Advertising and children's TV
Boston — `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.''
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.
But parents don't always yield, at least at first. And that's when little Charlie starts his stamping routine. ``Advertising causes conflicts at exactly the most vulnerable age for children to be in conflict with parents,'' says John Condry of the Department of Human Development at Cornell University.
Perhaps most important, most young children don't understand what an ad is. Asked to explain the difference between a show and a commercial, one group of five- to eight-year-olds gave answers like ``commercials are more funny'' and ``commercials are shorter.'' Young children ``lack the capacity to understand what an advertisement is all about,'' says Tracy Westen, a UCLA law professor who directed a major Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of children's ads in the late '70s.
This innocence is no match for advertising techniques that sometimes border on the Orwellian. Mr. Westen witnessed the use of a device that beamed light off children's eyes to determine what caught their attention during an ad. ``At the end of one ad, the clown jumped around in front of the McDonald's store,'' he recalls. ``You could see the kid's attention [a four-year-old girl] jump back and forth from the clown to the McDonald's logo. It was chilling.'' REGULATORY MISFIRE THE FTC inquiry produced much evidence of harm but little action. The commission's proposed remedy - eliminating all children's advertising - was so broad that it united half the lobbyists in Washington against it. Then the Reagan administration took office, and virtually all scrutiny of advertising to children ceased.
With the pressure off from Washington, toymakers are juicing up their ads with fancy animation that was frowned on before. But in the view of many, something worse has happened. ``TV has turned into a toy commercial,'' says Peggy Charren, ACT's founder and often the lone voice on the issue. The shows themselves have become commercials for toys.
The FCC cracked down on this practice in 1969, when the Mattel Company aired a program based on its ``Hot Wheels'' toys. But since 1980, ``program-length commercials,'' as they are now called, have come with a vengeance. More than 50 shows based on ``action toys'' such as He-Man, Rambo, and G.I. Joe fill much of children's air time on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The shows create a fantasy with an ever-expanding cast of characters, each of which the child wants. ``It does create additional sales,'' says David S. Leibowitz, an analyst with the American Securities Corporation in New York. ``Once I buy GI Joe, I'm more inclined to buy the other figures.''
Defenders of the practice say, in effect, ``So what?'' From Shirley Temple dolls to Davy Crockett coonskin caps and Big Bird, product tie-ins have long been part of children's entertainment. But Mrs. Charren counters: ``The people who made Davy Crockett weren't primarily interested in selling hats.'' People like Bill Hurtz, who directed Rocky and Bullwinkle, have complained that creativity goes out the window when selling a toy takes priority over producing a good show. And toy-based shows are diverting ad revenue from other children's programming that is at least potentially better.
Some child-development experts worry that toy-based shows' prepackaged fantasies may impair youngsters' creativity. ``Kids can take a hat and turn it into a long-running drama,'' says Dr. Michael Meyerhoff of the Center for Parent Education, in Newton, Mass. ``If something in front of the child has lots of elaborate detail, the child becomes a passive participant.''
Then there's the violence. Thomas Radecki, who heads the National Coalition on Television Violence in Champaign, Ill., says that 29 of the program-length ads sell ``toys of violence.'' Photon, based on an electronic gun, tops the list at 114 acts of violence per hour, by NCTV's count. It's followed by Unhumanoids (Hasbro) at 86 acts of violence, Centurions (Kenner) at 85, and GI Joe (also Hasbro) 84. ``The most massive promotion of brutal and sadistic violence ever,'' Dr. Radecki says.
For parents, the violence is not cheap. The rage last Christmas was Lazer Tag, another infrared gun that sells for about $90 for two, which includes sensor targets worn over the heart. Only $109.99 (in the Boston area) will buy a 7-foot-long aircraft carrier for a child's GI Joe collection.
TV is not the only place where commercials are moving into children's programming. Hollywood has spawned a whole ``product placement'' industry that inserts brand-name products into movies. Nabisco, for example, paid $100,000 to get a Baby Ruth bar into Steven Spielberg's ``The Goonies,'' Mark Litwak reports in his new book, ``Reel Power.''
But TV is where the problem is most pervasive. Reagan administration officials recognize this, but don't think the federal government should get involved. ``I think television should be much better,'' says Freta Thyden, the FCC staff attorney who handles the issue of program-length commercials. ``But I don't want any Big Daddy telling me that.''
John Kamp, a senior attorney in the commission's Mass Media Bureau, says children's programming is the way it is because the public wants it that way. ``If people wanted [the shows] to be better, they would be better,'' he says. Westen calls warnings of government intrusion in the home ``crazy'' and ``ironic.'' ``If there is any interference going on, it's from the tube,'' he says.
Bob Keeshan questions whether TV always gives kids what they want. ``Captain Kangaroo,'' which first aired in 1955, received good ratings to the end, he says. Kids wanted to watch it. But CBS thought it could do better with more morning news, so it bumped the captain to the weekend ``dawn patrol.''
Most critics of children's advertising agree that parents bear the primary responsibility regarding their children and TV. But they add that parents could use a little help. ``Why should parents have to fight against some aspect of society that is mandated to be used in the public interest?'' Cornell's Mr. Condry asked in FTC testimony.
The Canadian province of Quebec banned all ads to children in 1980. The law didn't have much effect on English-speaking families, who receive United States TV over the border. But Marvin E. Goldberg, a marketing professor at McGill University, found that awareness of toys and consumption of sugary breakfast foods was lower among French-speaking children, who saw less US TV. (The law is being challenged in court.) EFFORTS TO EDUCATE CHILDREN OF course, people don't have to wait for action from Washington. Slowly, the schools are realizing that children need to understand the language of media persuasion as much as they do the language of written works. Second- and third-graders at the Open Magnet School in Los Angeles, for example, have been developing ads for products such as kites and plants. Barbara Sweeneys, a former senior writer at the McCann Erickson ad agency, told ADWEEK that she ``wanted to show these kids exactly how they're manipulated by advertisers.''
There's also a growing movement to get parents back into the picture. Patricia Marks Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA and author of ``Mind and Media,'' is among numerous authorities urging parents to watch TV with their children and help them ``decode'' ads. ACT, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., has produced a ``TV Smart Book,'' which offers concrete suggestions in this regard.
Meanwhile, Charren says the new alignment in Congress could mean a little more attention to the commercial inroads on children's media. Indeed, children's advertising just could be a political sleeper. ``Although it takes the American public a while to react to excesses,'' Ad Age, the industry trade journal, said in a recent editorial: ``Reaction is sure to come and many more voices will be heard.'' Keeshan agrees: ``The pendulum always swings in this country. All we ask is that the country have the well-being of the children - our future - in mind.''
Third of four articles. Next: The networks' last word.