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How to ad-proof your children

Steve Rotterdam spends his days on Madison Avenue straining his brain to come up with compelling, unforgettable advertisements that will sell a product.

Then he spends his weekends protecting his 5-year-old daughter from what he's created.

Eric Brown is spokesman for The Center for a New American Dream, a consumer advocacy group. He knows what advertising can do, so he tries to protect his 6-year-old daughter, too.

Both Brown and Rotterdam, chief creative officer for EastWest Creative, say they do their best to keep their children from watching television advertising.

They have their work cut out for them. The average American child sees more than 20,000 commercials annually, claims the Annenburg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University estimates food and drink industries spend $13 billion a year marketing to our children.

The result: children between the ages of 12 and 17 will nag their parents up to nine times for an advertised product. Parents of 12- and 13-year-olds have it worse: This subsection of little consumers admits to the Center for a New American Dream they'll whine more than 50 times.

"You see so many people on TV or in magazines wearing cool clothing or advertising things, and you feel like you'll never totally fit in or have any friends if you don't have the latest styles or trends," explains a 14-year-old girl in Pennsylvania to the Center.

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Whining seems to work. Officials at Euro RSCG advertising agency in New York report 60 percent of young people it surveys brag they could manipulate parents before getting on the school bus for first grade. Indeed, kids between the ages of four and 12 spent $2.2 billion in 1968. In 2000, that spending exceeded $40 billion, the Center says.

Wait, it gets worse. You thought Mickey Mouse appeared on diapers to entertain adults? Infants start recognizing corporate logos and mascots at six months, and brand loyalty begins around age two.

"From almost day one after my daughter was born, I've gotten my comeuppance," Rotterdam says. "Now I'm trying to manage the messages I spent 22 years developing to get through all the screens and filters."

Winning the hearts and minds of your kids
Marketers know more about your kids than you do these days. For instance, The Geppetto Group understands that Pepsi, McDonald's, Nickelodeon, M&Ms, Lunchables, Playstation and Bionicles are the ultimate cool, while Coke, Nintendo, Wendy's, Snickers and Hot Pockets are sliding in favor with the 8- to 10-year-old crowd. (Psst ... Lunchables' currently register the strongest brand dominance and momentum of all things in kid-dom.)

And while Madison Avenue is learning about your kids, your kids are learning too.

"It's not that kids don't understand what advertising is, but they don't have an inherent bias against it," says Rotterdam. "They are basically sponges for information they can use in their world."

Ergo, the greater the exposure, the more established the brand becomes in kids' hearts and minds.

"No kid between the ages of 6 and 14 wants to be caught dead with a brand no one knows about. They're very brand conscious. Not because they care that much, but because it's a sign they're part of the tribe," Rotterdam adds.

As a result, statements like "come to your store and be one of 300 to get this today" or "get it before it runs out" carry more urgency with children than adults.

Brown concedes there's nothing wrong with consuming. "We all have to do it, but it's a matter of understanding balance and being able to separate fact from fiction. Kids stink at that. That's why they have parents."

Second, advertisers know the television is their greatest tool. Print ads, billboards and Internet banners pale in comparison to the boob tube's sway, if only because it's usually on in the background during other activities. Magazines and online sites require a more focused interaction to deliver their messages, and they answer to stricter regulations.

"When you cut away from SpongeBob, he doesn't say, 'The next three minutes will be nothing but advertising. Ask your parents if that's OK,'" Rotterdam says.

So companies have perfected the subconscious delivery: Cuts are faster, the colors brighter, the volume louder, all in an effort to shout, "Stop what you're doing and look at this!" They don't need a big budget special-effects campaign to find success.

"When I worked for an agency that specialized in toy marketing, we joked but it was true: Every commercial was a variation of the ones created in the 1950s. Kids pushing something in the dirt," Rotterdam says.

But marketers know where the true sales power is -- word of mouth. Even Rotterdam's daughter, whom he tries to shield from television advertising, began begging for the Barbie world of accessories thanks to an afternoon with a friend. If a child can experience a toy or food during a play date or at recess, advertising lies in wait to reinforce that desire.

Parents battle back
For a parent, it's a seemingly hopeless battle, so Brown's starting point to turn the tide begins in the bathroom.

"Look in the mirror and take a measure of yourself. Are you modeling behavior you want your children to adopt?" he asks. "You can't say no to Nike shoes if you wear them."

Step two involves investing time with your child over the long term.

"It's not as if you take certain steps and boom! You have a perfect angel who doesn't believe commercials," says Jayne Pearl, author of Kids and Money: Giving Them the Savvy to Succeed Financially.

She recently developed a workbook series titled "Gimme-Proof Your Kids" that walks parents through the years-long process. She recommends starting the journey by using the HBO/Consumer Reports series of three "Buy Me That" tapes to break down advertising into its parts.

Once children understand the realities behind the magic, parents must stand ready to squeeze every drop out of a disappointing experience. Rather than console them over a pogo stick they can't bounce on as well as the child on television, remind them of that agony the next time they ask for a gadget.

"Be happy when this happens. It's such a vivid way to capture kids, get them angry and learn," says Pearl.

Pearl and her son turned commercial time into play time, where she animatedly made fun of the 30-second messages.

"Boo and hiss, make them laugh," she says.

Then while you're the hero of the moment, ask probing questions like:

  • Why do you think he said that last part faster than the rest of the commercial?

  • Don't you feel they're trying to cheat or trick you when they show all those toys and then say you have to buy every one separately?

  • How many words did you catch in the print they flashed up there? What might they be trying to hide there?

  • Do you really think that will make you more popular? How?

Rotterdam substitutes DVDs for network and cable children's shows to better control the messages bombarding his girl. Brown mutes the commercials, but again, that requires sitting with children while they watch.

"There really is no easy way out," he admits.

Pearl, however, believes she's found one with the older ages. Before she drives her 14-year-old son to the mall for back-to-school shopping or other concentrated trips, the two develop a budget for the necessary items by paging through catalogs and sale flyers. Two rules apply: Pearl may comment once on an item, and her son keeps any money they save from the budget.

"You are no longer the person who says yes or no, so there is no argument in the store," she says. "If a new basketball jersey at $35 catches my son's eye, I'm the coach who helps him figure out what to juggle to get it."

What won't work, says Rotterdam, is tearing a toy apart to show the child it's merely plastic or gears, as one psychologist suggested to him during his college training.

"That's very frightening and disconcerting to a child. They know the difference between make-believe and reality. What they need to learn is how to be a critical consumer of information," he says. "So it boils down to the dialogue you have with your children."

-- Posted: Nov. 12, 2002

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