Pitches to tweens target parents, too

With an escalator ride to the mall's second floor, Jane and Rebecca DeHaven are adding to their pop-culture credentials.

The mother and 10-year-old daughter have come here on this slate-gray Saturday to catch the first public appearance of Girl Authority, a local nine-girl tween band whose self-titled album - a collection of pop-hit covers that evoke a blend of Spice Girls, Kidz Bop, and pajama-party karaoke - was released earlier this month.

"They're all community-theater talents," says Ms. DeHaven of the band members, who will file out soon, ponytails swinging, to sign posters at a record store here. "This was the core group that always got the leads."

Rebecca knows a few of the girls from local stage productions. Now she sees them in a new light: as budding icons in an entertainment galaxy that she and her mother explore together.

That togetherness makes the pair a new type of marketing target. In an age when many tweens - the demographic once defined as 8-to-12-year-olds but today often pushed down to 6 or younger - might feel inclined to follow the acts of cute kids turned edgy young adults (think Lindsay Lohan), some entertainment promoters and product marketers are directing more of their pitches at both parents and children.

"Marketers are getting to be more into parental approval," says Greg Livingston, executive vice president of WonderGroup, a Cincinnati firm that specializes in selling to youths.

Mr. Livingston says companies recognize, in particular, the increased involvement of younger mothers, many of whom are Internet savvy and better attuned to their children's voracious media diet and the many channels that feed it. Such mothers can bring to bear enormous word-of-mouth power.

That development is warily welcomed by proponents of "conscious parenting," who value parent-child interaction and the importance of knowing their children's cultural landscape. Some say they worry, however, about the implications of parental buy-in that doesn't always look closely enough at embedded sales pitches.

'We like it clean'

In pleated skirt and side-zipped boots, Rebecca reels off pop references as her mother chimes in. They know all the Nickelodeon and Disney creations - Zoey, Zack and Cody, High School Musical.

But their common experience runs deeper: They've just been to an American Idol-themed party, and before that to Wishes for Girls, the place for pedicures and "up-dos." They share a fondness for the American Girl club - "parent approved," says DeHaven, like Girl Authority. "We like it clean," she says.

Livingston points to signs that marketers have become more child- appropriate: A client recently told him that the Cartoon Network had declined ads for some video games seen as too aggressive for tween viewers. He also cites the work of groups such as the Children's Advertising Review Unit (affiliated with the Council of Better Business Bureaus) for causing marketers to be "more careful" about exerting sales pressure on the very young.

If they are being more careful, that's a positive development for parents, says Monique Tilford, acting director of the Center for the New American Dream, a consumer-advocacy group in Takoma Park, Md. "But marketers are still selling relentlessly and intently to children," she says. Ads embedded in video games are cropping up, as are ads transmitted to cellphones.

In the entertainment arena, tie-ins can be stark. The stage show "Barbie Live in Fairytopia," for example, began an 80-city tour this month, part of a brand-boosting push by Mattel.

Sesame Workshop just released its New Beginnings DVDs, aimed at children as young as 6 months. Defenders point to its developmental appropriateness. But it, too, can be seen as a sell. "A major reason was to compete with Disney and Baby Einstein and promote a new brand of Sesame toys," says Susan Linn, cofounder of the coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Ms. Linn says she appreciates that parents, troubled about the easy access to music with hard-core lyrics, for example, might be open to outwardly sanitized, easy-to-share alternatives. But she worries that they'll let down their guard on product-pushing.

"Parents are in a really terrible bind and are making bargains with themselves," she says, "because they're just kind of stymied about what else to do." She encourages parents to seek out small, alternative theater, "the antithesis of the Barbie thing."

Linn says she finds a links page on the Girl Authority website of concern. Links take site visitors to the makers of Bratz, Barbie, and My Little Pony, among other firms. "It seems impossible for kids to have any media at all that's not selling them something else," says Linn.

"The links that were put up there were actually just favorite sites of the girls," says Elissa Barrett, director of strategic marketing for Rounder Records, the label that carries the group. "We don't have any tie-ins at this time with any of those groups."

Ms. Barrett calls that consistent with the upfront, organic nature of the band, culled from a working theater troupe. Publicist Veronique Cordier agrees: "It is, in its purest form, the girls just being who they are."

But Samantha Hammel, the band's executive producer and a coach to its members dating back to their stage days, does not fully buy in. "I actually didn't know they were going to be putting those links on," she says, "and when I saw them - for instance, the Barbie [link] - I wasn't happy." She maintains that the site is a work in progress.

Voluntary code of conduct

That description also applies broadly to youth- and child-targeted marketing. Tilford's Center for the New American Dream is playing host today to a conference of marketing experts and child advocates aimed at developing a voluntary code of conduct.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, an industry trade group in Chicago, has also pushed for such a code. This month DuPont became the first firm to endorse it. Until standards emerge, Tilford and others say, parental scrutiny will be in increasingly high demand.

DeHaven, for one, has begun fine- tuning her radar. When asked about Libby Lu, a high-glamour tween makeover club with some 60 US locations, she wrinkles her nose. Too much, she says.

And some marketers, too, maintain that they know where to draw the line. Like the promoters of Girl Authority, Addie Schwartz believes in speaking to tweens "in a language they will respond to and embrace as their own," and she sees her own work as a pushback against what she calls "oversexualized" media. A parent, Ms. Schwartz runs Beacon Street Girls, a series of books that help tween girls sort out social issues. She also sells branded backpacks and sleepover sets.

"You have experts in their ivory towers saying all consumerism is bad," she says. "The truth is [in] the intent."

For Paul Foley, Rounder Records' general manager, Girl Authority's aim is pure. "We feel we have really talented singers," he says. "Our goal is to establish the girls as a talented group."

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