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Hawking food to kids.

Hawking Food To Kids

He's red and he's shaped like a pitcher. His face is on his belly, and he's got three ice cubes for brains.

He's Kool-Aid Man, and he's after your kid's allowance. So are Betsy McCall and the California Raisins.

Children spend (or cause their parents to spend) billions of dollars every year, much of it on food. And manufacturers are going after those dollars in a big way. No longer content with assaulting sleepy kids during the Saturday morning cartoon shows, several large food companies are now sponsoring their own children's magazines, and are even putting their names on plastic playfood and children's clothing.

As marketers become more sophisticated, it's getting harder for kids to tell--if they ever could tell--what's an ad and what's not. And, what's worse, nobody appears to be doing anything about it.

"The kids market is absolutely enormous," says Alan Toman, president of The Marketing Department, a New York consulting firm.

The Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 30 million children between the ages of six and 14 in the United States. That's 30 million marketers' dreams.

This spring, Selina Guber, president of Children's Market Research Inc., of New York., surveyed 1,000 of those 6-to-14-year-olds nationwide.

"In allowance alone, the kids averaged $3 a week," she says.

Now $3 a week might not seem like much. But $3 a week for 52 weeks for 30 million children comes to more than $4.6 billion a year.

And food manufacturers are trying to get their corporate hands on some of that $4.6 billion--plus an estimated $9.5 billion more in "spending money" and another $40 to $50 billion in family money that children have a say in spending every year.

One of their newest gimmicks is the kiddie magazine. Betsy McCall. Let's let Betsy introduce herself. "...suddenly I got this totally fierce idea," she explains in the first issue. "Why not do a magazine that's just for us girls and full of really cool stuff?"

And so she did. Or so McCall's magazine did. Three times a year, each of McCall's five million copies goes out with Betsy bound inside. Another million Betsys are distributed to every K-Mart in the country, where they're given out to 6-to-12-year-old shoppers in the little girl's department.

The problem is: the recipe page is suspect. Recipes call for Pepsi and Mott's applesauce, both of which have full-page ads in the magazine.

"It's not misleading. There's nothing hidden," says Peter Pitts, Director of Creative Services for McCall's. "The magazine is clearly an advertorial, a product of the advertising department. It's all paid advertising."

In the McCall's version, according to Pitts, "every page that is not clearly an advertisement has the word `advertisement' printed on top."

Helen Boehm, director of the Better Business Bureaus' Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), says that including advertisers' products in the magazine's recipes "clearly blurs the distinction between editorial and advertisement."

She adds that simply putting the word "advertisement" on top of every page doesn't automatically make everything okay.

"It should be enough," she says. "But not for kids." The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man. Archie Comics has produced a comic book that has for its hero a pitcher of Kool-Aid.

The copyright is held by General Foods Corporation, which manufactures Kool-Aid, and which last summer spent an estimated $25 million to boost sales of the packets of doctored sugar. (On any given day, a 1-to-5-year-old is as likely to drink Kool-Aid as orange juice.)

On the issue we bought, Kool-Aid Man and his children friends find themselves at the vault where Kool-Aid Man keeps "all my valuable toys and prizes...and lots of Kool-Aid soft drink mix."

According to CARU's Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Children's Advertising, "a character or personality associated with the editorial content of a publication should not be used to promote products, premiums, or services in the same publication." What's Hot. Four times a year, General Foods sends out two million copies of What's Hot to households that have responded to one of the company's promotions. Nineteen of the October issue's 28 pages are ads, most of them for General Foods products. And that doesn't even count the coupons.

General Foods Director of Direct Marketing John Kuendig defends his publication.

"One third of the magazine is pure editorial," he says. "It has no brand or company affiliation at all." Most of the rest is what Kuendig calls "advertorials," which he defines as "activities centering around one of our products."

The "advertorials" turn out to be page-length games, each sponsored by a General Foods cereal. "Pebbles Bedrock Races," for example, helps kids find the buried treasure of "yabba dabba delicious Post Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles cereals."

"The purpose of having the brand be part of the activity is to make the child aware of the product. I won't hide that," says Kuendig. Sports Illustrated for Kids. Due out early this year, the monthly is scheduled to have a circulation of 500,000 copies. Half of them will be donated to schools, for use in what a promotional flyer describes as a "national literacy campaign."

Advertisers are "limited" to 33 per year, and each will pay a flat $250,000, which will give it ten pages of advertising per year in the magazine.

Already signed up are seven food manufacturers: Frito-Lay, General Mills, Hershey, M&M/Mars, Pepsi-Cola, RJR Nabisco, and Sunkist. Will their ads appear in textbooks next?

FAST FOODS `R' US

On the left are Burger King and Baskin Robbins; on the right Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And just beyond them, almost at the intersection, is McDonald's.

A fast food strip? A shopping mall?

How about the playfood aisle at Toys `R' Us?

"Playfood sales are booming," says Toys `R' Us spokesperson Angela Bourdon.

A visit to two large toy stores in the Washington suburbs finds each with a whole aisle devoted to plastic imitation foods. There were Burger King Whoppers (complete with separate bun, cheese, onion, tomato, pickles, lettuce, fries, and onion rings). There were (scented) Dunkin' Donuts and donut holes. There were Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks, thighs, and coleslaw. There were Baskin-Robbins ice cream cones.

Why are parents willing to pay for what are little more than advertisements for junk foods?

"To the children, it's the difference between playing with a hamburger versus a Burger King burger," says Murray Pottick, president of Multi-Toys Corp. of Cresskill, New Jersey, which licenses the names and manufactures most of the new playfoods. Pottick told Advertising Age magazine in June that the brand name "lends credibility to the product."

MAKING A MCFASHION STATEMENT

The kiddie mags take care of the eyes, the plastic junk food covers the mouth. That leaves the rest of the body up for grabs.

Not for long.

If your child is into fast food, you can now buy him or her some McKids clothes (emblazoned with golden arch) at Sears, or a little something from the Burger King Collection. And, for the junkie-snack crowd, there's always Coca-Cola clothes.

Are the food clothes just a sideline? According to retail industry analysts, the McKids line already registers sales of about $100 million a year.

Even so, the most direct route to children's dollars remains television.

RIGHT BACK AFTER THESE MESSAGES

Nancy Cotugna deserves a medal. Last January, the professor of dietetics at the University of Delaware taped an entire Saturday morning's worth of cartoon shows on the three major networks.

"Actually, I fast-forwarded through the programs," she admits. "I just wanted to see the commercials."

And what she saw in those 12 hours was distressing. More than 70 percent of the 225 commercials were for foods, "and 80 percent of those were for products of low nutritional value" (presweetened cereals and fruit drinks, high-sodium canned pastas, or fatty fast-food burgers, fries, and shakes.)(1)

TV: THE `LEGAL BREAKFAST' RULE

Next Saturday morning, watch a few minutes of the Smurfs, the Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Pee Wee's Playhouse, or one of the other kids' shows.

A few seconds before the end of any of the cereal commercials (and there'll be dozens of them), you'll see a bowl of the cereal sitting next to a glass of milk, a glass of orange juice, some toast, and a piece of fruit. Then you'll hear the announcer say something like "Super Duper Cereal, part of this nutritious breakfast."

You've just seen the "Legal Breakfast Rule."

According to the CBS Television Network Advertising Guidelines, "Each commercial for breakfast-type products must clearly establish, in the audio and video, for at least three seconds, the role of the product within the framework of a nutritionally balanced breakfast."

The only problem with the rule is that "nobody has ever questioned children about what it means to them," says John Condry, professor of psychology at Cornell University and co-director of its Human Development and Television Research Lab.

In fact, by calling a sugar-loaded cereal "part of a nutritious breakfast," advertisers could be giving children the wrong message (wrong for the kids, that is). "Even an adult might well conclude that he or she needs the cereal to make the breakfast nutritious," says Condry.

"That's the tail wagging the dog," counters Matthew Margo, vice-president for program practices in New York for CBS Broadcasting. "It's highly speculative, and on risky terrain."

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL

How kids interpret commercials is one thing: whether they are even capable of telling the difference between commercials and programs is another.

That's why children's television shows now use "bumpers," which are announcements designed to separate program content from advertising. We'll be right back after these messages and We now return to our program are the two bumpers that sandwich most commercial breaks.

But do bumpers make a difference?

Cornell's Condry says that children under the age of three are not aware of the difference between commercials and programming, bumpers or no bumpers. Between three and eight or nine, kids can distinguish between programs and ads, "but don't know what that difference means."

It's not until eight or so, according to Condry, that children begin to realize that the intent of advertising is to get them to do something.

DOIN' THE REGULATION RAG

"Is there enough being done? No. We'd like to see more," says CARU's Helen Boehm.

CARU monitors advertising directed at children, and seeks voluntary changes in ads it believes are misleading or inaccurate. It's a sad commentary when an industry self-regulatory group is all that stands between our children and the advertising power of the food industry.

Of course, there are the (also self-regulatory) TV networks' guidelines, but they're long on lofty statements of principle and short on clear, unambiguous rules that have an impact on kids. There are also public interest groups like Action for Children's Television (ACT) and the Washington D.C. chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, and state Attorney Generals who are willing to go after deceptive advertisements.

But there is no help at all from Washington.

Take last year's Children's Educational Television Act. The measure would have set a maximum of 10 1/2 minutes of advertising per hour on children's programs (that's about two minutes more than the three networks currently average!).(2) An amended version of the anemic measure was even supported by the broadcasting industry.

The Act passed the Congress during the last session, but President Reagan vetoed it, arguing that it violated the principles of free speech.

"Reagan's idea is that the marketplace should regulate itself," says Cynthia Scheibe, John Condry's co-director at Cornell's Television Research Lab. "And it's doing just that--unfortunately not with an eye to children's needs, but to profits.

"It's sad that this is the best we can do." (1)J. Nutr. Ed. 20: 125, 1988. (2)Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 32: 3, 1988.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Schmidt, Stephen B.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Words:1969
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