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Culture

Corporations Want Your Kids

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October 2nd, 2009

You may think of them as cute, adorable little people. At other times, you probably think of them as nefarious, treacherous trolls.

But to corporate America, teens represent a vast and wealthy market. Major companies want them and their money and are stepping up their efforts to get both.

Estimates of the size of the youth market vary widely. But there’s one thing research companies like Teenage Research Unlimited, which conducts focus group studies with kids as young as two, and trade publications like Youth Marketing Alert, Selling to Kids, and Marketing to Kids Report agree on: the market is huge. Young people spend $100 to $200 billion every year, and they influence another $100 billion in purchases made by adults for everything from groceries and fast food to electronics and automobiles (family vans and even Ford’s new F-150 pickup truck now offer pop-down screens for kids to watch videos and DVDs).

Here’s a look at some of the main players and what they’re up to.

Television

Nickelodeon, the cable channel for kids, has been the highest rated basic cable network since 1995. In 2001, the network had 41 of the top 50 children’s programs. In 2002, Nickelodeon-related products generated about $2.5 billion in retail sales. And the network licenses everything from movies based on the Wild Thornberries and Rugrats to Kwanza videotapes, as well as assorted Web sites, video games, and greeting cards. Nickelodeon is also exploring the idea of character-themed hotels.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, vitamins featuring Jimmy Neutron and the Rugrats now outsell Flintstones vitamins. SpongeBob SquarePants Band-Aids now outsell Scooby Doo bandages. And SpongeBob macaroni and cheese is Kraft’s top-selling licensed pasta product.

Books

With so many TV shows and DVDs to watch, CDs to listen to, and Web sites to surf, one might think kids would spend little of their time and money on books. But major publishers are focusing increasing attention on targeting the youth market.

In recent years, Christian publishers like Thomas Nelson and Zondervan have launched the Tommy Nelson and Zonderkidz lines. And Tommy Nelson’s Extreme for Jesus product line now generates $7 million a year with more than 35 products, including a new line of Extreme Fiction books featuring MTV lingo and short 1- to 2-page chapters for today’s young ADHD personalities. They’re also branching out a larger teen brand, Transit. Executive Editor Greg Daniel will oversee the line, which will cover subjects from eating disorders to witnessing.

Fast Food

McDonald’s has done more than most corporations to target young consumers.

As author Eric Schlosser explains in Fast Food Nation, his best-selling exposé on the fast food industry, the main goal of the company’s marketing executives is “to make customers believe that McDonald’s is their Trusted Friend.'”

McDonald’s has excelled at creating multi-faceted campaigns to lure in young consumers. The Ronald McDonald mascot, originally created by NBC weatherman Willard Scott, puts a warm and friendly face on the company’s ads and promotions. A character on the McDonald’s Web site once told kids that Ronald McDonald was “the ultimate authority on everything.” Happy Meals and tie-in promotions with major new movies and with products like Furby dolls and Teenie Beanie Babies bring in millions of young diners. In addition, the McDonaldland play areas offer kids an exciting place to romp while their parents eat.

The Strategies

One of the things McDonald’s has learned is that kids possess leverage, otherwise known as “the nudge factor” or “pester power.” Schlosser says this leverage has been a powerful tool since the 1980s, an era when “many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started spending more money on them.”

Experts in youth marketing often refer to their campaigns as “cradle-to-grave” strategies which are designed to secure consumers’ brand loyalty before they even know what a brand is. Apparently, their efforts are succeeding. Schlosser says “market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.”

In the case of McDonald’s, the company’s cradle-to-grave strategies may be more aptly named than anyone could ever have imagined. Young people who make fast food a steady part of their diets experience higher rates of teenage obesity than those who eat more balanced meals. Eating saturated fats, consuming super-sized portions, and gulping down sugar- and caffeine-enhanced soft drinks can be a recipe for illness and early death.

So, What Do We Do?

Corporations that market to children reach them through almost countless media avenues. Is it possible to stem the tide?

It won’t be easy. Consumerism has become a powerful part of the American lifestyle. And some Christian traditions, particularly those that are a part of the growing evangelical, seeker-sensitive, marketing-oriented church model, seem to have baptized consumerism as a Christian virtue.

But there are some things people who are worried about our culture’s emphasis on turning kids into markets can do.

For instance, try to get your group to study advertising and commercials, looking behind the professionally produced images for the powerful underlying marketing messages. Ask your kids to videotape a few of the commercials that appear on some of their favorite TV shows and save several of the ads that appear in their favorite magazines. Have them bring in their commercials and ads and investigate how they work. What techniques are being used? In TV commercials, rock music is used to lure in viewers. Flashy visuals and quick-cut camera work create visual appeal. Celebrity endorsements help create credibility for products and services. Deeper still, what are some of the destructive messages contained in commercials? Personal hygiene products promise to not only cure bad breath and dandruff, but also guarantee that people who use these products will get the guy or girl of their dreams. And increasingly, people who buy all the right products are portrayed as hip and with-it, while those who don’t are branded as hopeless dorks.

The negative effects of advertising are at their most devastating when young people, especially girls, are subjected to an onslaught of messages about the idealized body size and weight. Youth leaders who regularly deal with self-image and eating disorder problems among their young people ought to take a hard look at advertising messages and develop creative ways to help counterbalance these destructive and sometimes deadly images. Additional insight can come from Adbusters magazine or Web site.

It won’t be easy engaging in single-handed combat against corporate America’s systematic targeting of your young people. But perhaps if you come up with some creative approaches and persevere in your efforts, you’ll help your young people see themselves as children created in God’s image, and not only as consumers.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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