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Sell It to the Kids

August 9, 2010

Fiona at Home

In “Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children,” Jill Richardson reveals that one out of every three visits to fast food eateries is the direct result of parents being nagged beyond endurance. Apparently, that’s all part of the master plan:

Marketers use sophisticated child psychology to help children leverage ‘pester power,’ effectively nagging their parents to buy them the desired item (and often playing on parents’ guilt for not having enough time to spend with their children).

When a certain type of person is targeted by marketing, the assumption is that the person is a potential customer, with money in his or her pocket, and a perfect right to spend it on anything he or she pleases. That may be true of older children, i.e. teenagers who work, but where little kids are concerned, it’s not appropriate. Small children are not qualified to be customers (although they are world-class consumers). Few parents would turn an eight-year-old loose in the mall with all the birthday money.

Advertising relies on the psychological manipulation of common human drives and fears. Actually, while the pitch is expressed in 10 million different ways, all advertising boils down to: “This will make you feel better.”

However, when the target is a minor child who probably does not control the family budget, additional methods must be employed. The advertiser must convince a third party — the child — to convince the customer to buy. It’s marketing by proxy, selling-once-removed. First, the easy part: the kid gets the “This will make you feel better…” message. Second, the kid also needs to get the message, “… so go ahead and make your parents’ life an unrelenting hell until they buy it for you.”

Now it’s the child’s job to sell a product: the product called “Buy this for me.” The selling point is, “This will make you feel better, because I’ll create misery until you buy me this thing.” Awareness of all this is built into kiddie advertising, and it’s the kind of thing the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood wants to stop. Children don’t understand the persuasive intentions of advertising (that is, when they can even tell it apart from the alleged programs, of which a large number are basically ads.) Children don’t understand that they’re what is known in the con-artist trade as “marks.”

In her very comprehensive Alternet article, Richardson also speaks of the deep links that people form with their favorite food companies. Any hint of criticism directed toward the products a person identifies with can imperil that person’s sense of emotional security. And that’s understandable. First, they tell us there is no Santa, then they tell us that our beloved food corporations do not have our best interests at heart. It’s all too much.

Richardson tells of a young girl who turns up her nose at her father’s cooking, and the dad is a chef trained by the Culinary Institute of America. The child wants junk food, and not just any junk food. This eight-year-old’s sense of brand loyalty is so ingrained, only one junk food eatery will do, and only certain items.

Kids have wacky eating habits. All parents know this, and there is nothing wrong with encouraging autonomy in the young. Ideally, we’d like to allow them their fads and irrational dislikes, but it would be great if that independence could be kept within bounds. For instance, this notion: “The kid isn’t eating carrots this week, but at least he’s eating cabbage. He’ll probably get back around to carrots.” That kind of conflict we can live with.

Sadly, in the real world, almost all children can get their hands on stuff that we would prefer they not eat. The aforementioned chef has banned television from his home, to no avail. His little girl is also hooked on the restaurant chain’s child-oriented website, which offers an irresistible assortment of bells and whistles.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children,” Alternet.org, 03/23/10
Image by rsgranne, used under its Creative Commons license.

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