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Kiddie, Can You Spare a Dime?

Lenore Skenazy
April 15, 2010

"American Idol" is the perfect show to watch as a family, right? We've done it in our home. (Simon, don't leave!) What I didn't realize till I picked up a fact sheet from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is that for 14 minutes each episode, we're watching product placements.

Not commercials — those just seem endless. No, I'm talking about product placements, e.g., Coke and Ford just "casually" worked into the fun. There were 4,151 such placements in the first 38 episodes of the 2008 "Idol" season. That's 545 minutes' worth.

"Typically, Coca-Cola branded glasses are situated at the (judges' desk). Whenever Simon Cowell quenches his thirst, the audience sees him drinking from the branded glass," reports Product Placement News. (Yes, there's a publication devoted to this industry.) That glass is not just reminding us adults to drink Coke. It's aiming at kids, too.

Kids may seem as if they don't have enough allowance for marketers to bother with, but actually children younger than 14 spend about $40 billion a year. Yes, you read that right. This is up from the $6 billion those kids spent in 1989, on things such as food, clothes and games. Companies that want to make sure kids are sending dollars their way spent $17 billion in 2006 on snagging them. That's up from just (ha! "just") $100 million in 1983.

Does all that marketing money do its job? Here's a text I just got this afternoon from my 12-year-old son (who said the school lunch didn't fill him up): "after school im going to get myself the best McDonalds dinner ever and try the stuff that they keep advertising on the radio."

So I just had to write this column. (And yes, I know he needs to learn about apostrophes.)

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has compiled some other stunning stats about marketing to kids:

  • In 2008, five blockbuster movies premiered with a total of more than 2,000 toys and another 6,000 merchandising tie-ins.
  • There are now more than 40,000 licensed Disney Princess items for sale.
    The brand brought in $3.4 billion in 2006. (That's a lot of tiaras!)
  • Wrigley paid R & B singer Chris Brown to write Doublemint gum into his hit "Forever."
  • Viacom's Nicktropolis, a virtual world/gaming site, allows visitors to watch webisodes of Nickelodeon's programming, play Nick-themed games, interact inside Nick-themed rooms and "chat" using pre-scripted sentences about Nickelodeon shows.

Now, I'm not against kids' playing online (within reason), but bandying about pre-scripted banter about a network's TV shows? That sounds more Orwellian than Orwell.

How do marketers achieve this kind of influence? "It's partly the rise of technology," says Josh Golin, Commercial-Free's associate director. Kids ages 8 to 18 are spending 7.5 hours on media each day, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report. "When you consider that just about all that media is commercially driven," Golin says, "that's just a tremendous amount of time they're being bombarded with advertising."

The results? Oh, you know them already: Nagging. Obesity. Sassy talk. Sexy 6-year-olds and boys whose only ambition is to be rich. When I gwow up, I want to be a hedge fund manager!

Other countries are slapping down kiddie marketing. Sweden doesn't allow advertising to children younger than 8. In Quebec, it's age 12. England just started severely restricting junk food advertising to kids.





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