Selling to Kids
Selling to Kids
HOME April 5, 2000
    Psychologists Challenge Ethics Of Marketing To Children

Image by Adbusters.
By Miriam H. Zoll
American News Service

When it comes to spending money on consumer goods, Madison Avenue apparently never underestimates the power of a whining child. And as the advertising industry increasingly aims commercial pitches directly at the very young, more and more companies are turning to child psychologists to help them hone their message.

Some specialists in child development and psychology are disturbed by the trend. Dr. Allen Kanner is one of them. A clinical child psychologist for nearly 20 years, Kanner works with children from the inner city and the wealthy suburbs. But regardless of where they come from, Kanner says, the children he sees share one thing in common: a growing, even insatiable, desire for material goods.

"In my practice I see kids becoming incredibly consumerist," said Kanner, who is based at the Wright Institute, a graduate psychology school in Berkeley, Calif. "The most stark example is when I ask them what they want to do when they grow up. They all say they want to make money. When they talk about their friends, they talk about the clothes they wear, the designer labels they wear, not the person's human qualities.

"I see parents in this context, too," Kanner continued. "They come to me and say their kids are depressed and ask for violent video games or the food they see on TV. Parents say they feel in conflict. They want to say no, but they don't want to have their child be upset with them."

It's not just the pervasiveness of marketing campaigns aimed at children, Kanner said. Nowadays advertisers are making their pitches to younger and younger audiences, many of them not yet out of diapers.

"We became concerned about this because the practice is mushrooming, and the age of the children targeted is dropping rapidly," he said. "It's about 2 years old now."

Do ads directed at toddlers work? According to Kanner, they do. "Recent studies have also shown that by the time they are 36 months old, American children recognize an average of 100 brand logos," he said.

Why are so children so prized in the ad wars? Companies know that's where their profits are, according to James U. McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M; University. McNeal says children represent three different strategies for making money. For one thing, children have money of their own to spend. But they also influence family spending decisions, and they're open to advertising campaigns designed to make them future consumers.

Children under 12 spent more than $24 billion of their own money in 1997, while directly influencing the spending of $188 billion more, McNeal reported in an April 1998 article in American Demographics. He estimates that by 2001, children's spending may reach $35 billion.

"In the 1960s, children aged 2 to 14 directly influenced about $5 billion in parental purchases," McNeal wrote. "In the mid-1970s, the figure was $20 billion, and it rose to $50 billion by 1984. By 1990, kids' direct influence had reached $132 billion, and in 1997, it may have peaked at around $188 billion. Estimates show that children's aggregate spending roughly doubled during each decade of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and has tripled so far in the 1990s."

In an effort to protect children against aggressive marketing tactics, Kanner and other child advocates are taking aim at child psychologists who share their expertise with advertising and market research firms for a fee, helping them to tailor successful strategies that will reach America's youngest consumer group — and their parents.

The issue gained national attention last fall, when Kanner and 60 of his colleagues issued a public letter to the American Psychological Association. Signed by mental health professionals and scholars from institutions including Harvard Medical School, Cornell University and the University of Washington, the letter urges the APA to declare this practice unethical and recommends the association launch educational campaigns to heighten public awareness about the dangers advertising can pose for children.

"Advertising and marketing firms have long used the insights and research methods of psychology in order to sell products, of course," Kanner and his colleagues wrote to the APA. "But today these practices are reaching epidemic levels, and with a complicity on the part of the psychological profession that exceeds that of the past. The result is an enormous advertising and marketing onslaught that comprises, arguably, the largest single psychological project ever undertaken."

Still, there seems to be no shortage of psychologists willing to sign up as marketing consultants.

Gary Ruskin is the director of Commercial Alert, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting children from corporate exploitation. Working closely with Kanner, Ruskin has also investigated and tracked psychologists' involvement with the advertising industry.

"One thing we have noticed is an upswing in mentions of psychologists in trade journals for the advertising field," Ruskin said. "Child psychologists and developmental psychologists are clearly assisting advertisers and marketers.

"We don't see them as deliberately trying to harm kids," he added. "But I do think they are gravely mistaken. The amount of advertising aimed at kids hurts the way they feel about themselves. It's harmful to them, and it inhibits their happiness."

According to Ruskin, the all-out assault on children's senses and values has escalated dramatically in the last decade. The amount of money spent on marketing to children, he says, is close to 10 times greater than in 1990.

"It's not slowing down," he said. "Children are the largest and fastest-growing market for consumption. Car companies know that children influence their parents' choices of automobiles, so they pitch their ads to be attractive to kids. The influence that children have on spending, either for themselves or for their parents, is also something that marketers have researched."

While the APA may not take an official direct position on this thorny issue, spokeswoman Rhea Farberman said the APA has advocated for years that parents limit the amount of television their children watch, including commercials.

More stringent measures have been taken in other parts of the world. The governments of Sweden and Norway prohibit television advertising directly targeting children under the age of 12. Greece bans TV stations from advertising toys to children between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Quebec restricts all television advertising directed at children under the age of 13.

In the United States, by contrast, marketing products to children is broadly viewed as a First Amendment right. But mounting research points to the detrimental effect too much television has on children, including a link between adolescent male violence and the violent depictions of men and boys seen on television.

Research also shows that young children's exposure to commercials does indeed train them to value material goods and helps shape their consumer patterns as adults.

Dr. Tim Kassell, a psychologist at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., who specializes in studying materialism, said people who are highly focused on materialistic values report less satisfaction with life, seem less happy, have a higher incidence of unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships, are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse and contribute less to their community.

According to Kassell, psychologists know that when adults chronically deceive and manipulate children, it erodes the children's ability to trust others and feel secure in the world. It makes sense to expect that the falsehoods and distortions contained in commercials would have a similar effect, he added.

The advertising industry itself is divided over the issue of strategies for marketing to children. Some advertising experts claim the attacks against such marketing are overkill, while others say marketing standards for children should be different from those set for adults.

"You have to be careful when it comes to research with children," said David Poltrack, executive vice president for research and planning at CBS Television in New York. "We accept that children don't have the same kind of built-up resistance to advertising that adults have, so we don't allow the same kinds of things in advertising for kids that we allow for adults. There has to be a level of responsibility."

But Barry Ornstein, senior researcher at Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopoulos in Boston, says it's unrealistic for mental health professionals to think psychology could ever be removed from the process of designing effective commercials that motivate people to buy products.

"Should psychologists have their own kind of Hippocratic oath? I don't know. That's their business," he said. "We are in the business of manipulating people, and the question is, are we going to manipulate them in a good way or a bad way? You cannot separate psychology from what we do in advertising research. How can you do research without a psychological component? And, like any tool, psychology can be used well or badly."

So where does this leave the child psychologists? The APA's Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest reviewed the letter sent by Kanner and his colleagues at a meeting held March 23 through 26. Farberman, the association's spokeswoman, said the board endorsed establishing a task force to research the issue further, and will bring the matter to the attention of the APA's board of directors in June. The task force's job would be to research the impact of advertising on children and come up with recommendations for the association.

- Miriam H. Zoll is a New York-based correspondent for the American News Service.

� COPYRIGHT 2000 The American News Service. Reprinted by permission.

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