Creative Writing

Kid Kustomers by Eric Schlosser

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An excerpt from Schlosser's acclaimed book, Fast Food Nation, which focuses on the explosion of children's advertising which began in the 1980s, and some insight on how advertisers would appeal to children.
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  1 ERIC SCHLOSSER  Kid Kustomers  Eric Schlosser; born in 1959 and raised in New York City and Los Angeles, is a journalist and writer who is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and has also written for the New Yorker, the Nation, Vanity  Fair, and Rolling Stone. His book Fast Food Nation (2001) was adapted into a 2006 film and brought increased attention to the fast-food industry. He was also involved in the making of Food, Inc., a 2009 documentary.“Kid Kustomers” is an incisive account of the way Madison Avenue has found some eyeballs to attract to their clients’ products. One of the things to appreciate about this essay is the way it showcases Schlosser’s ability to make a scathing indictment without being polemical. As you read note how Schlosser lays out the facts without appearing to editorialize — how he judges without seeming to be  judgmental. Twenty-five years ago, only a handful of American companies directed their marketing at children — Disney, McDonald’s, candy makers, toy makers, manufacturers of breakfast cereal. Today children are being targeted by phone companies, oil companies, and automobile companies as well as clothing stores and restaurant chains. The explosion in children’s advertising occurred during the 1980s. Many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started spending more money on them. One marketing expert has called the 1980s “the decade of the child consumer. After largely ignoring children for years, Madison Avenue began to scrutinize and pursue them. Major ad agencies now have children's divisions, and a variety of marketing firms focus solely on kids. These groups tend to have sweet-sounding names: Small Talk, Kid Connection, Kid2Kid, the Gepetto Group, Just Kids, Inc. At least three industry publications — Youth Market Alert, Selling to Kids,  and  Marketing to Kids  Report   — cover the latest ad campaigns and market research. The growth in children’s advertising has  been driven by efforts to increase not just current, but also future, consumption. Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan “cradle-to-grave advertising strategies. They have come to believe what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized long ago — a person's “brand loyalty may begin as early as the age of two. Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.The discontinued Joe Camel ad campaign, which used a hip cartoon character to sell cigarettes, showed how easily children can be influenced by the right corporate mascot. A 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly all of America's six-year-olds could identify Joe Camel, who was just as familiar to them as Mickey Mouse. Another study found that one-third of the cigarettes illegally sold to minors were Camels. More recently, a marketing firm conducted a survey in shopping malls across the country, asking children to describe their favorite TV ads. According to the CME KidCom Ad Traction Study II, released at the 1999 Kids’ Marketing Conference in San Antonio, Texas, the Taco Bell commercials featuring a talking chihuahua were the most popular fast food ads. The kids in the survey also liked Pepsi and Nike commercials, but their favorite television ad was for Budweiser.The bulk of the advertising directed at children today has an immediate goal. It's not just getting kids to whine, one marketer explained in Selling to Kids, “it's giving them a specific reason to ask for the  product.” Years ago sociologist Vance Packard described children as surrogate salesmen who had to  persuade other people, usually their parents, to buy what they wanted. Marketers now use different terms  2 to explain the intended response to their ads —— such as “leverage,” “the nudge factor, “pester power. The aim of most children's advertising is straightforward: Get kids to nag their parents and nag them well.James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, is considered America's leading authority on marketing to children. In his book  Kids As Customers (1992), McNea1 provides marketers with a thorough analysis of “children's requesting styles and appeals. He classifies juvenile nagging tactics into seven major categories. A  pleading   nag is one accompanied by repetitions of words like please or “mom, morn, mom. A  persistent   nag involves constant requests for the coveted product and may include the phrase ‘I’m gonna ask just one more time.  Forceful   nags are extremely pushy and may include subtle threats, like Well, then, I’ll go and ask Dad.  Demonstrative  nags are the most high-risk, often characterized by full-blown tantrums in public places, breath-holding, tears, a refusal to leave the store. Sugarcoated   nags promise affection in return for a purchase and may rely on seemingly heartfelt declarations like “You're the best dad in the world.” Threatening   nags are youthful forms of  blackmail, vows of eternal hatred and of running away if something isn’t bought.  Pity  nags claim the child will be heartbroken, teased, or socially stunted if the parent refuses to buy a certain item. All of these appeals and styles may be used in combination, McNeal's research has discovered, “but kids tend to stick to one or two of each that proved most effective . . . for their own parents. McNeal never advocates turning children into screaming, breath-holding monsters. He has been studying “Kid Kustomers” for more than thirty years and believes in a more traditional marketing approach. “The key is getting children to see a firm . . . in much the same way as [they see] mom or dad, grandma or grandpa,” McNeal argues. “Likewise, if a company can ally itself with universal values such as patriotism, national defense, and good health, it is likely to nurture belief in it among children. Before trying to affect children's behavior, advertisers have to learn about their tastes. Today’s market researchers not only conduct surveys of children in shopping malls, they also organize focus groups for kids as young as two or three. They analyze children’s artwork, hire children to run focus groups, stage slumber parties and then question children into the night. They send cultural anthropologists into homes, stores, fast food restaurants, and other places where kids like to gather, quietly and surreptitiously observing the behavior of prospective customers. They study the academic literature on child development, seeking insights from the work of theorists such as Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. They study the fantasy lives of young children; they apply the findings in advertisements and product designs.Dan S. Acuff — the president of Youth Market System Consulting and the author of What Kids  Buy and Why  (1997) — stresses the importance of dream research. Studies suggest that until the age of six, roughly 80 percent of children's dreams are about animals. Rounded, soft creatures like Barney, Disney's animated characters, and the Teletubbies therefore have an obvious appeal to young children. The Character Lab, a division of Youth Market System Consulting, uses a proprietary technique called Character Appeal Quadrant Analysis to help companies develop new mascots. The technique purports to create imaginary characters who perfectly fit the targeted age groups level of cognitive and neurological development.Children’s clubs have for years been considered an effective means of targeting ads and collecting demographic information; the clubs appeal to a child's fundamental need for status and belonging. Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, formed in 1930, was one of the trailblazers. During the 1980s and 1990s, children's clubs proliferated, as corporations used them to solicit the names, addresses, zip codes, and  3  personal comments of young customers. “Marketing messages sent through a club not only can be  personalized,” James McNeal advises, “they can be tailored for a certain age or geographical group. A well-designed and well-run children’s club can be extremely good for business. According to one Burger King executive, the creation of a Burger King Kids Club in 1991 increased the sales of children's meals as rnuch as 300 percent.The Internet has become another powerful tool for assembling data about children. In 1998 a federal investigation of Web sites aimed at children found that 89 percent requested personal information from kids; only I percent required that children obtain parental approval before supplying the information. A character on the McDonald's Web site told children that Ronald McDonald was the ultimate authority in everything. The site encouraged kids to send Ronald an e-mail revealing their favorite menu item at McDonald's, their favorite book, their favorite sports team — and their name. Fast food Web sites no longer ask children to provide personal information without first gaining parental approval; to do so is now a violation of federal law, thanks to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which took effect in April of 2000.Despite the growing importance of the Internet, television remains the primary medium for children’s advertising. The effects of these TV ads have long been a subject of controversy. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to ban all television   ads directed at children seven years old or younger. Many studies had found that young children often could not tell the difference between television programming and television advertising. They also could not comprehend the real purpose of commercials and trusted that advertising claims were true. Michael Pertschuk, the head of the FTC, argued that children need to be shielded from advertising that preys upon their immaturity. “They cannot  protect themselves, he said, “against adults who exploit their presentmindedness. The FTC’s proposed ban was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the Consumers Union, and the Child Welfare League, among others. But it was attacked by the National Association of Broadcasters, the Toy Manufacturers of America, and the Association of National Advertisers. The industry groups lobbied Congress to prevent any restrictions on children's ads and sued in federal court to block Pertschuk from participating in future FTC meetings on the subject. In April of 1981, three months after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, an FTC staff report argued that a ban on ads aimed at children would be impractical, effec~ tively killing the  proposal. “We are delighted by the FTC’s reasonable recommendation, said the head of the National Association of Broadcasters.The Saturday-morning children's ads that caused angry debates twenty years ago now seem almost quaint. Far from being banned, TV advertising aimed at kids is now broadcast twenty-four hours a day, closed—captioned and in stereo. Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network, and the other children's cable networks are now responsible for about 80 percent of all television viewing by kids. None of these networks existed before 1979. The typical American child now spends about twenty-one hours a week watching television — roughly one and a half months of TV every year. That does not include the time children spend in front of a screen watching videos, playing video games, or using the computer. Outside of school, the typical American child spends more time watching television than doing any other activity except sleeping. During the course of a year, he or she watches more than thirty thousand TV commercials. Even the nation’s youngest children are watching a great deal of television. About one-quarter of American children between the ages of two and five have a TV in their room.
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