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From footwear to hair care, big business is making its pitch to little consumers and scoring billions of dollars. If you doubt the effectiveness of kid-oriented marketing, just visit your local school: Nike's "swoosh" decorates sneakers and jackets, Warner Bros.' Looney Toons romp across T-shirts and school supplies, while Disney-character lunch boxes bulge with Oscar Mayer Lunchables and Dannon Danimals.
       This spells good news to people like David Siegel, general manager of Small Talk, a Cincinnati consulting firm that specializes in kids' marketing and advertising. "Five years ago, the main advertisements to kids were for games, toys, candy, and cereal. Now the list includes clothing, shampoo, hygiene products, computers, cars--even utilities," Siegel says.

Working parents don't have time to make product comparisons. Instead, says Siegel, they defer to kids when choosing vacation spots, restaurants, groceries, and more. And companies are bending over backward to reach these young decision makers.
       Indeed, marketers aren't reaching kids just through television and magazines. The Internet is host to several corporate kiddy Web sites. Even some cash-strapped schools accept corporate dollars for displaying ads on school buses, walls, cafeteria menus, and textbook covers.
       Children acquire brand-name awareness and preferences before they lose their first teeth. "Commercials give kids information. If they like what they see, it'll convince them to buy," Siegel says.

The danger, fears Ron Miller, is that busy parents too often buy youngsters toys on demand. "It's important to teach the value of money and savings before a kid [grows up], gets into financial trouble, and has to be bailed out," says Miller, president of Edison Credit Union, Kansas City, Mo., and chairman of the National Youth Involvement Board (NYIB).
       Parents who want to raise money-wise children face formidable competition. Large corporations last year spent $1.5 billion marketing just to kids. Considering the following statistics, it's no wonder kids are crucial to businesses:
  • Children will spend an estimated $20 billion this year.
  • Adults will spend another $200 billion buying products and services for kids.
  • Children influence between 20% and 80% of household purchases.
  • At the present birth rate, one in six Americans will be younger than age 12 by the year 2000.

The peanut gallery
Not surprisingly, the lion's share of kid-oriented marketing dollars goes to television networks. Advertisers paid some $750 million upfront this year for space during children's television programming, according to Mediaweek.
       The growth of cable kids' channels like Nickelodeon ensures marketers a vast and attentive audience. Studies show the average child watches as much as two and a half hours of television each day and sees some 20,000 advertisements a year.
       Marketers' tactics have changed significantly since Howdy Doody cowpokes began watching television in the 1950s. TV series and movies, like those featuring Power Rangers, are produced solely to sell related toys. Products generated from licensing deals between manufacturers and entertainment companies account for about half of all toy industry sales. The line between advertising and entertainment is increasingly blurred, if it even exists.
       Young children need guidance to distinguish a sales pitch from television's noncommercial content. The Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C., advises parents to teach kids that 1) advertising exists to sell products, 2) special effects can exaggerate a toy's operation, and 3) ads don't always include enough information about products.
       Yet commercials can be beneficial. "Advertising informs the consumer about different products and makes kids aware of what's going on in the marketplace," says Russell Laczniak, a marketing professor at Iowa State University in Ames, who studies parental concerns regarding children's advertising.
       In fact, Laczniak's research finds that parents who consistently communicate with their kids are less likely to advocate regulating commercials. Rather, they see advertisements as an opportunity to teach kids how to make smart consumer decisions.
       Here's an exercise that author Neale S. Godfrey suggests to parents in her book, "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees" (ISBN 0-671-79805-7): Watch a program with a child and pay attention to commercials; explain the difference between the program and the ads. At the grocery store, have the child pick out a food product you saw advertised, along with a similar product. Conduct a blindfolded taste test so the child can determine firsthand whether the advertised product lives up to its claim--is it really crunchier, tastier, fresher?

Nearly four million children surf the Internet; projections show that figure growing to 15 million by 2000.
       While advertising on the World Wide Web still is young, the Net's interactive capability has opened a whole new world for businesses seeking marketing information.
       Today you'll find Web sites for kids from such companies as Toys "R" Us Inc., Ty Inc. (the Beanie Babies company), and Nickelodeon. All contain ads. Most have "clubs" or promise free "gifts," such as an electronic birthday card. Entry into virtual clubs often requires completing a questionnaire requesting household information. Receiving a personalized e-mail message requires submitting a name, birth date, and e-mail address.
       Watchdog groups decry companies using on-line games and activities to acquire private information from kids. The Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C., has called for federal policies to protect children from these ploys. And the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Advertising Review Unit, Arlington, Va., has issued guidelines for on-line advertising.
       Keeping tabs on kids' on-line activity can be tough. In many households, the children are more computer-savvy than the adults. Children also gain access to the Internet at school or at a library. It's important they learn to guard their privacy.
       Some tips for parents from the Direct Marketing Association, New York, and Interactive Services Association, Silver Spring, Md.:
  • Monitor children's usage of the Internet and on-line services.
  • Teach kids to distinguish between marketing content and other forms of Internet content.
  • Consider purchasing software tools (Cyber Patrol, NetNanny) that restrict kids' access to particular sites, or prevent them from disclosing personal information.

Little shavers, big savers
Given the constant barrage of messages to "buy, buy, and buy some more," children need to learn basic economic skills. "I've seen young people who don't know how to balance a checkbook and who turn into credit problems before entering college," says NYIB's Miller.
       Miller stresses the importance of children opening a youth savings account at an early age and occasionally visiting their credit union.
       Children as young as six can do small jobs around the house to earn a little extra money beyond their usual allowance. Parents and children together should agree on the jobs and payment. Break "paychecks" and allowance money into small denominations (dollar bills or coins), so children can divide portions for short- and long-term savings.
       Setting purchasing goals is the key to motivating savings. Kids may want to hang pictures of the toys they want to earn, along with prices, on the refrigerator. Sometimes, an expensive toy is too much for a young child's budget. "Parents might cover a portion of the purchase and have the child work toward paying the rest," suggests Miller. "Working toward the goal is the biggest thing."
       It's not easy to set a child on the right path to financial fitness. It requires good communication, monitoring some activities, and a lot of guidance. But in the end, you'll have one smart little consumer.

For more help:

Federal Trade Commission parental guidelines for television commercials:

The Direct Marketing Association's guidelines for
parents monitoring on-line activity:

The Center for Media Education's well-crafted report on
Web advertising:

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