Consuming Kids

Over the past decade, advertising to children has climbed to new heights--or, rather, descended to new depths. According to the Center for a New American Dream, American companies spend about $2 billion each year advertising to kids--more than 20 times what they spent 10 years ago. James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, says that advertisers treat children as three markets simultaneously: as a primary market, as influencers of their families' economic decisions, and as the "market of the future." The result is an all-out blitz on children's minds.

With such heavy competition, advertisers are desperate for any advantage they can get, and some psychologists are happy to help them. After all, what could help advertisers more than the latest information on children's cognitive development and emotional vulnerability? Some corporations employ psychologists on their marketing teams; others turn to consultants. The result, according to a group of psychologists who have denounced these practices, is "arguably the largest single psychological project ever undertaken."

How does psychological insight make advertising more effective? Psychologists help advertisers with everything from the pacing of TV commercials to the ideal background colors for ads and packaging. Want to know which age groups will respond to role models and celebrities, and which ones would prefer an animal mascot? Want to know at what age children learn to appreciate puns or at what age they favor slapstick? Hire a psychologist.

Last fall, clinical psychologist Allen Kanner and the advocacy group Commercial Alert sent the American Psychological Association (APA) a letter signed by 60 psychologists, calling on the organization to denounce "the use of psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children" and to amend the organization's ethics code to limit the use of those techniques "to observe, study, manipulate, harm, exploit, mislead, trick or deceive children for commercial purposes." The APA's Board on the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest will consider the letter in March.

The letter has some critics. Dan Acuff, for one, is the author of What Kids Buy and Why and the president of Youth Market Systems, a California-based consulting firm that helps companies design psychologically appropriate advertising campaigns. The issue "isn't all black and white," he says, and really boils down to "responsible marketing." Psychologists should be aware of the potential for manipulation, but can avoid these problems by refusing to help advertise harmful products (like toy guns or bombs).

But the problem extends beyond the promotion of particular products. Children are the segment of the population least likely to understand advertising and most likely to be influenced by it. Young children have trouble differentiating between ads and programs, and many kids misunderstand the motives behind advertising. In a study of several hundred schoolchildren, Roy Fox of the University of Missouri at Columbia found that many children believed, for example, that athletes paid companies to advertise their products, and not the other way around. "When most people process media," Fox explains, "they alter them and twist them and make them their own. But [many children] were taking TV advertising wholesale and verbatim, and making it a legitimate part of their lives."

What's more, ads sell more than products; they also subtly promote a materialistic world view. "If you see an ad for Barbie or Levi's, the fundamental message behind the advertisement is that the pursuit of wealth is meaningful, is valuable, and brings good things to your life," says Timothy Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College who signed the letter to the APA. As Kasser notes, there's a substantial body of research associating TV viewing with materialism, and materialism with depression and other social problems. "When psychologists use their knowledge to influence ads, they're also using their knowledge to influence children's values," he says.

Moreover, by treating children as nothing more than consumers, advertising represents an assault on the idea of childhood itself. "Advertising can actually wound children--making them feel inadequate and insecure if they aren't buying an endless array of new products," says Allen Kanner. And ads that stress the "nag factor"--bug your parents until they buy what you want--can disrupt family dynamics. Meanwhile, as advertising expenditures have skyrocketed, childhood obesity and associated health problems have grown substantially; the trends are probably related.

Psychology has yielded valuable insights about human nature and has provided clinical help to thousands of patients, but the interests of advertisers and psychologists only rarely coincide. And when mercenary psychologists sell their services to corporations, they often fuel the very problems they normally work to combat--a lesson the APA should remember when it considers the issue next spring.