watching an ad in which children triumph over adults.

Is it true that ads can create positive psychological outcomes? If a kid buys a pair of Nike shoes and feels better about himself or herself because of them, then Nike’s ads may enhance self-esteem. But the messages are a double-edged sword because they also do the reverse, undermining self-worth. Sometimes the reality doesn’t meet the promise. Sometimes kids desperately want a product because they’re convinced it’s essential to their happiness but there’s no money to pay for it. As the nation’s children are increasingly likely to live in poor and low-income households, this gap between desire and means is likely to grow. Many psychologists already find this a worrisome trend. Allen Kanner and M. E. Gomes have argued that many young people are suffering from feelings of deep inadequacy brought on by an inability to keep up with consumer culture.

Empowerment is also raised in a defense of the widespread antiadultism of commercial culture. Paul Kurnit defended an ad he produced for the board game Operation in which adults are portrayed as buffoons, saying it “levels the playing field” between children and adults. But there’s a fine line between wholesome kid mastery and destructive antiadultism, and many believe that line has been crossed. Social conservatives argue that advertising and the media have become unacceptably disrespectful toward adults, undermining children’s proper deference and obedience. However, even those who do not believe that adults have a God-given authority over children find themselves disturbed by some of today’s advertising, wondering if the pervasive antiadultism is undermining mutual respect between parents and children. Bob Garfield, the influential columnist of Advertising Age, called a Nintendo spot that ridiculed parents an “exercise in craven cynicism and moral abdication.” Garfield acknowledged that Nintendo was hardly alone in putting forward the “make-fun-of-grown-ups” message. Nevertheless, he argued, “At some point someone has to take a stand. These people have no right to speak to our children this way, and they had damn well better stop.” James McNeal, responding directly to Kurnit, called his position “detestable.”

Similar issues arise with direct targeting of children. After the gatekeeper model collapsed in the 1980s, industry went full steam ahead, selling their clients on nag factor kid influence. But the further industry goes down this road, the more it must defend itself against charges that it is having excessive and undue influence on kids. Industry has responded by claiming that children are capable of managing the persuasive pressure of commercial messages and are neither overly swayed nor harmed by them. This has led to the idea that kids are different than they were in the past, as, for example, in the 1970s, when research showed that children had rather limited abilities to understand and withstand advertising. Industry insiders now ignore or denigrate this research on the grounds that it’s no longer relevant. They describe today’s children as savvy, not able to be manipulated. Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert, thinks that kids have “an advertising filter which is greater than any previous generation. Advertisers and marketers cannot lie, and they cannot deliver crap quality.” Wynne Tyree argues that “kids are much more sophisticated than most adults understand, and their sophistication levels are ever increasing at younger ages. There is a lot of evidence that kids are cognitively (and physically) developing more rapidly.” Lisa Judson of Nickelodeon contends that “kids have a kind of truth meter. They are able to tell when marketers are being truthful and straightforward and they can tell when marketers are trying to trick them.” Geoffrey Roche, an award-winning Canadian creative director, opines, “I don’t think there is any way that we, as advertisers, can convince children of anything.” Of course, this isn’t always to the companies’ benefit. One McDonald’s advertiser, explaining the dynamics of Happy Meals, explained wistfully that “the kids have become a little more savvy, a little more demanding.”

As a consequence, industry spokespeople argue that children do not need protection in their dealings with marketers. Those who are pushing for stricter regulations are put down as know-nothings. Paul Kurnit contends that the people who want to protect kids are “overprotective. . . . It is an issue where we often find that the people who are the most vocal about it have the least understanding of what’s going on in kids’ lives.”

It’s hard to dispute the view that children have become more sophisticated and worldly. However, there’s little evidence on how that newfound sophistication affects children’s ability to resist the persuasive power of ads, and whether growing up faster is empowering in the ways marketers suggest. I’ve found only one study that evaluates whether children’s ability to understand and critically process advertising has grown over time. It’s a meta-analysis by Mary Martin of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that assesses the findings of twenty-one previous studies, conducted between 1972 and the mid-1990s. Martin finds that the ability of younger children to understand ads appears to have increased somewhat since the 1970s, although the correlation is weak and may be due to changes in the way researchers have measured understanding. Furthermore, the crucial question of whether young children can resist the persuasiveness of advertising has not been adequately explored. As I noted in Chapter 3, there’s evidence that young children’s ability to withstand persuasion is limited. Until there’s more research, the industry’s claims remain unproven.

The Instrumental Benefits of Ads

The industry’s second argument is that advertising is justifiable because it creates other benefits, such as free television, better products, and economic growth and employment. Psychologically, these are the most powerful arguments because they reinforce the utter inevitability of advertising. But their logical power is weak.

Let’s start with the claim of free television. First, it’s not true. Television only appears to be free. The public funds ads and programs by paying higher prices for advertised products. The fact is that if you’re a consumer, you pay for television, whether you watch or not. What’s more, nominally free television is a bad thing because it leads kids to watch too much of it. Indeed, given the extensive body of research on the detrimental effects of television, free TV hardly makes a compelling case for advertising. Perhaps the strongest argument for free television is that it’s available to low-income consumers who cannot afford other forms of entertainment. But given that low-income children spend so much time watching television and are disproportionately affected by some of the most harmful aspects of consumer culture, such as violence, obesity, and depression, this is a hard position to defend. It would be preferable to subsidize other forms of entertainment or to offer pay-per-view at heavily reduced rates to low-income households.

A second argument is that ads promote competition and indirectly lead to better products. More likely, they do the reverse. Advertising is expensive, and therefore creates barriers that make it harder for new products and companies to enter the market. With today’s monopolized industries, the high cost of ad campaigns keeps the giants in control and the newcomers out. If we really wanted to maximize product innovation and improvements, we’d structure the system so advertising was inexpensive and mainly informational.

Finally, the industry has long taken the stance that ads create consumer demand, which creates more production and employment. Without ads, the argument goes, the economy would collapse. But most economists don’t agree with this logic. They see advertising as mainly affecting brand choice rather than overall sales. And even if it were true, it’s a problematic argument. During my research, I had lunch with a man who was then president of one of the nation’s largest advertising agencies. He began our conversation by telling me that he believed advertising had become a terribly destructive force around the world, putting fast food joints everywhere, undermining local cultures and global diversity. As he looked over his career, he had lost faith in his business. So how do you live with yourself? I asked. His answer was that he put food on the table for his many employees. By that criterion, he is willing to advertise tobacco, which his firm does, and other harmful products just to maintain business. When it involves children, this instrumentality is even more questionable. Indeed, there’s precious little justification for advertising to children merely to keep agencies profitable. Policy should be based on what’s best for kids, not on arguments about how using them in one way or another yields particular outcomes for adults. When we argue that it’s okay to use kids for the sake of making money, it’s much harder to draw lines to protect their health, safety, and well-being. If society permits advertising to children, it should be because we’re confident it isn’t harmful, deceptive, or overly enticing.

A few marketers have taken that tack, claiming that advertising is actually good for children, helping them to be savvy consumers, and providing product information. But evidence suggests the opposite conclusion. For example, one study found that youth who watch more ads turn out to be more trusting of them, not less. A controlled study comparing students in Channel One and non-Channel One schools found that the former are more positive about the advertised products than those who don’t see the broadcasts. If we want children to grow up with good consumer skills, we need to teach them directly, through media literacy courses, lessons in financial management, and information about how to become an informed consumer.

Findings from a Center for a New American Dream poll I collaborated on in 1999 suggest that relatively few parents buy into the industry’s claims. Only 15 percent believe that advertising “is a good way for kids to get accurate information about products,” and only 23 percent say that “children today are very sophisticated about advertising and are not really influenced by it all that much.” To take the “we’re doing good for kids” line seriously, one would need to see evidence for the causality that underlies this view: that kids who watch more ads have higher self-esteem and better friendships, are more content with their lives, and are more positively empowered. I found just the reverse.

Industry Blames the Parent

Industry’s final line of defense is that parents always have the option of protecting their children from advertising. They can turn off the television and just say no. When parents let their children watch, they are giving tacit approval. Of course, the proliferation of marketing in schools and other public institutions undermines this claim, but it remains a mainstay in the industry’s arsenal of arguments. Recently, the debate has gone further, as marketers blame parents for the excesses of consumer culture. If children have become too materialistic, or obese, or aggressive, it’s because parents aren’t doing their jobs. “The reason that there’s childhood obesity is because caregivers don’t have enough time to spend with their children. So what they’re doing is giving their kids eight hours of TV a day,” says Kenn Viselman, the media producer who brought Teletubbies to the United States. Other marketers hold a similar position. Peter Reynolds, CEO of Brio Toys, says, “Parents aren’t losing control, they’re giving it up. . . . The responsibility of the purchase always lies with the adult. Yeah, seventy-two times a day you’re going to be asked, ‘Can I have that toy? Can I have that toy?’ But if the answer is ‘no’ seventy-two times a day for three or four weeks, then they stop asking.” Paul Kurnit says parents are responsible for the decline of the gatekeeper model: “A decade ago I called it ‘the unmanned tollbooth.’ Today I call it ‘Easy Pass.’ ” Arnold’s Jerrie van Gelder worries that industry critics will lead us down a slippery slope: “If we start to remove the responsibility from the parents . . . I wonder where it stops.”

This line of argument is powerful because it possesses an essential truth. Parents should and do bear responsibility for restricting children’s access to consumer culture. When they fail to exercise judgment or set limits, the outcomes can be disastrous. I subscribe to this perspective as a researcher and as a parent. I’ve shielded my own children to a degree some people find excessive. But the undeniable fact of parental responsibility does not imply that it’s only parents who should be held accountable. The complexities of life today render that approach far too simple-minded. Looking at the evolution of relationships between children, parents, and marketers, we see how much more entangled and difficult this triangulation has become. In the process, it becomes clear that all three parties need to behave differently.

Some of the more thoughtful advertisers I encountered understand this triangulation well. Wynne Tyree describes the case of food, explaining that the pervasiveness of unhealthful choices “puts moms in a tough position-the battle or the surrender.” Tyree believes that mothers have only the best intentions for their children and care about their health. “But moms today, unlike many moms of yesterday, want their kids to be happy as much as they want them to be healthy. This is particularly true of those moms who are more time-constrained and/or work outside the home. Since kids want the sweets, the fats, and carbs, the result becomes a child with a little extra baby fat moms are sure their kids will grow out of.” Tyree also recognizes the problem of what social scientists call “path dependency”-that what we do today affects our behavior tomorrow. “There’s the problem of kids’ palates that never get exposed to healthy foods and thus never develop a taste for them.” Introducing young children to unhealthy food, even as treats, can undermine their ability to maintain a healthful diet over the long run.

The industry’s critics are not so far from this perspective, explaining that it is increasingly difficult for parents when they are overextended and stressed and advertising comes at kids from so many angles. Harvard University’s Susan Linn contends that we have put parents in the position of “playing David to the corporate Goliaths.” And neither Linn nor others in the critics’ camp are arguing against parental responsibility. They’re asking for help. Indeed, one might argue that it is precisely because it is getting harder for parents that there should be more restrictions on marketers. We should be focusing less on who’s to blame and more on a workable solution that protects children’s well-being.

Parents have mixed attitudes about responsibility and blame. The Center for a New American Dream’s poll asked about where the responsibility lies-with parents or marketers. Forty-one percent of parents took the view that “it is getting harder and harder to set limits with kids because so much advertising is aimed at making kids feel they need all of these products in order to fit it.” A nearly identical number (43 percent) felt that “blaming advertisers is just an excuse parents give because they do not know how to say no.” Interestingly, 12 percent volunteered that they agreed with both of these sentiments, an option that was not offered by the interviewers.

The poll also found that the vast majority of parents willingly accept responsibility for their children. But most don’t think they should be forced to fight the battle alone, and there is strong support for restrictions on advertising. Seventy-eight percent of parents are opposed or strongly opposed to showing commercials for brand-name products in school; 64 percent believe Internet providers are not doing enough to protect children from online advertising; and 65 percent believe TV networks should be required to reduce the amount they advertise to children. When asked how they felt “when your child pressures you to buy something as a result of an advertisement,” 20 percent said “angry” and 38 percent said “pressured.” By contrast, only 6 percent reported themselves “ready to please,” and 17 percent were “happy I have the money to buy it.” A large majority (78 percent) also reported that they believe “marketing and advertising puts too much pressure on children to buy things that are too expensive, unhealthy, or unnecessary.” Seventy percent feel “advertising and marketing aimed at kids has a negative effect on their values and world view,” and 87 percent think “advertising and marketing aimed at kids today make children and teenagers too materialistic.”

These findings reveal that although more than 40 percent of parents don’t primarily blame advertisers, most of those respondents are critical of many of the practices marketers are engaged in. The poll suggests that parents have a pragmatic and balanced view of the issues.

Many advertisers speak with a forked tongue about parental responsibility. To the public they extol it. To their clients, they boast about their ability to exploit parental weakness. Whether it’s dual messaging, going around parents by advertising in schools, finding the battles that moms are too exhausted to fight, or encouraging pester power, much of children’s marketing has become an effort to break down parental opposition. Food marketers search for a believable (never mind true) nutritional claim. (“Give ’em a vitamin, give ’em calcium,” David Siegel of the Wondergroup advises.) Toy manufacturers slap on the word educational. Companies anointed with the wholesome halo venture into questionable territory, knowing that parents trust them.

Surveying the commercial landscape, it seems that we’ve reached the point where it is no longer fair to put the onus exclusively on parents. Those who are trying to limit marketers’ access to their kids deserve a reasonable chance of success. They shouldn’t have to sequester their kids from so much in the environment. That puts an undue burden on both child and parent. The failure to address these issues also unfairly exposes those children who, for whatever reason, don’t have parents setting limits for them. Despite his strong rhetoric about parental responsibility, Peter Reynolds’s company markets only to parents, not to kids. “I want to save the children from the parents who don’t take responsibility,” he says. Such a stance is rare.

Advertising Doubts

When I began my research, I wasn’t particularly interested in how those within the industry felt about their work. I just wanted to figure out what they were doing. Perhaps naively, I assumed that most would either believe in what they do or, if they didn’t, would have well-developed rationalizations to keep their consciences at bay. I was unprepared for the spontaneous articulation of doubts I encountered. Mary Prescott raised her criticisms in both of our conversations: “I am doing the most horrible thing in the world. . . . We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things. It’s not worth the all-mighty buck.” And later she confessed that “at the end of the day, my job is to get people to buy things. . . . It’s a horrible thing and I know it.” Thomas Kouns, of Truth Moderating and Qualitative Research and a former strategic planner at a number of agencies, also identified a problem at the core of the enterprise: “We have a message which says to be worth anything, you have to have the product. . . . Brands are about giving you value, giving you self-esteem. Fundamentally, that’s really flawed. It stunts your emotional growth in a lot of ways. . . . We’re so culpable, everybody’s culpable.” Mark Lapham, who founded and then sold his own promotions company, seemed as if he’s marking time until he makes enough money to retire and do something he can be proud of. Martin Lindstrom decried the growth of materialism among tweens and worried that we’ve produced a generation that is not very nice. He described how it feels to “wear two hats.” As a marketer, he counsels brands that they need tween strategies. But “from a parent point of view, I think this is a sad phenomenon.” A marketer with a flair for the dramatic repeatedly foretold a future in which she’d “burn in hell.”

For some, the problem isn’t so much advertising as the way it’s carried out. Langbourne Rust issued a blanket condemnation of his colleagues’ use of nag factor: “It is assumed by most of them that it’s all about pester power. We end up creating a world and culture around this idea. And we end up with a culture of kids at odds with their parents-wheedling, whining, and cajoling.” Kenn Viselman takes a similar view. Referring to Idell’s original nag factor study and the direct marketing that followed it, Viselman noted that “ever since that study came out, the concept of advertising to kids has become more and more widespread. It’s become a way of life in our country and it’s totally wrong. It’s sacrilegious. We should be doing whatever we can to protect our youth, and instead we’re just selling them out so we can make a few dollars.” I encountered a few marketers who refuse to promote violent products or stress the need for positive approaches, but in my experience, these concerns mainly get lip service.

Rita Denney is one of the few professionals I discussed this issue with who shared the critics’ view that advertising to children is inherently unfair. She’s also one of the most highly educated and knowledgeable people in the field and holds a Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology from the University of Chicago. She understands a lot about children’s development, and this is the basis of her refusal to work on children’s products or accounts. “I have a third grader who I’ve watched grow up with television.” Denney explains that it’s too hard for her daughter to understand the rules of advertising and that she can’t make certain kinds of judgments. “I’m willing to sell anything to adults,” she explains. But she draws the line at kids.

The most poignant case I encountered was Susan Davies (pseudonym), a senior executive and a single mother who confessed her longtime ambivalence about the whole enterprise of marketing to kids. She’s had to advertise products she doesn’t believe in and wouldn’t let her own children use. This leaves her feeling morally conflicted and unhappy with her work, so she’s left the job a number of times. But she keeps returning because she needs the money. “The biggest issue is finding some peace.” This is not always easy because, as she explains, in the advertising business you “can’t really be critical of the product . . . you can’t have a judgment on the product.”

In the end, Davies identified the crux of the problem: the industry lacks sufficient moral accountability. In the agencies, people are afraid to confront the clients. In the companies, there’s a similar lack of accountability. And all the while, the pressure to make money is overwhelming the need to do well by kids.


From BORN TO BUY, Copyright 2001 by Juliet Schor. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.

Book Excerpts

"Our future marketing and advertising leaders are not just looking for a job, they are looking for a meaningful career that will make a positive impact on society."
— Gord McLean, President and CEO at ANA Educational Foundation