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Advertising and children's TV

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1987


`WHEN you sell a kid on your product, if he can't get it he will throw himself on the floor, stamp his feet, and cry,'' an advertising executive told the New York State Assembly in the late '70s. ``You can't get a reaction like that out of an adult.'' Getting that reaction has become a $250 million business in America, not counting the ``adult'' ads that children see on prime time. Backing up this advertising is a market research effort of possibly even greater size, aimed at finding more-effective ways to bestir children's wantings. We have ``developed hype to the ultimate,'' says Bob Keeshan, a.k.a. ``Captain Kangaroo.'' ``We leave no pedal on the organ untouched.''

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According to the A.C. Nielsen Company, two- to five-year-olds average more than 28 hours a week in front of the television. If one-sixth of that fare is advertising - a conservative estimate, according to network figures - then these tots are spending the equivalent of 40 school days a year having things sold to them.

Never in history have adults with something to sell been able to speak so directly, powerfully, and pervasively to children.

``When Charlie sees something he likes, he usually gets it,'' proclaimed a network ad to potential advertisers in Broadcasting magazine. ``Just ask General Mills [or] McDonald's.''

It all started with TV. Before the tube, advertisers couldn't speak directly to Charlie alone because Charlie couldn't read. Except for the Popsicle, stamp, and Charles Atlas body-building ads in comic books, advertisers pretty much had to speak instead to mom. And that meant Wheatena and wholesomeness instead of Fruit Loops and fun.

In the early days of television, the industry was trying to persuade people to buy TV sets, so children got such high-quality offerings as ``Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.'' In 1949, one-half of children's programs had no commercial sponsors at all. Children's programming, says Richard P. Adler of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., was ``viewed almost as a loss leader, enticing parents to invest in the technology.''

By the 1960s, Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons had become ``kidvid ghettos,'' as they are commonly called. Cartoon shows and reruns were doused heavily with ads for sugary breakfast foods, candy, and toys - products that, by and large, wouldn't have gotten by mom. ORGANIZED RESISTANCE GROWS IN the late '60s, a group of housewives from Newton, Mass., formed a group called Action for Children's Television (ACT) to confront these developments. The group touched a nerve among the nation's parents, and over the next decade there was sporadic progress. Ads for vitamin pills came off the kids shows, for example. Sales pitches from program hosts ended. And federal scrutiny of stations at license renewal time helped to keep the stations in line.

During the 1970s, researchers began asking how all this advertising was affecting children. They established just how effective TV ads are in getting children to want things. One study found that more than half the first-graders interviewed ``wanted every toy or game they saw advertised on TV.''

Moreover, it wasn't just the children's ads that youngsters responded to.

Children do most of their watching along with adults, at prime time; ``All television is children's television,'' as Mr. Adler puts it. They see the whole range of ads that adults see, including those for drugs and other remedies. Researchers have found no direct link between TV watching and illicit drug use. But Charles Atkin of Michigan State University did find that children who watch the most drug ads on TV think people are more often sick, worry more about getting sick, and are more likely to feel better after taking medicine themselves. ``Worry about getting sick is one of the stronger effects,'' he says.

Another strong effect is on what kids eat. TV ads have shifted control of part of the family food budget from parents to little Charlie. ``Those children who viewed more commercial television at home made more purchase demands at the supermarket'' than those who spent less time watching commercial TV, one research team at Teachers College, Columbia University, concluded. And parents yield to requests for cereal almost 90 percent of the time.