Tricks of the Trade: Selling to Children

The following is from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader .

Selling to kids is big business - children directly control and spend $24.4 billion worth of goods every year, and they influence parents to spend upwards of $300 billion. Naturally, corporations are very interested. Here are some of the tricks of the trade businesses use to get your kids (and their parents) to spend the big bucks. (From a Mothering Magazine piece by Gary Ruskin).


Cheryl Idell knows a lot about nagging. She's 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 to rent a video. Idell, chief strategic officer for 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." [She considers] either a good first step. But alone they're 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. (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. A violent "first-person shooter" game, Duke Nukem comes complete with strip bars, porno theaters, and lots 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 two million games," Broussard says." It'd be suicide to make the game unplayable by younger people." Idell and Broussard are typical of something endemic in America today. Thousands of the brightest minds in the country devote their great talents, and use sophisticated psychological techniques, to influence your children to purchase products - o rather, to want products - regardless of whether or not they are good for your kids. Name something you don't want your kids to have, and chances are, people are trying to entice your kids into wanting it.


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 a 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: "Children are the brightest star in the consumer constellation," he writes. 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. Johann Wachs, the vice president of Saatchi and Saatchi's Kid Connection unit, agrees: "Marketers are just waking up to the enormous possibility of kid-targeted products," he says. "As kids become more powerful as consumers, they are being targeted more directly." 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 qualm, they do a good job of repressing them. Like investors in prime real estate, they see children's mind as kind of cash cow. "If 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. 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."


Advertisers infuse their pitches with messages that target the 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." 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." 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." 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."


Marketers are resorting to extreme measures to gain access to our children. They're 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 10 minutes of "news" and 2 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. "The advertisers get a group of kids who can't go to the bathroom, who can't change the station, who can't listen to their mother yell in the background, who can't be playing Nintendo, who can't have their headsets on." 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, Zip Code. It delivers this information to advertisers and marketers, who use it to target students in school with laserlike precision."


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." Further, it is well known that RJR Nabisco's Joe Camel ads hooked hundreds of thousands of children into smoking. And Anheuser-Busch created Budweiser ads so captivating - with frogs, penguins, and lizards - that they were kid's favorite ads in 1999. 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 bestselling 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."
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader, which was published in 2000. Note: Channel One has continued financial loss until it was sold in 2007 whereas ZapMe! has gone bankrupt, but I'm sure the message is still relevant today.
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Hmm. Whining was usually the one thing that would make me not get that thing for my kids, ever.

They learned to ask nicely for what they wanted, or, save their pennies to buy it themselves.
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Our two have learned to take adverts apart to see how they're trying to sell you something. The neat thing is they spend so much time pulling them to pieces that they don't have time to think about whether they want the promoted article.
The ones they're currently laughing at are a run of plugs for Lelli Kelly shoes - blatant appeals to pester-power by making more of the tiny plastic toy included in the price than of the shoes themselves.
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