A First-Hand Perspective on Advertising to Kids, Acquisitiveness & Parental Responsibility

by on September 5, 2009 · 8 comments

GI JoeSometimes the most revealing conversations about policy issues happen with our loved ones at the breakfast table. Although loyal TLF readers may remember my partner Michael as my “Posterboy for Advertising’s Pro-Consumer Quid Pro Quo,” he doesn’t usually get into the policy issues I cover.  But this morning, we fell into a conversation about the bitterly contentious issue of marketing to kids:

Michael: Growing up in South Korea, on a military base, we didn’t have any commercials on television. We had three channels and all they showed was public service announcements.

Sounds like paradise for anti-advertising zealots like Jeff Chester and the media reformistas who want to re-create the old media scarcity in the name of “media democracy“! Anyway:

We moved back to the U.S. when I was nine, and suddenly, during all my favorite cartoons, there were ads for toys. It was exciting—and more than a little bit overwhelming! It wasn’t just that I wanted these toys; it was that felt this incredible sense of urgency: I thought we had to go get the toys right now or they’d be gone!

What did Rousseau call his innocent man, the Noble Savage? That’s what we were: The noble savage, coming into this world of sophisticated toy advertisements.

But it didn’t take long for me to get over this initial bewilderment. My parents explained to me that we didn’t really have to go to the store right away. (They also explained to me that I couldn’t haggle with the staff at Toys ‘R Us the same way I’d haggled with street vendors back in Korea—something that utterly mystified the staff.) After one trip to Toys Toys ‘R Us, I got the toys I wanted most and, over the next few months, realized that they weren’t anywhere near as exciting as I had imagined.

After that, I enjoyed the toy ads on TV, but I lost interest in many of the toys I already had, preferring to create my own toys or play outside.

I explained that advertising of toys to kids has long been the cause celebre of anti-advertising crusaders:

Michael: But kids are acquisitive, too! How are they supposed to know about the latest toys if you can’t advertise to them? And what’s the big deal, anyway? I got used to toy ads and I think most kids would, too. The thing that’s different is incentive programs at stores.

Vintage Barbie & KenMy sister was really into the Limited Too‘s incentive program from the ages of about 7 to 11. She knew all the saleswomen by name at the Limited Too in our mall. It was like our mothers at Bloomingdale’s! She had a huge wardrobe for an elementary school kid.  I don’t think it was unhealthy, but it’s not exactly a fair game.

Me: So why did your parents let her do it?

Michael: Because they were indulgent! Her friends didn’t have wardrobes like she did—it was just my mom. My dad just wasn’t around much, so we spent a lot of time shopping. It shouldn’t really have been that way.

Me: Do you think it was bad for your sister?

Michael: No, but it’s a good thing she’s so sensible and practical now, because otherwise her acquisitiveness about clothes might get out of hand. I think she learned that at the Limited Too.

So maybe shopping incentive programs could really teach some kids bad habits and maybe those habits are hard (but certainly not impossible) to kick later on in life. Those are good reasons for parents not to let their kids sign up for such rewards programs! We certainly don’t need a law to fix this problem: We just need parents to exercise their power of the purse and learn to say “No!”—as the parents of Michael’s sister’s friends apparently did. Relying on parental responsibility instead of banning such programs means that parents would have the opportunity to teach their kids to shop responsibly—and still benefit from the discounts such programs offer on clothes they’d buy anyway.

In the meantime, let’s stop pretending kids are helpless drones just waiting to be programmed by evil marketers who get them “hooked on capitalism” by showing them ads for GI Joe, Barbie, digital penguins, Hannah Montanna or whatever it is kids these days care about. Oh, and lest anyone insist that kids don’t really “need” toys or clothes from Limited Too, let me simply point to this brilliant 1959 magazine ad by the ad firm Young & Rubicam:

There is no chestnut more overworked than the critical whinny: “Advertising sells people things they don’t need.”

We, as one agency, plead guilty. Advertising does sell people things they don’t need. Things like television sets, automobiles, catsup, mattresses, cosmetics, ranges, refrigerators, and so on and on.

People don’t really need these things. People don’t really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians. wheels, calendars, philosophy, or, for that matter, critics of advertising, either.

All people really need is a cave, a piece of meat and, possibly, a fire.

The complex thing we call civilization is made up of luxuries. An eminent philosopher of our time has written that great art is superior to lesser art in the degree that it is “life-enhancing.” Perhaps something of the same thing can be claimed for the products that are sold through advertising.

They enhance life, to whatever degree they can.

I’d much rather have parents deciding what their kids “need” than some paternalist bureaucrat!

  • dphuntsman

    I’d much rather have parents deciding what their kids “need” than some paternalist bureaucrat!

    You're comment couldn't be more off-base, Berin. No multi-billion dollar corporation has an inherent right to market high-sugar, high-fat foods to a five year old. That subverts parents, it doesn't empower them. To say that the constant slick bombardment, hour after hour, year after year, has no impact, is simply silly. Why do you think TV advertising to children of tobacco should be resumed? That's the argument you are making.

    In this world, parents/family, schools, and society should be assisting each other – or at the very least, not aggressively trying to subvert the healthy upbringing of children. (And when it comes to basic health issues, – diet, activity, movement, etc. this not a political discussion at all; the facts are pretty clear to all). Parents and schools should not be subverted by multi-billion dollar corporations advertising unhealthy lifestyles directly to our children – period. That doesn't take away anyone's freedom, when they are an adult.

  • dave shemano

    i'd like to begin by stating that anyone applying modern psychology with state of the art visual effects to coerce children to buy their consumer wares is inherently an evil person. speaking for myself, i am a rather suggestible sort of person and i resent advertising whenever it intrudes on my thought process, like say if i have an advertising jingle stuck in my head.

    in our house this problem is solved by not ever watching commercial television. we do somewhat often watch television shows on dvd but these are without the commercials. when my kids visit their grandparents, especially when there are other cousins around, they end up watching some commercial television. that's when we hear about all the wondrous things we need to buy. after a week or so back at home the chatter about consumer goods dies down, and i am grateful that we are successfully protecting our kids from further brainwashing.

    the difficulty is that most people will not acknowledge that they are affected by advertising. i suspect that mr. szoka is in that category. these folks have often made a healthy accommodation to bombardment by modern marketing, but not all people are able to do this. in particular children are most vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.

    i don't know how many people in the usa actively reclude television like we do, but it is a small percentage likely in the single digits by my reckoning. i am glad we have options whereby we are able to have our cake and eat it too, but the vast majority cannot see the problem because they are immersed in it.

    this was brilliantly satirized by the program futurama wherein one of the characters keeps dreaming about a certain brand of underwear. when his friends explain to him that his dreams are being manipulated for advertising purposes he is incensed and asks how his friends can stand for being violated in this way and they just shrug it off because it is normal to them.

    anyway, advertisers will continue to push and push their messages into every nook and cranny of our lives until we collectively stand up to put a stop to it. i feel pretty strongly that it is appropriate for there to be public guidelines as to what is and is not allowed when advertising to kids, especially over the public airwaves.

    the difficulty with libertarianism is that it fails to provide a mechanism for keeping sociopaths in check as they leverage externalities to their benefit and the determent of society.

  • dave shemano

    i'd like to begin by stating that anyone applying modern psychology with state of the art visual effects to coerce children to buy their consumer wares is inherently an evil person. speaking for myself, i am a rather suggestible sort of person and i resent advertising whenever it intrudes on my thought process, like say if i have an advertising jingle stuck in my head.

    in our house this problem is solved by not ever watching commercial television. we do somewhat often watch television shows on dvd but these are without the commercials. when my kids visit their grandparents, especially when there are other cousins around, they end up watching some commercial television. that's when we hear about all the wondrous things we need to buy. after a week or so back at home the chatter about consumer goods dies down, and i am grateful that we are successfully protecting our kids from further brainwashing.

    the difficulty is that most people will not acknowledge that they are affected by advertising. i suspect that mr. szoka is in that category. these folks have often made a healthy accommodation to bombardment by modern marketing, but not all people are able to do this. in particular children are most vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.

    i don't know how many people in the usa actively reclude television like we do, but it is a small percentage likely in the single digits by my reckoning. i am glad we have options whereby we are able to have our cake and eat it too, but the vast majority cannot see the problem because they are immersed in it.

    this was brilliantly satirized by the program futurama wherein one of the characters keeps dreaming about a certain brand of underwear. when his friends explain to him that his dreams are being manipulated for advertising purposes he is incensed and asks how his friends can stand for being violated in this way and they just shrug it off because it is normal to them.

    anyway, advertisers will continue to push and push their messages into every nook and cranny of our lives until we collectively stand up to put a stop to it. i feel pretty strongly that it is appropriate for there to be public guidelines as to what is and is not allowed when advertising to kids, especially over the public airwaves.

    the difficulty with libertarianism is that it fails to provide a mechanism for keeping sociopaths in check as they leverage externalities to their benefit and the determent of society.

  • dave shemano

    i'd like to begin by stating that anyone applying modern psychology with state of the art visual effects to coerce children to buy their consumer wares is inherently an evil person. speaking for myself, i am a rather suggestible sort of person and i resent advertising whenever it intrudes on my thought process, like say if i have an advertising jingle stuck in my head.

    in our house this problem is solved by not ever watching commercial television. we do somewhat often watch television shows on dvd but these are without the commercials. when my kids visit their grandparents, especially when there are other cousins around, they end up watching some commercial television. that's when we hear about all the wondrous things we need to buy. after a week or so back at home the chatter about consumer goods dies down, and i am grateful that we are successfully protecting our kids from further brainwashing.

    the difficulty is that most people will not acknowledge that they are affected by advertising. i suspect that mr. szoka is in that category. these folks have often made a healthy accommodation to bombardment by modern marketing, but not all people are able to do this. in particular children are most vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.

    i don't know how many people in the usa actively reclude television like we do, but it is a small percentage likely in the single digits by my reckoning. i am glad we have options whereby we are able to have our cake and eat it too, but the vast majority cannot see the problem because they are immersed in it.

    this was brilliantly satirized by the program futurama wherein one of the characters keeps dreaming about a certain brand of underwear. when his friends explain to him that his dreams are being manipulated for advertising purposes he is incensed and asks how his friends can stand for being violated in this way and they just shrug it off because it is normal to them.

    anyway, advertisers will continue to push and push their messages into every nook and cranny of our lives until we collectively stand up to put a stop to it. i feel pretty strongly that it is appropriate for there to be public guidelines as to what is and is not allowed when advertising to kids, especially over the public airwaves.

    the difficulty with libertarianism is that it fails to provide a mechanism for keeping sociopaths in check as they leverage externalities to their benefit and the determent of society.

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