The Hard Sell: Marketing To Kids

The partnership looked good on paper: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services teaming up with Dreamworks animation to use the widely popular movie character Shrek to get kids off the couch.

"Get up and play an hour a day," the character tells kids in a public service announcement.

But beyond the public service, the studio's also going after promotion — through tie-ins with more than 70 food products, some healthy, some junk, CBS News anchor Katie Couric reports for the series "Gotta Have It: The Hard Sell To Kids."

It is an irony not lost on one late-night TV show.

The Colbert Report said: "Shrek gets an additional tip of my hat for spreading his message of health through joint ventures with Snickers, Pop Tarts, Skittles, Cheetos."

But it's no laughing matter to Dr. Susan Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of the campaign for a commercial-free childhood. She thinks Shrek's public service ads should be pulled.

What's wrong with using Shrek to encourage kids to exercise?

"It's incredibly hypocritical," Linn says. "Using Shrek to promote exercise on the one hand and pitch for junk food on another hand is emblematic of the ways that the food industry, the advertising industry … and in this instance, the government are actually selling kids out."

From Hummers in Happy Meals to American Express gift cards just for teens, today's kids are inundated with advertising — some that even targets the youngest children.

The age 0-to-3 market — how much does that represent to corporate America?

"It's a $20 billion market," says Susan Gregory Thomas, an investigative journalist and author of the book, "Buy, Buy Baby."

She says Generation X parents who sat their newborns in front of TVs hoping to make them geniuses only turned them into consumers.

with Susan Gregory Thomas.
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"The only thing they were getting was how to recognize characters," she says. "It's Dora. It's Elmo. The only other scenario in which they're going to encounter these characters is in a scenario in which that character is trying to sell them something. Backpacks, Band-Aids, toothbrushes."

And as the kids grow up, they're hooked up — to technology that makes them even easier targets for marketers looking to tap the family checkbook.

"Increasingly, we're seeing kids influence family restaurants. Family vacations. We even have research that shows that more and more kids are influencing on the family car and the family home," says Paul Kurnit, a Pace University professor of marketing.

But isn't it up to parents to help their children become discriminating consumers?

"It's unfair and naïve to expect that parents, on their own, are gonna be able to do a great job of coping with this," Linn says. "They need help. They need help from the government."

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin agrees. He's proposed a bill that would give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to restrict unfair advertising to children.

"Right now, the Federal Trade Commission has more authority to regulate advertising to a parent than it does a child," Harkin says. "That doesn't make any sense."

What's at stake, child advocates say, is more than just money.

"Advertising and marketing is a factor in childhood obesity, in eating disorders, precocious, irresponsible sexuality, youth violence, underage drinking, underage tobacco use," Linn says.

Critics warn that as it's turning our kids into mini-shopoholics, it's also teaching them the wrong values — that it's not about who you are, but what you have.

  • Christine Lagorio

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