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
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.
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.
The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britains Youngest
Consumers by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan on 2 April, priced