Best of Meridian: Madison Avenue Wants Your Children
by Maurine Jensen Proctor

Advertising to the younger generation is big business.

     When ten-year-old Truman was asked what he wanted for his birthday, he only looked puzzled for a minute before he answered, “I’ll watch TV, and then I’ll tell you.” Truman had caught the message that advertisers are trying to deliver–we’ve got something you’re dying for–even if you’ve never thought about it before.
     An ad in a recent issue of Advertising Age captures the feeling Madison Avenue has for kids. A little girl, dressed as a superhero, is described, “Rides a unicycle. Can belch on command. Picked out the family computer.” The ad goes on to explain, “Kids are amazingly powerful consumers whose parents say they weigh in mightily on purchases of clothing (80%)…sports drinks (57%)…footwear (76%)…computers (30%)…and countless other products and services. They may be small. But if you’re a marketer, kids can be positively superheroic.”
     Somehow, the heroic qualities most parents are hoping to bring out in their children have nothing to do with consumption, and it may be more than a little disconcerting, that ad executives with the power to allure and entice have sights on your child. It used to be only cattle that were driven to market, but now so are your children.

Bombarded by Babylon
     It’s hard to rear Zion’s children when they are constantly bombarded by Babylon. One mother confessed, “I spent hours putting together a family home evening about the plan of salvation, and the same day my children saw cartoons. Later when I asked them what they remembered about the lesson, their faces were blank, but they knew every word from the 30 second advertising spots they had heard.”
     If they remember, it is because the commercials that flash and move in brilliant color before young eyes have been carefully calculated to appeal to their insecurities and needs. For instance, marketers have recently started going after eight to thirteen-year-olds, a group they have labeled the “tweens.” Though this age is a fragile and significant time for a child to still be a child, that is not the thrust of advertising. “Kids are 13 going on 30,” said Ira Matathia, CEO of Brand Futures Group. “They are in an incredible hurry to grow up.” Advertisers, with an eye to the bottom line, want to help them along.
     “We know young girls aspire older,” said Michael Wood, Teenage Research Unlimited. “If you walk into a discount store like Target, Wal-Mart or Kmart–or drugstores–and take a look at the cosmetic aisles, there are more cosmetics targeted for teens and some skew very young.”
     “Girl power is a force marketers are learning to harness as the disposable income of the overall tween-age and teen-age segment continues to rise,” notes Advertising Age. Teenagers spent $119 billion in 1998, and the forecast looks like that will be $136 billion by 2001. The reason younger girls are becoming a focus? It is because girls ages 13 to 15 had about $45 a week in discretionary money in 1997 and spent about $41 according to Interep Research. About $24 came from their allowance and $21 came from other earnings, much of it from babysitting.
     The editors of Seventeen magazine know how to appeal to a tweens’ and teens’ vulnerabilities. You want to grow up ahead of your time, we’ll give it to you, their magazine implies. In Advertising Age, they make an appeal to their would-be advertisers with a picture of a barely teenage girl, heavily made up, with a sultry look on her face. The allure: she is a mix of the innocent and the sexy. The line, “She’s the one you want. She’s the one we’ve got. She’s cool. She pushes the edge. She pursues beauty and fashion at every turn. She wants to be outrageous. And accepted. Cool takes courage. Seventeen. It’s more than a magazine. It’s her life.”

Adolescents as the Center of the World
McDonald’s has also recently poured a hefty budget into a new campaign aimed at the “tweens.” As Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a youth marketing company, said of McDonald’s’ push, “Kids are a growing demographic, and they are trying to get in on the ground floor. Anytime they can bond with a kid and have a kid tell Mom and Dad they would rather go to McDonald’s as opposed to Pizza Hut is a good thing for them.”
     The question, however is: Is what is good for McDonald’s good for children? Their push to preteens implies that the world revolves around them, an idea adolescents already are prone to believe. In one new television spot the tables are turned at a family gathering as the children are sitting at the adult table, laden with McDonald’s burgers, while the adults are squeezed around a rickety table to the side. A second spot shows lumbering school officials chasing a Big Mac decoy as preteens sit in the stand, munching burgers and egging them on. The effect is humorous, but the message is clear about who’s in charge.
     It is ironic that we take the most sophisticated tools of our time, the images and music which excite and convince, and dedicate them to develop our Babylonian instincts. “I want, I want” becomes the daily refrain, and advertisers want to make sure the beat continues, whipping up children’s desires so enough is never enough.
     “Power Rangers,” hit it big in 1994 with $350 million in sales, but like a firework that bursts brightly then fades fast, the action figures lost their market share as little boys turned to other toys. But Bandai America, the North American master toy licensee of “Power Rangers” found the secret: keep reinventing the brand. As Advertising Age noted, “For the last several years, ‘Power Rangers’ has moved to different areas to combat the evils of the world. The original ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ was launched on the Fox Kids Network in fall 1993; it moved on to become ‘Power Rangers Zeo’ in February 1996 and then ‘Power Rangers in Space.'”
     The goal of advertisers is to drive their brand. Adults may develop some discernment not to be swept along. Children may not have those skills. Commercials aimed at children may be cheerful, colorful, and fast-paced, but they may not always be benign. The television screen gives us a very different set of commandments than we get from the burning bush. Thou shalt endlessly covet. Thou shalt grow up too fast. Thou art the center of the universe. Thou shalt put the gods of materialism and business before all else.

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.