Get ready, baby. You're TV's newest target


The video clip opens with the school's mascot logo bouncing across the screen before a saccharine female voice states plainly, "The University of Kentucky Wildcats."

Out rolls a montage of cheering fans, a waving mascot and an ecstatic basketball player scoring - all interspersed with shots of smiling children decked in Kentucky blue and cuddling Wildcat stuffed animals.

"Basketball," the voice-over coos. This is Team Baby Entertainment, a line of sports-themed DVDs meant to start collegiate fans young - that is, before they can even wrap their tiny mouths around the words "go team!"

"To parents, their children are obviously the most important things to them," says Team Baby founder Greg Scheinman. "So they want to be able to offer products to their children that can potentially make them smarter or more athletic or closer to their parents. These are all positive things. As long as they're done responsibly."

Scheinman is tapping into what's proving to be a lucrative, if controversial, market of products geared to infants and toddlers. Never mind that they can't walk or talk. This niche has tremendous buying power. And advertisers and manufacturers are homing in like never before, expecting only market growth, industry observers say.

Trendy clothing, tot-friendly snacks, educational videos, even personal-care products - all specifically tailored for and marketed to the younger-than-3 set.

For clothing and footwear alone, spending on infants, toddlers and preschoolers reached close to $17 billion last year, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, reports, a New York research firm.

Equating dollar signs with children is older than Ronald McDonald. But some industry watchers say something has shifted. Marketing is more aggressive, more targeted. And it's aimed at younger consumers.

"When markets get saturated, they have to go somewhere. And with kids, the only place to go is down," says Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.

The aim, say critics, is twofold: Cater to fretful parents keen on raising healthy, wholesome, brainy children; and hook future consumers by instilling early a brand loyalty likely to continue into adolescence, and maybe beyond.

It leaves critics such as Linn worried, not just about the ethics, but also the impact of having children toddling their first few years through one big commercial advertisement. Just consider, she says, the cartoon characters smiling at them everyday from diapers and T-shirts, from wallpaper and snack crackers. In many cases, they recognize these logos before they are even watching TV, before they have set a baby-bootied foot in a McDonald's.

"It's all disturbing. But targeting babies is more disturbing because of how rapidly their brains are developing," says Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group.

Not all industry watchers see the reach as damaging - just good business. And, in many cases, providing consumers with products that serve them well.

"I don't think it's malicious in intent. I think it's a smart marketing thing to do," says Michelle Poris, director of quantitative research at Just Kid Inc., a Stamford, Conn., children's marketing group.

"I don't think any company feels comfortable marketing to 2-year-olds. They're really marketing to moms," says Poris, a child psychologist. "But the fact of the matter is, they know that 2-year-olds are in the grocery stores with mom and that 2-year-olds establish patterns. And if they have a product that a 2-year-old likes, that 2-year-old moves with that product as they get older."

And with more media aimed at this age group than in previous generations, opportunities to communicate with it abound, she says.

It's that technological terrain that's drawing the most attention, and scrutiny. The so-called kid-vid market is booming at $4.8 billion, according to Mar That includes DVDs such as the popular Baby Einstein line, which purports to be a teaching tool, with titles such as Baby Mozart and Baby Monet.

Making a controversial leap into the fray last May was BabyFirstTV, the first 24-hour cable and satellite network for children younger than 3, purporting to educate and stimulate young minds.

"Parents want their children to be smarter, and they will bend over backward to bring that about," says Daniel Acuff, founder and president of Youth Market Systems and co-author of Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children.

"But actually, they don't really need anything to stimulate their brains except to play."

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