Consider this -- prior to 1981, children's spending rose 4% each year. Since Reagan's deregulation, children's spending has risen by 35% yearly. That's no accident. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not place limits on advertising and marketing to children.
Marketers have created entirely new segments of consumers (tweens, and other age-compressed categories) using sophisticated techniques (the nag factor) to ensure cradle-to-grave mindshare. The trouble is, kids (especially young children) don't have the ability to differentiate between advertising and the truth.
It's bigger than sugary cereal and soda in schools. It is more sophisticated than simple product placement or a toy in a Happy Meal. It is Webkins, an online environment that is only accessible after a child or parent purchases a $15 toy with an access code. And movies whose sole purpose is to spin off a merchandising empire. And the emergence of the luxury clothing market for kids (baby Pumas, Dior kids jeans, Abercrombie Kids sweaters) who will outgrow the item before it's even worn in. And mani/ pedis for six year-olds. And ho-rrific dolls with bling in miniskirts that all but reveal the doll's anatomically incorrect ass. And the GIA's slumber party in a box that gets girl "agents" to gather market data on their friends in exchange for a free product.
Beyond this, many of the messages (and their implications) are quite troubling. Our culture is increasingly embracing the idea that you are what you own. While it's fine to have and appreciate nice things, a child's self-worth shouldn't be driven by the designer labels her parents can afford to buy for her. Others play up narcissim and entitlement. It gets even uglier when the message is about appearance/ body types/ beauty and sexualizes girls in a way that short-circuits childhood's innocence and creates unhealthy body image. The message to girls is what you wear, how you look, and how sexy you are determine how valuable you are. The message to boys is that "real men" only use violence, power, and domination to solve differences.
But it begins much earlier. Researchers are finding that edutainment (Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Leapfrog) doesn't work. Putting a kid in front of an electronic screen just teaches that kid to watch more. It is no substitute for face-to-face interaction and the tactile manipulation of objects in order to learn. Free and unstructured time and play are essential to the cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being of children. Creative play, which has declined by 94% among 9-12 year olds in the past decade, is the foundation of learning, problem solving, and empathy. But kids are being sold on the idea that they can't just play pirates or wizards, they have to own the official accoutrements from Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter. The fundamental message is that kids need to have something outside themselves in order to play. That is tragic. It is also creating a future generation of superconsumers with ADD, diabetes, and hypertension. Juliet Schor's research found that the more media (TV, video games, internet) a child consumed, the more likely that child was to suffer from depression or anxiety.
I recently watched the "Consuming Kids" video series, which looks at how marketers target kids, both for their own spending power and for their influence over parents’ spending. I came away outraged. Disclaimer: I have an MBA in marketing and already know a fair amount about techniques and market segments. But this seven-part series is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying.