How to ad-proof your
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.
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
"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
- 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
-- Posted: Nov. 12, 2002