Kids influence $150 billion in spending, so Madison Ave. aims at them "Mom can we buy a ..."

November 07, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Source: Youth Market Systems, Professor James McNealNew York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Eight-year-old Shari Todd may not have a lot of money in her pocket, but on shopping trips, she often gets what she wants. Cereals, snacks and shampoos are hers for the asking -- thanks to a mom who generally lets her buy what she pleases.

"I know it's probably not the best thing to let her do, but children can be really insistent. It's either stand and fight or let her have her way," said Elizabeth Todd, as daughter Shari clutched a Tweety-bird doll at a Warner Bros. Studio Store.

The shopping tug of war between parents and children is as old as Ovaltine. But Madison Avenue is convinced that children are winning the battle -- and up to $150 billion of buying power. Demographic shifts and new research into family buying habits have convinced many companies that preteens influence spending on much more than candy and soda pop.

Besides the Saturday-morning stalwarts, sweet cereals and trendy toys, marketers now aim credit cards, hotels, airlines and even public television memberships at children. To reach these budding consumers -- or to use them to reach parents -- companies have created clubs for children, new magazines and even direct-mail campaigns.

Corporate marketing has even invaded the schoolhouse. Sponsored learning materials, television programs and ads piped over the public address system reach up to 20 million children a year.

"There's a realization that children not only have more and more money of their own to spend, but also that they influence a great deal of family income," said Daniel Acuff of Youth Market Systems, a children's marketing service in Glendale, Calif. "You now ignore them at your peril."

Intensified marketing aimed at children also has sparked criticism. Citing studies that show children are unable to evaluate sophisticated ad campaigns, critics argue that children are being exploited and should be shielded from some advertising.

Still, the marketing onslaught is likely to continue as companies seek to tap this lucrative source of sales.

"Kids today have so many more things aimed at them than we did when I was growing up. I guess it makes sense. Shari has more money than I did when I was her age," Mrs. Todd said.

At Shari's age, allowances are still relatively small -- averaging about $6 a week nationally -- but that adds up to $11 billion in discretionary spending by preteens each year.

Using studies of family buying habits, James McNeal, a professor at Texas A&M University, estimates that preteens influence at least an additional $147 billion in spending. For Mrs. Todd, that often means buying Cap'n Crunch cereal and Jell-O chocolate pudding.

To put it another way, the preteens' impact equals the consumer market of Taiwan, one of Asia's superstar economies.

One reason for this influence: During each of the average 292 visits to a store that a child makes each year, parents are bombarded with 13 to 16 requests, Mr. McNeal said. Those repeated requests are hard to turn down.

Mr. McNeal and other researchers say parents are more willing to give in because they feel guilty for having so little time for their children. While household incomes have stagnated in recent years, children's income has increased by about 10 percent annually over the past decade, he said.

"What we're seeing is a redistribution of wealth inside the family. Parents truly know that their kids won't have it as good as they did, so they're giving more," he said.

Some parents also use shopping trips to train their children as full-fledged consumers. "Parents expect their children to be consumers at a young age. They want their children to make decisions. They ask them what they want to buy," Mr. McNeal said.

Many advertisers, however, try to influence children before they enter a store.

"The reality of kids' lives today is that single-parent families are on the rise. Everyone has pressure on them, and few parents really do supervise their children," said Deyna Vesey of Kidvertisers, a 4-year-old New York firm that specializes in advertising for children.

The result: Children spend hours each day in front of the television or with a growing array of child-oriented marketing tools.

Magazines illustrate the change. Adult-oriented magazines, including National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, have children's versions. And other children's magazines have grown more colorful and spunky than such staid publications as Boy's Life.

Meanwhile, companies as diverse as Burger King, the Hyatt hotel chain and Delta Air Lines have started clubs to attract children and build brand loyalty.

Delta, for example, has a Delta Kids Club and a Fantastic Flier Program for Kids, which offer special meals and toys. The clubs even have their own mascot, Dusty the Delta Lion.

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