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Why Johnny Has to Have THOSE Sneakers

Advertising pitched to kids continues to increase on television, at the mall, and even in classrooms.

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1998



BOSTON

Are your children really born to shop?

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That question was posed recently by a group of parents, consumer advocates, and child-development experts.

At a public forum called "Kids and Consumerism," they talked about commercial pressures that children face today - on television, at the mall, and even in school.

The discussion spotlighted an ongoing controversy surrounding marketing to children, "creeping commercialism," and the role corporations play in education.

From commercials on Channel One - the in-school educational TV network - to advertisements on school buses, the "creative" venues to get kids' attention are increasing.

Marketing and advertising to children is on the rise, says Anita Holmes, assistant editor at Zillions magazine, Consumer Reports' publication for kids. Ms. Holmes was one of three panelists at the forum, co-sponsored by Wheelock College and the Neighborhood School of Jamaica Plain in Boston.

Consumers wanted

Why marketers might put more emphasis on children is obvious from a look at young people's spending power. Consumers Union estimates that:

* Elementary-age schoolchildren spend around $15 billion, $11 billion of which goes for products from toys and games to food and clothes.

* Elementary-age children influence $160 billion spending controlled by their parents - for cereals, shampoos, and even cars.

* Teenagers spend $57 billion of their own money every year and $36 billion of their families' money.

In addition, the youth market is expected to increase; from about 57 million today to more than 60 million by 2005.

"There is increased interest in marketing and advertising to children," says Linda Coco, a researcher for Ralph Nader's Corporate Accountability Project in Washington.

Not all advertising is bad, says Selina Guber, president of Children's Market Research in New York and co-author of "Marketing to and Through Kids." Her firm, for example, has done research for antismoking campaigns and nonprofits that benefit children.

By some conservative estimates, more than $300 million is spent on broadcast advertising to children today - about three times the amount spent in 1980 (before cable advertising was factored in).

But beyond Saturday morning television and must-have sneakers, many parents say they view the presence of corporate messages in schools as "worrisome."

A 1995 report by the Consumers Union details this phenomenon. Starting in 1989, Channel One provided schools with TVs and VCRs in return for airing news bits and commercials for such things as soft drinks, snacks, and sneakers. In addition, other "learning materials" - such as teaching videos, guidebooks, posters, product giveaways, and coupons - increasingly arrived on the scene.

But many of these programs had self-serving objectives, or contained misleading, incomplete, or incorrect information, according to the Consumers Union report.

Biased educational materials

Examples cited in 1995 by Consumers Union included Procter & Gamble, which, at the time, published materials about the environment that contained "biased" information about disposable diapers (Procter & Gamble makes Pampers), and Kellogg's, which put out an educational brochure about nutrition, promoting cereal over other breakfast choices.

Yet Consumers Union also deemed some corporate-sponsored materials noncommercial and unbiased.

DuPont, for example, came out with a poster kit that helped explore how better package design could reduce solid waste in landfills. The information was judged by Consumers Union to be objective and not commercial. While the DuPont logo appeared on the teaching guide, it wasn't on the poster, and neither pushed DuPont products.