Advertisers raise ante on marketing to children

Report links focused trend with food products to obesity


Coca-Cola sells stuffed polar bears. McDonald's features in-house playgrounds. Keebler has animated elves.

Marketing aimed at children used to focus on selling toys and experiences, such as the circus, but as buying power of children has swelled, so have the efforts to get their business. Today, children are bombarded with advertisements and enticements, from cell phone providers to brand-name clothiers.

A government-funded report released by the Institute of Medicine, an advisory arm of the National Academies, caused a stir this week when it linked the proliferation of junk-food advertising to the growing incidence of childhood obesity. Some called for legislation that would tighten restrictions on food marketing to children, perhaps modeled after laws in the Canadian province of Quebec, Sweden and Norway that prohibit television advertising from targeting children younger than 12.

A generation ago, the Federal Trade Commission tried to ban ads for young children and limit sugary food ads for older kids, but corporations balked and the campaign died along with part of the agency's regulatory powers.

Other anti-advertising campaigns tended to target practices at individual companies: In the 1990s, the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company was criticized for using the cartoon figure "Joe Camel" to sell cigarettes, and Anheuser-Busch caught flak for using cute frogs to sell Budweiser beer - images that appealed to young people.

None of it stopped the overall advertising trend, however, as children became bigger consumers and larger influences in the buying patterns of their parents, and as marketing has become ever more focused, sophisticated and multifaceted.

Today, companies spend about $15 billion on advertising aimed at children, up from $100 million in 1983, according to industry analysts.

Last year, 10 percent of all new products that entered the marketplace aimed advertising at children; it was 1 percent in 1994, according to data in the Institute of Medicine report. says children control or influence $600 billion of product purchases per year. Web sites now feature advertising games that appeal to the video-game set. Teen versions of adult magazines, such as Cosmo Girl and Teen People, display high-end brands, and schools sign exclusive contracts to sell only certain kinds of sodas.

"Comparing the marketing of yesterday to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb," said Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Consuming Kids, a book that analyzes the so-called kid market.

"We just can't think about commercials anymore. Commercials are a small part. There's product placement, movie promotions, marketing in schools. There's barely a moment in children's lives when they're not being marketed to," she said.

The 500-page Institute of Medicine report concluded that marketing food to children works. Children from ages 2 to 11 are more likely to ask for and seek out products made familiar through advertising - for the most part junk food.

The food and beverage industry spent $10 billion in advertising to kids last year, and most of that went toward high-calorie, low-nutrient products. The report asked that companies stop marketing unhealthy snacks to children and promote healthier choices.

"This is an all-hands-on-deck issue, " IOM scholar J. Michael McGinnis said in a statement. "Parents have a central role in the turnaround required, but so do the food, beverage and restaurant industries."

Some believe that linking advertising aimed at children with eating disorders or other social ills is exaggerated.

"I know there are going to be critics out there who say, `Oh, marketing is evil,' but that's too simplistic. It's not that way," said Hank Boyd, who teaches marketing at the University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

However, Boyd said, "If [businesses] stop to think about it, they could steer [children] toward healthy food." The popular character SpongeBob SquarePants adorns snack-pack size bags of minicarrots, but his mug also is on various candies as well.

The rise in two-income households and more children left alone with the television and the Internet has dovetailed - some say fostered - the number of ads aimed at children, said Chris Woldrup, deputy director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group in Washington.

"In the past [few] decades or so, children and young adults have become more and more decision-makers and had more disposable income to actually purchase products," Woldrup said. "Adults don't respond to cartoon characters. Children respond to cartoon characters."

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