The persuaders

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Children are being trained and exploited as consumers almost from birth,

says Eric Clark, with market forces determining much of what they view

and play with.

Toy companies are making marketing assaults on children younger and

younger. Not long ago the earliest age at which children could be

targeted was reckoned by advertising and marketing men to be five. As

competition between companies became more cut-throat, it dropped to

three. Now children as young as a few months old are considered fair


Mike Searles, as president of the American company Kids R Us, made the

memorable comment, If you own this child at an early age, you can own

this child for years to come.

Selling a toy as educational takes it right down to the cot.

Neurosmiths Babbler, a bright pillow-sized cuddly toy complete with

multicolored lights, teaches newborns sounds in French, Japanese and

Spanish when touched. You can buy a computer mouse for someone nine

months old.

Behind the deluge of new toys and their vast marketing stands a stark

truth: with children growing out of toys sooner (the famous KGOY kids

growing older younger syndrome), companies need ever younger kids to

survive. In the words of Keith Elmer, a veteran UK toy executive, As

soon as theyre born you have to grab them you have got them (as toy

buyers) for so little time.

It is not just toys themselves, but increasingly the products that are

linked with those play brands, such as clothes and furniture. Very young

children have a lifetime of buying ahead of them. Professor James

McNeal, a guru of childrens marketing, has written, Brand marketing

must begin with children. Even if a child does not buy the product and

will not for many years, the marketing must begin in childhood.

Researchers note that at six months, the same age they are imitating

simple sounds like mama, babies are forming mental images of corporate

logos and mascots.

It was with the arrival of television  in the 1950s, first in the United

States, that advertisers realised they could bypass parents and talk

directly  to the child. Even then toy companies remained restrained in

their advertising and marketing. But a watershed came in the 1980s,

again first in the US, with the arrival of toy-led TV programmes such as

He-Man and Transformers. Entertainment and the toy industry had

always had close links, with toys produced as spin-offs from films and

television shows, but now they became inextricably entwined.

The distinction between programme and selling product, between content

and commerce, has become  deliberately smudged. Think of the plethora of

series aimed at pre-schoolers, embracing toys from Bob the Builder to

Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now many programmes only ever get made, or survive, if they have toy and

other merchandising deals in place. Because so much childrens TV

depends on licensing tie-ins, it follows that what children watch is

increasingly determined by how well it will make them consume its


The impact of toys on non-commercial broadcasting has been more subtle,

but nonetheless real. Today even the best programmes exist thanks to

commercial tie-ins. Sesame Street, for example, depends on revenue

from merchandise like Tickle Me Elmo toys to pay about half of its


The BBCs Teletubbies occupies a special place. It is seen by critics

as the nadir in merchandising to the very young. Teletubbies has

engaged in promotions with Burger King and McDonalds; its gift packs

have been distributed in hospitals to newborns. It is not alone.

Boohbah, also from creator Anne Wood, is also backed with a vast range

of merchandise. When the BBC reintroduced its 1950s character Muffin the

Mule in autumn 2005, it came complete with character licensing and

promises of enough advance retailer interest to achieve international

brand success. Little Robots, again from the BBC, was part-funded by

Lego and acted as a launch pad for a new range of products from that


Full-page advertisements for the series Bob the Builder entreat,

Dont miss my new series on BBC2 and CBeebies. The twist is that the

ads are directed not at potential viewers but at toystore owners in a

trade magazine. Jocelyn Stevenson, senior vice-president for HIT

Entertainment, the company responsible for the show and others,

explains, Its my job to come up with the gentle, lovely, wonderful

pre-school programming so that the company can then go out and do all

the marketing and branding, then sell the toys and the DVDs and so on.

Targeted market

Children have become targets that advertising and marketing men are

desperate to reach. Toy companies and ad agencies study them and the

mores they absorb. Executives, researchers and psychologists observe

children at home and play, follow them around stores, observe them

through one-way mirrors, pore through their diaries, study their


Even the very young do not escape this scrutiny. Children are gathered

in order to be observed by hidden watchers as they confront toys or

commercials. Many toy companies have in- house observation rooms

complete with one-way mirrors. Batches of two-to five-year-olds are

brought to what Hasbro chillingly calls its funlab, two sessions a

day, four days a week, to play under watchful toymens eyes. 

Fisher-Price has a full-time staff of seven people, several with

advanced degrees in developmental psychology. Every year 3,000 to 4,000

children are filmed taking part in focus groups or one-to-one sessions.

It has reached the point where mental health professionals and scholars

from leading institutions including Harvard Medical School and Cornell

University issued a public letter to the American Psychological

Association to declare unethical the practice of child psychologists

giving their expert advice on how to target children.

Many ads play on insecurities. Showing a lot of joyful kids together

sends out the clear message, Get this toy and youll have more

friends. Pester power is encouraged from a very early age. With

one-parent families, divorces and parents working harder than ever, the

nag factor can be used to reinforce the guilt many adults feel. Isaac

Larian, the man behind the Bratz dolls, says, Youve got the guilt trip

from parents working so hard. If your daughter nags you for a doll,

youll buy her one, two, maybe three.

There is a switch on the playing on guilt that also taps into parents

competitiveness and their desire to do the very best for their children.

Electronic learning toys have been one of the few bright spots for toy

companies when sales have been stagnant or falling. Toys that promise to

teach skills such as colour, letter and shape recognition, or the basics

of subjects including reading and maths, all play on the pressure to do

right by a child by giving them the best start in life.

Companies like Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby are directed at infants.

Neurosmiths Sunshine Symphony is targeted at birth upwards. Brainy Baby

claims its offerings serve as a stepping stone in helping children six

months to five years develop cognitive skills, spatial reasoning, object

recognition and an overall foundation of learning.

The learning category has grown to embrace video game consoles, handheld

game systems, computers and a range of toys such as telephones, mirrors

and electronic musical instruments that come with the educa- tional or

learning tags attached.

Not so educational

Sales have soared, despite the fact that objective advice seems clear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, says babies under two

should not watch videos, television or computer screens at all it

might displace human interaction and impede brain growth and

development. And a report from the prestigious Kaiser Family Foundation

in 2005 made it clear that there is almost no research to support the

idea that new media products are educational there appeared to be no

theoretical basis for saying that children under two can learn from


A cynic might argue that the real reasons so many companies have moved

into the field are that technology has made such products increasingly

cheap to produce and highly profitable to sell, at about three times

the price of toys generally.

Toys, sweets and cereals pioneered tough marketing to kids. Today,

products chasing children range through clothes, fast food, computers,

cosmetics, even cars and credit cards. By 18 months, in no small measure

thanks to toys, there is strong brand awareness. And a strong awareness

of one particular brand is estimated to be worth about $100,000 extra

sales over a persons lifetime.

Without our being aware of it, the selling of toys has subtly morphed

into the nursery slopes of consumerism, the start point of the

marketers dream cradle to grave.                     

Further information

The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britains Youngest

Consumers by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan on 2 April, priced



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