Thursday, October 23, 2008

Manipulation of a New Kind

Breastfeeding is a time for Betsy and me to find each other again through the dinners, the dishes, the playmates, and the toys. But, really, you can only gaze lovingly into her sweet eyes for so long. So, she snuggles and nurses, and ...I get to read. Thus, the re- discovery of the public library some 7 months ago. During my last visit, this book caught my eye.

Books like Born To Buy usually make me want to run out to Wyoming and live in seclusion. The problem is, very few civil engineering jobs are available in the middle of nowhere.

It's no secret kids are being targeted -- manipulated, really -- at a younger and younger ages to become consumers. Who wants to read all about it? Frankly, it sounded depressing. So, there I stood in the Provo City Library, determined to hate a book I had no reason to read, but planned on reading anyway. But ignorance is not bliss, it's the fast route to regret. So, that very same day, I started reading it. Scott and I talked about it that night before bed. I couldn't believe the things I was reading -- not all of them were horrid and satanical; some made perfect sense. But some of the tactics advertisers employ? Not. Good. Quite. Bad. Actually. (And it wasn't just advertisers. Kids' shows -- and adult shows -- were laden with themes designed to destroy the family.)

A for-instance? Let me share three. Oh, and anything in italics has been added by me. In case you want to NOT spend your whole life reading this entry.

Age Compression
One of the hottest trends in youth marketing is age compression -- the practice of taking products and marketing messages originally designed for older kids and targeting them to younger ones. Age compression includes offering teen products and genres, pitching gratuitous violence to the twelve-and-under crowd, cultivating brand preferences for items that were previously unbranded among younger kids, and developing creative alcohol and tobacco advertising that is not officially targeted to them but is widely seen and greatly loved by children. ...It includes the marketing of designer clothes to kindergartners and first graders. It includes the deliberate targeting of R-rated movies to kids as young as age nine, a practice the major movie studios were called on te carpet for by the Clinton administration in 2000.

Nowhere is age compression more evident than among the eight-to-twelve target. Originally a strategy for selling to ten to thirteen year olds, children as young as six are being targeted for tweening. And what is that exactly? Tweens are "in-between" teens and children, and tweening consists mainly of bringing teen products and entertainment to ever-younger audiences. Even the family-friendly Disney Channel is full of sexually suggestive outfits and dancing. A stroll down the 6X-12 aisles of girls' clothing will produce plenty of skimpy and revealing styles. People in advertising are well aware of these developments. Emma Gilding of Ogilvy and Mather recounted an experience she had during an in-home videotaping. The little girl was doing a Britney Spears imitation, with flirting and sexual grinding. Asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the three year old answered: "A sexy shirt girl." As researcher Mary Prescott (pseudonym) explained to me in the summer of 2001, "We're coming out of a trend now. Girl power turned into sex power. A very sexy, dirty, dark thing. Parents were starting to panic."

Ambercrombie and Fitch came under fire for selling thong underwear with sexually suggestive phrases to seven to fourteen year olds. And child development expert Diane Levin alerted parents to the introduction of World Wrestling Entertainment action figures recommended for age four and above, which included a male character with lipstick on his crotch, another male figure holding the severed head of a woman, and a female character with enormous breasts and a minimal simulated black leather outfit and whip. Four year olds are also targeted with toys tied to movies that carry PG-13 ratings.

Some industry insiders have begun to caution that tweening has gone too far. At the 2002 Kid Power conference, Paul Kurnit spoke out publicly about companies "selling 'tude' to pre-teens and ushering in adolesence a bit sooner than otherwise." Privately, even more critical views were expressed to me. ...Prescott, who is more deeply immersed in the world of tweening, confessed that "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 almighty buck."

What else is cool? Based on what's selling in consumer culture, one would have to say that kids are cool and adults are not. Fair enough. Our country has a venerable history of generational conflict and youth rebellion. But marketers have perverted those worthy sentiments to create a sophisticated and powerful "anti-adultism" within the commercial world. ...Nickelodeon's back-to-school campaign featured a teacher who looked like a battle-ax, advice on how "to make the substitute teacher screech," and opportunities to "slime the teacher."

...The world of children's marketing is filled with the us-versus-them message. A prominent example is the soft drink Sprite, one of the most successful youth culture brands. One witty Sprite ad depicted an adolescent boy and his parents on a road trip. The parents are in the front seat singing "Polly wolly doodle all the day," the epitome of unnerving uncool. He's in the back, banging his head on the car window in frustration, the ignominy of being stuck with these two losers too much to bear... A Fruit-on-the-Go online promotion tells kids that "when it comes to fashion class, your principal is a flunkie.

Consider a well-known Starburst classroom commercial. As the nerdy teacher writes on the board, kids open the candy, and the scene erupts into a riotous party. When the teacher faces the class again, all is quiet, controlled, and dull. They dynamic repeats itself, as the commercial makes the point that the kid world, courtesy of the candy, is a blast. The adult world, by contrast, is drab, regimented, BORRRR-inggg.

Pester Power

When all else fails, there's always nagging, or what the British side of the industry calls Pester Power. Thanks to Cheryl Idell's widely influential "nag factor study," and numerous derivative reports, this time-honored technique of kids has become heavy artillery int eh industrial arsenal. A number of research outfits now devote enormous time and energy to figure out how to get kids to get their parents to buy stuff. Child Research Services runs consumer panels called CAPS (child and parent studies), which study child-parent interactions. The Cincinati-based Wondergroup, a prominent nag factor proponent, counsels clients that even pre-verbal babies can be effective naggers. How can companies get kids to make more purchase requests? How can they facilitate requests that will be effective? Once a benign nuisance, nag factor is now a topic of intense scrutiny.

A 2002 poll by the Center for a New American Dream that I collaborated on suggests that kids have embraced pester power in a big way. Eighty-three percent of youth in the twelve-to-thirteen age range report that the've asked their parents to pay for or let them buy something they'd seen advertised. Forty percent report they've done it for an item they thought their parents disapproved of or didn't want them to have. After their parents have denied the request, 71 percent of them kept asking. The average number of asks is eight, but over a quarter of kids ask more than ten times. Eleven percent repeat their request more than fifty times. Half of the twelve to thirteen year olds report that they are usually successful in getting their parents to let them have something they want that they saw advertised even if their parents won't want them to have it. ...[Marketers] promote the idea of kids "training" their parents, even without the parents' realizing it. Reports from focus groups suggest that mothers attempts to limit the number of product requests per shopping trip. Meanwhile, kids report that they have already trained their mothers to buy items previously requested, enabling them to use their requests for new items.

My blog is hardly condensing half of a chapter -- and, frankly, this is some of the lesser-shocking material. The point is: We can't change media. And, really, we can't move to Wyoming. But we can talk to the Lord. He knows our children better than we do. And, oh, how he wants to help.


Amanda said...

That sounds like such an eye-opening book. I want to read it...and at the same time I think I don't really want to know! LOL! Just one thought, (probably expressed in the book), along the adult vs. kids line. I think there are many adults who latch on to that idea to the point that they decide they need to be like kids. If kids have the power, then why shouldn't adults become powerful by being kids? This is another attack on our society. Parents who want to be their kid's best friend or who refuse to set rules because they want to be kids still themselves. It's an interesting idea...

Carina said...

Oh,'s things like this that remind me why sometimes I feel scared to raise children in our cruel world! And I agree with Amanda--so many parents are trying to be "hip" and "cool" and be friends with their kids. That's not what kids need! They need adults in their lives to teach them about this world. Kids should not be taught to "train" their parents. Wow, I just--it really is crazy. Thanks for sharing...I'll need to remember all these things for when my children are older. =\

Anonymous said...

I so want to read that book! I've been reading a lot of books lately on the destructive nature of the feminist movement . . . I'm seeing how we really are becoming products of our generation. The adversary is successfully using the media to take away our agency and ability to choose for ourselves. I'm glad there are resources that we can turn to to become aware of the situation and hopefully make a change. Thanks for sharing!

Michele Sekaquaptewa said...

so true! I don't think I would be able to read that whole book. It would make me sick! I already see enough manipulative, spoiled children walk through my classroom door everyday.