And with parents spending oodles of loot on their young kids, companies are continuing the age-old practice of using popular characters to sell their wares to children. In fact, says Adweek advertising critic Barbara Lippert, they're intensifying it. Even Uncle Sam is doing it, to sell messages.
As The Early Show continued the special CBS News series ""Gotta Have It: The Hard Sell to Kids," Lippert explained Tuesday why the hard-sell works so well at that age.
A classic example is a McDonald's campaign coinciding with the release of the movie "Shrek 3" and using Shrek characters.
"Shrek," co-anchor Harry Smith noted, "isn't just a character. He's a marketing platform."
"A muli-marketing platform" Lippert observed, "on multiple levels."
To see just how much advertising kids have aimed their way, click here.
She told Smith, "The problem with kids is they believe everything in advertising. Kids under the age of five or so can't even discern between the programming and the commercial. And there's no such thing as subliminal advertising, because they take everything at face value. They're defenseless against it. … There shouldn't be any advertising to kids at all. But you can't put that ban on it."
Lippert pointed out that, "They had some of that stuff when we were kids. Fruit Loops and stuff. The difference is, it's grown exponentially, and it's all over. If you're a 10-year-old with a cell phone, you're gonna get commercials on your cell phone. We have screens everywhere. It's on every screen. You can't not see it."
She agreed with Smith's assessment that marketers believe the younger they get kids hooked, the better the chance kids will stay committed.
"Yes," Lippert said, "that's how I feel as part of Tony the Tiger, still! It really does work. So therefore they're -- and there's so many more characters and they stay alive -- a really important part of children's movies is marketing, the fast food and all the toys, and it's huge, and this is the biggest movie promotion worldwide ever. So it'll stay in the culture forever, and you just have to teach them how to look at it."
For tips from the Better Business Bureau on teaching kids how to deal with advertising, click here.
So, Smith asked, if kids are watching this much television, what choices do parents have other than to turn off the set if they want their youngsters to avoid the influence of commercials?
"You can Tivo through and get rid of the commercials, or let them watch only DVDs," Lippert said. "Spend more time with them. They're saying it's passive and takes away from playing and drawing and singing. As long as they're getting both, I think -- you know, the American Association of Pediatrics said there should be a ban for children under two. A mom needs to take a shower every now and then, you know? You can watch a DVD. But sit down and talk to them about what they're seeing and what they're feeling about it. Later on, talk about the commercials. You think that toy will look like that when you get it home? You know, that kind of thing."
The Department of Health and Human Services has a public service announcement featuring Shrek, urging kids to exercise. Lippert said it's controversial, because Shrek is a commercial character.
But she doesn't know what the fuss is all about: "It's not like little kids will look at it and say, 'No, I'm not going to exercise because "Shrek" has a conflict. I saw him advertising M&Ms, so therefore I'm not gonna listen to him.' "
The ad won't be running on TV for several weeks, HHS says, to avoid confusion between it and promotions for "Shrek 3."
The CBS News series "Gotta Have It" continues Tuesday on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" with a look at how advertisers use Internet games to sell products to our children.