Why They Whine: How Corporations Prey on our Children
By Gary Ruskin
Cheryl Idell knows a lot about nagging.
She has written reports for major corporations with such titles as the "Nag Factor" and "The Art of Fine Whining." She tells her clients that nagging spurs about a third of a family's trips to a fast-food restaurant, to buy children's clothing or a video.
Idell, who is chief strategic officer for Western Initiative Media Worldwide, a major market research firm, speaks with the cold precision of a physicist. "Nagging falls into two categories," she explains. "There is persistent nagging, the fall-on-the-floor kind, and there is importance nagging, where a kid can talk about it."1
Either is a good first step. But alone they are not enough. Idell advises Chuck E. Cheese and numerous other corporations, that getting kids to whine is even better. Better yet is to give them "a specific reason to ask for the product." In other words, Idell's job is to make your life miserable. She even rates brands according to their "nag factor"-that is, their capacity to make your children badger you-and companies toil mightily to rate high on her list. Some of the most successful are McDonald's, Levi's, Discovery Zone, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Disney, and OshKosh.2 Like we couldn't have guessed.
Now meet George Broussard. He is co-founder of 3D Realms, a company that makes a video game called Duke Nukem. An ultraviolent "first-person shooter" game, Duke Nukem comes complete with strip bars, porno theaters, and tons of gore. Even with the "mature" rating, and all the violence and sexual imagery, Broussard wants to sell this game to your kids. "Duke is a mass market character that can sell 2 million games," Broussard says. "It'd be suicide to make the game unplayable by younger people."3
Idell and Broussard are typical of something endemic in America today. Thousands of the brightest minds in the country devote their great talent, and use sophisticated psychological techniques, to influence your children to purchase products-or rather, to want products-regardless of whether or not they are good for your kids. These minds do not work to solve the nation's real problems; they work to create new problems for you.
Name something that you do not want your kids to have, and the chances are people like Cheryl Idell and George Broussard are trying to entice your kids into wanting it. They're selling Doom, Quake, Basketball Diaries, Marilyn Manson, Mortal Kombat, The Matrix, Jerry Springer, Small Soldiers, gangsta rap, World Wrestling Federation toys, South Park , and so forth. The big question is: How can we teach our children and ourselves to resist this commercial onslaught?
What Are Children, Anyway?
There's been a shift in the predominant way our society thinks of children. Not long ago we considered children vulnerable beings to be nurtured. However, today we increasingly see kids through an economic lens. In our business culture, children are viewed as an economic resource to be exploited, just like bauxite or timber.
James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M, is perhaps the foremost expert on selling to children. He is the elder statesman advocating this shift in our thinking from viewing children as trusting, impressionable humans to be protected to seeing children "as economic resources to be mined." His emotional response to this contrast isn't the same as yours. McNeal sees the money in your kids, and helps corporations get access to it: "[C]hildren are the brightest star in the consumer constellation," he writes.4
McNeal divides the booming kiddie market into three parts. There's the "primary" market-the $24.4 billion each year that kids directly control and spend. There's the "influence" market, perhaps as high as $300 billion, the amount of parental spending that children can directly or indirectly influence. And there's the "future" market, which is the purchasing that children will do for the rest of their lives.
"Virtually every consumer-goods industry, from airlines to zinnia-seed sellers, targets kids," McNeal enthuses.5 Johann Wachs, the vice president of Saatchi and Saatchi's Kid Connection unit, agrees: "Marketers are just waking up to the enormous possibility of kids-targeted products," he says. "As kids become more powerful as consumers, they are being targeted more directly."6
Children aren't hard to take advantage of. They tend to trust adults even when they shouldn't-sometimes especially when they shouldn't. Marketers know this, while most children don't grasp the motives behind advertising or realize that the products advertised may not be good for them.
However, none of this is troubling to the new breed of advertisers and marketers. If they have any qualms, they do a good job of repressing them. Like investors in prime real estate, they see children's minds as a kind of cash cow. "[I]f you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come," explained Mike Searles, president of Kids-R-Us, a major children's clothing store.7 Companies are saying, 'Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.'"
Wayne Chilicki, a General Mills executive, agrees: "When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills follow the Proctor & Gamble model of 'cradle to grave,'" he says. "We believe in getting them early and having them for life."8
Advertisers infuse their pitches with messages that prey upon the emotional weaknesses and insecurities of children. "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser," explained Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Agency. "Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable."9
Moreover, some marketers try to sell by tapping into destructive and antisocial urges. According to Rick Litman, a partner at Kid 2 Kid Market Research, the goal is "to use youth rebellion to more effectively target a product and sell a product."10
More than anything, they want your children's minds. "Kids marketing in general is becoming more sophisticated," says Julie Halpin, CEO of Gepetto Group, which specializes in marketing to kids. It is a competition for what she calls "share of mind."11
Corporations claim this "share of mind" from every possible angle. They seek to engulf your children with ads. "Imagine a child sitting in the middle of a large circle of train tracks," one market researcher explains. "Tracks, like the tentacles of an octopus, radiate to the child from the outside circle of tracks. The child can be reached from every angle. This is how the [corporate] marketing world is connected to the child's world."12
It is a discomforting image. And what's on these tracks? To name a few things: The World Wrestling Federation's wrestling action figures like cigar-smoking Marlena, with her large breasts and low-cut gown. Spice Girls dolls, which play to the obsession young girls have with looks and fashion. Television shows such as South Park . Violent video games like Time Crisis, which is essentially a firearms training device. McDonald's "McLotto Meals," which teach young children how to gamble. And the Marlboro Man.
Marketers Go to School
Marketers are resorting to extreme measures to gain access to your children. They are invading sanctums that were previously off-limits, such as schools. For example, Channel One is a marketing company that uses TV "news" shows as a come-on. Its daily broadcast shows ten minutes of "news" and two minutes of ads to captive audiences of 8 million children in 12,000 schools across the country. While promoted as "education," the real appeal is to advertisers. "The biggest selling point to advertisers," says Joel Babbit, former president of Channel One, lies in "forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials." The atmosphere of the school is an advertiser's dream, Babbit says. "[T]he advertiser gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, who cannot change the station, who cannot listen to their mother yell in the background, who cannot be playing Nintendo, who cannot have their headsets on."13
A new company called ZapMe! has extended this strategy to computers. Like Channel One, ZapMe! offers free equipment to schools-computers and Internet browsers. In return, it advertises to kids, plus it gets a market research gold mine. The company snoops on schoolchildren as they browse the Internet, and then delivers the information to advertisers and marketers. According to Associated Press, ZapMe! "breaks down the data by age, sex, and zip code. It delivers this information to advertisers and marketers, who use it to target students in school with laser-like precision."14
Schools used to be a refuge from exploitive commercial influences. Parents expect that they send their kids to school to learn to read, write, add, and think. There is an implicit relationship of trust between school board members, administrators, and teachers on the one hand, and families on the other. But, increasingly, school officials are violating this trust and turning the schools into cash and carry operations for the advertisers and marketers of America . They are turning their classrooms into captive audiences for ads.
The Lesson in the Ads
Advertising is a type of curriculum-the most persuasive in America today. It is one curriculum kids are excelling in. The ads teach kids that buying is good and will make them happy. They teach that the solution to life's problems lies not in good values, hard work, or education, but in materialism and the purchasing of more and more things.
Kids are eager learners. "Advertising targeted at elementary school children," Professor McNeal says, "on programs just for them works very effectively in the sense of implanting brand names in their minds and creating desires for the products."15
Further, it is well known that RJR Nabisco's Joe Camel ads hooked hundreds of thousands of children into a lifetime of smoking. And Anheuser-Busch created Budweiser beer ads so captivating-with cartoons of frogs, penguins, and lizards-that they were kids' favorite ads last year.
This is great news for ad agencies and for the corporations they work for. Business is booming. Some win kudos from their corporate peers. The owner of McFarlane Toys, Todd McFarlane, was recently given an award by Ernst & Young for creating a best-selling line of grotesque and violent "Spawn" toys and comic books. Would McFarlane let his own daughters have these toys or comic books? "Are you kidding?" he says. "I'm still a dad after five o'clock ."16
Are Video Games Teaching Children to Kill?
Parents across the country have watched the school shootings and child funerals in Jonesboro , Pearl , Springfield , Paducah , and Littleton with alarm and worry. Some wonder about a link between this violence and the advertising and consumption of violent video games, movies, television, and toys.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a violence expert and author of On Killing, says that point-and-shoot video games-like Duke Nukem, Time Crisis, and Quake-are training children to be violent. The games result in kids "who kill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill, and learning to like it."
Our children live in a culture that's drenched in media violence. It is hard to tally all of the effects of watching 40,000 dramatized murders before you are 18 years old, as the average American child does. Surely it causes desensitization to violence, as well as increased levels of aggression and violent behavior among children.
Healthcare professionals have been warning about these effects for decades. In 1976, the American Medical Association passed a resolution declaring that "TV violence threatens the health and welfare of young Americans."
Since then, media violence has only grown worse. "Is it alarmist or merely sensible," Sissela Bok writes in Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, "to ask about what happens to the souls of children nurtured, as in no past society, on images of rape, torture, bombings, and massacre that are channeled into their homes from infancy?"
Likely Health Effects of Advertising
Despite all of the industry's market research and focus groups, some ads work better than others. But in ultimate effect, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. "[T]he reason that commercials are particularly insidious is because there is a cumulative, a sedimentary building up," states Professor Herbert Schiller, author of Culture, Inc . "There is a growing base of these kinds of images, impressions, and ways of looking at the world... [which] will not help kids when they become teens, and adults, to grow up healthy."17
Moreover, advertising doesn't just sell products, but a worldview in which products are the means and ends of life. The effects are usually what the advertisers expect and hope for. Name a problem that affects young people today, and chances are that it relates to something that ads are telling them to do.
For example, childhood obesity levels are skyrocketing. About 25 to 30 percent of American children fall into this category. According to childhood obesity expert Dr. Rebecca Moran, severe obesity among young children has almost doubled since the 1960s.
Not coincidentally, childhood diabetes is also on the rise. Dr. Robin S. Goland, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center , told the New York Times that "With the numbers we are starting to see, this could be the beginning of an epidemic."18
Is any of this surprising, in light of the endless barrage of ads for Whoppers, Happy Meals, Coke, Pepsi, Snickers bars, M&Ms, and other junk foods to which our children are subjected? Pediatrician Dr. Don Shifrin says that when children "see ads for junk food, they want the junk food, and then they eat the junk food." McDonald's alone spends an estimated $600 million per year on ads in the US . One presumes advertisers like McDonald's know what they are doing.
Gambling is also growing among teenagers. The National Research Council estimates that more than 1 million American teenagers are pathological gamblers. "This is the first generation of kids exposed to widespread gambling advertising and gambling opportunities," says Randy Stinchfield, who surveyed close to 200,000 Minnesota teenagers about their gambling practices. "Some kids are now seeing gambling as a rite of passage."19
Smoking is also increasing among American kids. Each day another 3,000 kids start to smoke 20; about a third of them will die of illnesses related to smoking. Almost two-thirds of 12th graders who smoke choose Marlboro, which is not accidental.21 The Marlboro Man plays to the cravings of young people for independence. This is an enormous triumph for Philip Morris and its ad campaign. Advertising Age called the Marlboro Man the "most successful ad symbol of all time."22
These are likely some of the effects attributable in part to saturation advertising among young people. Other effects are more subtle, but perhaps even more serious. Foremost of these is the effect on children's values and life aims-in particular, the upsurge in materialism.
Since 1966 researchers at UCLA have been polling incoming freshmen across the country on a broad range of issues. Last year they found the percent who valued keeping up with political events fell to an all-time low. Meanwhile, only two out of five said developing a "meaningful philosophy of life" was a goal, and three out of four-a new record-of incoming college freshmen say that "to be very well off financially" is an essential goal. The Rev. Tony Campolo, an evangelical minister and advisor to President Clinton, said last year that it is "evil to take a generation and convince it to buy goods for fun and love. This kind of manipulation is evil."23
Other Countries Protect Children
Several European nations have taken steps to help parents protect their children against this kind of aggressive psychological manipulation.
Greece bans television advertising of toys to children between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Sweden and Norway ban all advertising directed at children under the age of 12. When Sweden takes up the EU presidency in 2001, it will try to expand these protections throughout the EU.
Axel Edling, the Swedish consumer ombudsman and chief of Sweden 's consumer agency, explains why: "There were indications that children up to the age of seven were not fully aware of the distinction between TV ads and ordinary programmes. Even older children were not able to understand the commercial process. It is considered that it is not a fair way of dealing with very small consumers because they are being exploited."24
Even some European ad agencies believe that it is unethical to advertise to children on TV. Ingrid Linstrom, managing director of a large Swedish ad agency, says that the advertising ban "is a good thing." TV advertising "could end up causing a conflict with the parents," he adds. "We should let children be children. We shouldn't make them into consumers too quickly."25 It would be refreshing to hear an American ad executive say something like that.
US Children Are Left Undefended
While Europeans are starting to protect children, in the US the government protects corporate advertisers instead. Twenty years ago the staff of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded in a long report that because of children's vulnerabilities, TV ads aimed at them are inherently unfair. They proposed a ban on such advertising because children are "too young to understand the selling purpose" of advertising.26
In response, Congress prohibited the agency from issuing such rules, and revoked many of the ftc's powers. Children cannot vote or make the large campaign contributions needed to win political power in Washington . They have neither powerful lobbyists nor a powerful political organization. Advertisers do, and in Washington they win.
Popular Culture Going from Bad to Worse
What this has produced is a culture that parents feel they have to battle harder and harder all the time. Last year USA Today asked American parents whether they thought it was more difficult to raise children to be "good people" than it was 20 years ago. Almost nine out of ten said yes. Three out of four parents thought that materialism and the negative influences from TV, movies, and music were a "serious problem" in raising children.27
In all likelihood, things are going to get worse before they get better. Perhaps much worse. As children (and adults) grow increasingly desensitized to violence and rudeness, it takes much more to grab their attention and make them go to the movies or purchase a video game. As a result, media companies may produce products that incorporate ever-increasing violence, sex, and superficiality.
Similarly, since television is on a downward spiral, as cable TV opens up more stations, many TV networks and cable channels may decide that the way to compete for viewers' attention is with more extreme, violent programming: more Jerry Springers, Howard Sterns, South Parks , wrestling, and so forth, only worse.
Moreover, the advent and spread of "virtual reality" may usher in even more graphically violent video games. This may well mean that our kids will get even better training to kill each another.
And the generous profits that many media, marketing, and advertising companies enjoy will likely lure still more entrepreneurs who wish to get rich off peddling new images of violence, sex, and addiction to our children.
Protecting Children from Corporations
So what's a parent to do?
This is the hard part. There are no easy answers.
I think the first step is for parents to reflect upon just how hard corporations have made it to shield our kids from what author Bill McKibben calls "a culture purposefully damaging."
It's up to parents and families to defend their chilldren. But it won't be easy. For what it's worth, here's a list of things that parents can do to protect their children. For starters, shield your own children from exposure to corporate influences. Get them out of harm's way. Turn your home into a refuge, a sanctuary from the advertisers, marketers, and media companies.
- Watch less television. Put your TV in the closet. That's perhaps the single best way to limit children's exposure to advertising and the dregs of popular culture. The people who make TV programs and advertising are not the kind of people to invite into your home. The less of this stuff kids watch, the better.
- Listen to Surgeon General David Satcher, who says: "We have the most sedentary generation of young people in American history. Reducing the amount of television our children watch is one way to encourage more healthful activity." Satcher recommends that kids (and their parents) should "Go bicycling, play soccer, jump rope, fly a kite, dance, start a garden, wash the dog, swim laps, clean your room, do gymnastics, throw a frisbee, walk around the block, learn to rollerskate, build a fort."28 For more information about watching less television, contact TV-Free America.
- Throw away the video game machine and try to keep your kids away from arcades. Kids have much better things to play than violent video games.
- Don't take your kids to movies that promote values you don't believe in. Kids need wholesome entertainment-make sure that is what they get.
- That may be enough to protect your kids from much of what the advertisers and media companies beam at them. The problem is that it only helps your own kids. But all parents face the same hostile culture. So parents need to join together and protect children everywhere. Here are some actions that will help your own kids, as well as the neighbor's kids:
- Kick the advertisers out of school. Your school board and your state should enact policies against commercialism in the schools, to make sure companies like Channel One and ZapMe! are not permitted to advertise to captive audiences of schoolchildren. Concerned parents, acting together, can make this happen. For more information about how to get commercial influences out of the schools, contact the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education or Commercial Alert.
- Start a parents' group devoted to protecting kids. We need to build communities of people who want to create a better environment for our children. These groups can do two kinds of things. First, they can organize and advocate for children, around coffee tables and in dining rooms across the country, in support of ideas like convincing the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and expose precisely how corporations market to children. And they can write letters criticizing corporations that harm children.
They can also function as informal groups of families who loosely work together to provide their children (and themselves) with wholesome activities not corporate ones. These support networks are critical to giving children the safe places and spaces they need to learn and grow-without corporate influences.
- Get active in politics. Ask candidates for elective office-from local school board members up to the president of the US -what they will do to protect children from advertising, marketing, and media executives. Make this an issue in all of the 2000 election campaigns. If a candidate doesn't give you an answer that you're satisfied with, then vote for someone else. Kids can't vote, so they need you to be their voice in electoral politics. And if your local elected officials aren't doing what needs to be done to protect kids, maybe it's time for you to run for office.
We need to shape a new politics and culture to protect children. Children are mostly powerless to defend themselves against advertising, marketing, and media companies, and their hostility or total disregard for children's health, happiness, and well-being. There is almost nothing that parents could do together that is more important than to make America safe for childhood again.
1. Judith Schoolman, "'Nag Factor' Plays Role in What Parents Buy: Only 31 Percent of Parents Are Immune to Their Kids' Whining," Toronto Star , August 24, 1998 .
2. Western Initiative Media World Wide Web site: www.wimc.com/ html/nag_1.html
7. Brian Bennett, "Uniforms Aid Student Performance, Academics: Not Only Do Uniforms Eliminate Status Wars, They Help Students Concentrate on Schoolwork," Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1989 .
8. "Directing the Pitch: Do Smart Marketers to Children Target Kids or Their Parents?" Youth Markets Alert , July 1, 1998 .
9. Ron Harris, "Children Who Dress for Excess: Today's Youngsters Have Become Fixated with Fashion. The Right Look Isn't Enough-It Also Has to Be Expensive," Los Angeles Times , November 12, 1989 .
10. "Les Enfants and La Pub," made for French Television, Channel 2, recorded December 1995, aired February 1996. Quoted in Children First: A Parent's Guide to Fighting Corporate Predators (Washington, DC: Children First, 1996), 104.
11. See Note 6.
12. Comment by a market researcher at the Seventh Annual Consumer Kids Conference, Scottsdale , Arizona , May 24-25, 1995. Quoted in Children First . See Note 10, viii.
13. Joel Babbit, "Channel One Vision," paper presented at the On the Youth Market Conference, Boston , May 5-6, 1994. Quoted in Children First , 64.
14. Chris Albritton, "Free Computers Blur Line 'Between Student and Shopper,' Critics Say," Deseret News, Associated Press, December 6, 1998 .
15. Richard Tomkins, "Selling to a Captivated Market," Financial Times , April 20, 1999 .
16. David Kaplan, "Caped Crusader," Newsweek , August 4, 1997 .
17. Children First . See Note 10, xi.
18. Ginger Thompson, "With Obesity in Children Rising, More Get Adult Type of Diabetes," New York Times , December 14, 1998 .
19. Andrew Quinn, "Teen Gambling Rising; Survey Calls It the 'Silent Addiction,'" Chicago Tribune , August 16, 1998 .
20. Kelly Light, "Youth Market Trends Indicators Summary Report," American Cancer Society, 1996.
21. News Release, "Department of Health and Human Services Study Shows Three Cigarette Brands Dominate Youth Smoking," April 14, 1999 .
22. Bob Garfield, "Top 100 Advertising Campaigns: Whether Discovering Our Humanity or Playing to Our Excesses, the Best Advertising Edges into the Vernacular-and Enriches Our Lives." Advertising Age , March 29, 1999 .
23. Isadore Barmash, "Teens Pressured by Advertising, Panel Finds," Reuters, December 4, 1998 .
24. Harriet Green, "Children's Ads under Threat of EU Ban," Campaign , May 7, 1999 .
26. Carole Shifrin, "Ban on TV Ads to Children Is Proposed," Washington Post, February 25, 1978 .
27. Deirdre Donahue, "Is Innocence Evaporating in an Open-door Society?" USA Today , October 1, 1998 .
28. News Release, "U.S. Surgeon General Satcher and Agriculture Under Secretary Watkins Encourage Participation in National TV Turnoff Week," April 21, 1999 .
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Commercial Alert helps families protect their children from predatory advertising and marketing practices: 202-296-2787; www.essential.org/alert
TV-Free America encourages parents and children to watch less television: 202-887-0436; www.tvfa.org
Center for Science in the Public Interest opposes the harmful advertising practices of the junk food and alcohol industries: 202-332-9110; www.cspinet.org
Center for Commercial-Free Public Education opposes the commercialization of schools: 510-268-1100; www.commercialfree.org
Obligation, Inc. helps parents to remove Channel One from schools: 215-822-0080; www.obligation.org
Books (Follow the link to order the book at AMAZON)
Children First: A Parent's Guide to Corporate Predators.
Excellent primer on protecting your children from harmful corporate influences. Researched by Linda Coco and associates, with an introduction by Ralph Nader (1996). Available for $12.00 from Children First, PO Box 19312 , Washington , DC 20036 , or call 202-387-8030.
Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America's Schools by Alex Molnar. Boulder , CO : Westview Press, 1996.
Useful study of corporate exploitation of American schoolchildren.
Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society by Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur.
Boulder , CO : Westview Press, 1995. Splendid overview of invasive advertising and marketing practices.
Gary Ruskin is the director of Commercial Alert.