Arm yourself for the ad onslaught

If you're an American kid, toymakers want you to watch and listen. Everything from video games to Lincoln Logs is trying to get your attention this holiday season. The goal: to get you to put them at the top of your wish list.

Toymakers and other companies will spend millions of dollars this month advertising their products on TV, on the Internet, in magazines, and even in schools.

Making ads directed at young people isn't just a holiday activity, though. American kids will see some 20,000 commercials this year designed to get them to eat at fast-food restaurants, buy jeans, go to movies, and purchase toys.

Today, companies are spending 20 times as much money to make ads directed at children as they did 10 years ago (according to the Center for a New American Dream, a consumer-advocacy group in Takoma, Md.).

But if grown-ups make and spend most of the money, why are advertisers so interested in you?

First, young people do make and spend a lot of money - about $38 billion a year, says James McNeal, a marketing executive in College Station, Texas.

Second, kids influence a huge chunk of the money their parents spend (up to $190 billion, experts say). For instance, in 1 out of 3 times, you choose the fast-food restaurant where your family eats.

Third, and most important, you are beginning a lifetime of shopping. Companies hope to make you a loyal customer for many years.

Advertising can be very helpful. It lets people know about products and services, how much they cost, and where to get them. Most ads directed at kids, though, mainly have only one thing in mind: to get you to buy.

Here are some of the ways advertisers try to get you to buy their products:

A top choice: the TV commercial

TV commercials reach the widest audience. They usually last only about 30 seconds, but they can leave a strong impression. To get your attention, commercials may have loud music, high-energy images, animation, and bright colors.

"Picture a boring lunch," says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston. "Suddenly, Mom pours a new soda and it's psychedelic." Advertisers "want you to believe that products will change your life in a way they never can," she says.

Commercials often show a child using a product in a cool place. An ad for a remote-control toy car might show kids playing with it on a miniature race track. In fact, kids rarely take their toys beyond their backyard or friend's house.

Notice that TV ads often show kids playing in groups. Advertisers know that kids like to have friends. So ads try to hint that a particular product will make a child popular. It's a nice idea, but not realistic.

Some ads even show kids trying to trick their parents into buying something. They may show kids nagging for a toy. When kids see nagging on TV, experts say, they are more likely to nag, too.

"They try to give kids arguments to bring to their parents," says Susan Linn, associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. "One example is persistence, saying 'I need this' over and over again. The second is 'importance' nagging, such as, 'Mom, Barbie and Ken want to get married, so I need a Barbie Dream House.'"

Watch for Internet 'advergames'

"Kids should think of the Internet as one giant infomercial," says Jane Tallim, a media-education specialist for the Media Awareness Network in Ottawa, Ontario. The Internet is full of interesting information and games. It's also full of ads.

Look at Disney.com. You can play lots of games here, from Peter Pan Pinball to Tarzan Jungle Adventure. You also get lots of chances to buy stuff. This blending of ads and games is called "advergaming."

LifeSavers operates a website that has lots of games, too. They make the games fun so that kids will log on again and again - and see lots of ads for the candy.

People who run websites want to know more about those who visit. They might offer free products or membership in their "kids' club." You can often sign up by typing in your name and address. (Never give out this information on a website without asking a parent's permission.) The company might send something cool, like a poster. But it will also send you lots of ads.

Even the toy itself can be an ad

Fast-food meals may include toys based on current films. The toys not only promote the movie, they also keep kids coming back to collect every toy in the series.

A box might contain ads, too. Does a toy's package show pictures of related toys? Does it show a picture of the item inside - and does the item look as good in real life? Photographs can be deceiving. The "milk" in photos on the front of cereal boxes is often white glue. That's because glue looks yummier than milk in a photo.

"Toys advertised to kids never look the way they do when you get them home," Ms. Levin says. "With a pogo stick, for example, they'll edit the commercial to look like you can hop on the pogo stick right away, but it doesn't work that way in real life."

The message of 'product placement'

When you watch a show and see your favorite character holding a brand of soda you recognize, you may not think much of it. After all, a lot of people drink it. But advertisers pay a lot of money for their products to be displayed prominently on TV or in movies. It's called "product placement."

The Internet service America Online reportedly paid about $3 million for its role as the e-mail service in the 1998 film "You've Got Mail." The website of the TV show "Dawson's Creek" sells products seen on-camera during the program.

It's another way advertisers try to get you to think about a product, even for just a few seconds.

Older models sell to kids

Ads in magazines for kids often use older models. "Kids like to see slightly older people in ads," Ms. Linn says. This is especially true of magazines aimed at girls.

When readers see older models wearing an outfit, many are led to buy it in hopes that they might look just as mature.

Cosmogirl, Teen, YM, and Seventeen are often read by children, not teens. "They feature people who are older in order to appeal to a child's natural desire to be grown up," says Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters, a nonprofit group in Duluth, Minn. "The models don't even look real, but more like cartoons, because the photos are so manipulated."

True or false: If it's in school, it's OK

A Colorado Springs school system, strapped for cash, recently began selling ad space on its school buses. Other schools have contracts that give soft-drink companies the exclusive right to sell their soda in a school. Advertisers are eager to have ads in schools, because children tend to assume that if something is in school, it has been approved by teachers or parents.

Some companies will give computers or software to schools - if the desktop screen has an ad for their products.

Other schools hang posters that promote reading - with characters from the World Wrestling Federation. The message is a good one, and the WWF may believe in it. But according to Ms. Linn, it is also an ad for pro wrestling. "Think who benefits most from that sort of poster," Linn says.

Be a smarter ad watcher

We allL know that companies are trying to get us to buy stuff. Sometimes, they are pretty tricky about it. But you don't have to be tricked. The best way to be a smart ad watcher is to think carefully about what you see and hear.

Joe Kelly is president of Dads and Daughters, a nonprofit group in Duluth, Minn. He suggests that you think of ads as having their own language, like Spanish or French. Think of the words, pictures, and sounds in commercials as the language's vocabulary.

"Everything in an ad says something different," Mr. Kelly says. "The same words and images put together in different ways can mean entirely different things." What is an ad trying to say to you? How is it combining images, words, and music to send this message?

Here are some more ways to think about the ads you see. (This list is from The Children's Advertising Review Unit, www.caru.org, a division of the Better Business Bureau.)

1. Think of a product you've seen advertised on TV. Go to a store and see what it looks like "in person." Did the ad make the product seem more exciting than it is in real life?

2. Keep a list of the kinds of commercials you see on kids' TV shows. How do they compare to ads aired during programs for adults?

3. Look for words that come up repeatedly in ads. Which words appear the most in your favorite ads? Can you think of better words to describe the product?

4. Identify the spokesperson for a product. Why do you think the advertiser chose that person or character? (Example: Coca-Cola and Harry Potter. Are you more likely to drink Coke because of the Harry Potter connection?)

5. Break the commercial into parts. Which parts provide important information? Which parts don't matter? What was left out?

6. Create your own ad for something you don't own, or for something you do. Is it easier to explain a product with facts or with opinions?

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