14 Mar 2007,
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 game.
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. Neurosmith's 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 they're 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 children's 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 children's TV depends on licensing tie-ins, it follows that what children watch is increasingly determined by how well it will make them consume its products.
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 budget.
The BBC's '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 McDonald's; 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 company.
Full-page advertisements for the series 'Bob the Builder' entreat, 'Don't 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, 'It's 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 bedrooms.
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 toymen's 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 you'll 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, 'You've got the guilt trip from parents working so hard.
If your daughter nags you for a doll, you'll 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.
Neurosmith's 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 media.
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 person's 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 marketer's dream 'cradle to grave'.
The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britain's Youngest Consumers by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan on 2 April, priced 8.99.