Kids influence $150 billion in spending, so Madison Ave. aims at them "Mom can we buy a ..."

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Eight-year-old Shari Todd may not have a lot of money in her pocket, but on shopping trips, she often gets what she wants. Cereals, snacks and shampoos are hers for the asking -- thanks to a mom who generally lets her buy what she pleases.

"I know it's probably not the best thing to let her do, but children can be really insistent. It's either stand and fight or let her have her way," said Elizabeth Todd, as daughter Shari clutched a Tweety-bird doll at a Warner Bros. Studio Store.

The shopping tug of war between parents and children is as old as Ovaltine. But Madison Avenue is convinced that children are winning the battle -- and up to $150 billion of buying power. Demographic shifts and new research into family buying habits have convinced many companies that preteens influence spending on much more than candy and soda pop.

Besides the Saturday-morning stalwarts, sweet cereals and trendy toys, marketers now aim credit cards, hotels, airlines and even public television memberships at children. To reach these budding consumers -- or to use them to reach parents -- companies have created clubs for children, new magazines and even direct-mail campaigns.

Corporate marketing has even invaded the schoolhouse. Sponsored learning materials, television programs and ads piped over the public address system reach up to 20 million children a year.

"There's a realization that children not only have more and more money of their own to spend, but also that they influence a great deal of family income," said Daniel Acuff of Youth Market Systems, a children's marketing service in Glendale, Calif. "You now ignore them at your peril."

Intensified marketing aimed at children also has sparked criticism. Citing studies that show children are unable to evaluate sophisticated ad campaigns, critics argue that children are being exploited and should be shielded from some advertising.

Still, the marketing onslaught is likely to continue as companies seek to tap this lucrative source of sales.

"Kids today have so many more things aimed at them than we did when I was growing up. I guess it makes sense. Shari has more money than I did when I was her age," Mrs. Todd said.

At Shari's age, allowances are still relatively small -- averaging about $6 a week nationally -- but that adds up to $11 billion in discretionary spending by preteens each year.

Using studies of family buying habits, James McNeal, a professor at Texas A&M; University, estimates that preteens influence at least an additional $147 billion in spending. For Mrs. Todd, that often means buying Cap'n Crunch cereal and Jell-O chocolate pudding.

To put it another way, the preteens' impact equals the consumer market of Taiwan, one of Asia's superstar economies.

One reason for this influence: During each of the average 292 visits to a store that a child makes each year, parents are bombarded with 13 to 16 requests, Mr. McNeal said. Those repeated requests are hard to turn down.

Mr. McNeal and other researchers say parents are more willing to give in because they feel guilty for having so little time for their children. While household incomes have stagnated in recent years, children's income has increased by about 10 percent annually over the past decade, he said.

"What we're seeing is a redistribution of wealth inside the family. Parents truly know that their kids won't have it as good as they did, so they're giving more," he said.

Some parents also use shopping trips to train their children as full-fledged consumers. "Parents expect their children to be consumers at a young age. They want their children to make decisions. They ask them what they want to buy," Mr. McNeal said.

Many advertisers, however, try to influence children before they enter a store.

"The reality of kids' lives today is that single-parent families are on the rise. Everyone has pressure on them, and few parents really do supervise their children," said Deyna Vesey of Kidvertisers, a 4-year-old New York firm that specializes in advertising for children.

The result: Children spend hours each day in front of the television or with a growing array of child-oriented marketing tools.

Magazines illustrate the change. Adult-oriented magazines, including National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, have children's versions. And other children's magazines have grown more colorful and spunky than such staid publications as Boy's Life.

Meanwhile, companies as diverse as Burger King, the Hyatt hotel chain and Delta Air Lines have started clubs to attract children and build brand loyalty.

Delta, for example, has a Delta Kids Club and a Fantastic Flier Program for Kids, which offer special meals and toys. The clubs even have their own mascot, Dusty the Delta Lion.

Airlines aren't the only companies that use adorable animals to pitch a product. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. uses a cartoon character, Old Joe Camel, in its ads, and a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that character is almost as widely recognized by children as Mickey Mouse.

Some public television stations used Barney the purple dinosaur, host of a popular children's show, to hawk station memberships this year. Maryland Public Television, for example, used Barney during its spring pledge drive and raised $40,000 in one morning -- more than the station sometimes raises in an entire day.

The baby boomers' penchant for more democractic family decisions has put another big-ticket item within children's influence: the annual vacation. As a result, theme parks and cruise lines are aiming more ads at children.

Carnival Cruises, for example, runs print ads in children's magazines and spots on the syndicated show "Teen Scene" that tout the fun to be had aboard cruise liners. Although most Carnival ads are aimed at adults, children are an important market, spokeswoman Jennifer Della Cruz said.

"We think that children's wishes are strongly considered by today's parents, although in the end adults do make the $H decisions," Ms. Della Cruz said.

Even the strictest parent, however, might be surprised to discover that ads are reaching children during that part of the day when they typically are isolated from the commercial world -- during school.

Whittle Communication's Channel One, for example, offers schools a 12-minute news broadcast in exchange for having the children watch two minutes of ads. In the Baltimore area, the program is available in most middle and high schools, where students watch commercials for such products as Gatorade, Clearasil and Nike sneakers.

And Whittle has plenty of company in pitching products at school.

Chef Boyardee sponsors information sheets on nutrition, and Gillette teaches teens about shaving. Other companies sponsor label drives that can bring computers or lab equipment to schools.

Giant Food Inc. gives schools credit when they turn in Giant register tapes collected by parents, students and staff members. Over the past five years, the food store chain has given away 65,000 computers and other items to about 2,700 public and private schools in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

Although schools have used these programs to obtain teaching materials and equipment, some question the real benefits for children.

"Marketing is shown to be a win-win situation. Allow us to advertise to your children and we'll teach them how to read," said Alex Molnar, a historian of business and education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "But you have to wonder how well children are able to negotiate this blizzard of ads. For many, it's simply overwhelming."

Crafty marketers have begun to fine-tune that approach. Burger King's magazines, for example, have three editions, each aimed at a specific age group.

Breaking down advertising by age group is important, says Mr. Acuff of Youth Market Systems, because children reason differently at different ages. Until age 8, he says, children tend to prefer fantasy characters such as Disney's Little Mermaid. Later, however, they prefer "reality" figures such as Barbie.

While critiquing a magazine recently, Mr. Acuff noticed that an ad featuring Little Mermaid was placed next to an article on rap music written for children over age 10. "A kid looking at that article might see the Little Mermaid ad and say, 'This isn't for me.' You've got to be careful how you speak to children at different ages," he said.

But to many consumer groups, the fact that children reason differently at different ages belies advertisers' claims that all children are savvy consumers. Children learn relatively late in life that ads are designed to sell something and that advertising claims should be scrutinized, said Ellen Wartella, author of a book on children as consumers.

"Advertisers want to say that kids are savvy, but my experience is that my kids will believe a lot more than an adult. They don't always think critically," said Mrs. Wartella, dean of the school of communications at the University of Texas in Austin.

Such criticism has brought a counterpunch from consumer groups such as Consumer Union, which has started a magazine called Zillions. It's aimed at helping children evaluate products such as sneakers, mechanical pencils and yogurt snacks.

The Federal Trade Commission also has shown its concern by mailing brochures this spring to 20,000 editors of student newspapers. The brochures explain the pros and cons of credit cards, weight-loss programs, infomercials and "900" telephone numbers. The FTC also has a pamphlet available that helps parents talk to their children about toy ads on television.

Mr. McNeal says children develop critical thinking only by age 11. Although they begin influencing purchases by age 4, children only begin to distinguish between advertising claims and a product's reality many years later.

Still, Mr. McNeal doesn't believe that advertising hurts children. Despite the boom in marketing to children, youngsters still see fewer ads each day than adults.

"If one accepts that advertising is valuable in our society, and we generally do, then the question is how much is appropriate for children? If the standard is what adults see, then children are in no danger," he said.

And advertising is rarely able to sell a dud -- researchers point to the heavily advertised Dick Tracy movie and toys, which flopped. Children are not only fickle, but they won't buy a product they don't like, Ms. Vesey of Kidvertisers says.

Still, she says parents must take more responsibility for what their children watch and read. Ms. Vesey, a mother of three, often clicks off the television to prevent her children from overdosing on ads.

"It's no use blaming everything on advertising or marketing," she said. "If parents don't limit what their children watch, then they can't blame anyone else."

LONG REACH

Kids also influence lots of other purchases. Some are obvious:

--Fast food $23 billion

--Soda $14 billion

--Clothes $11 billion

--Toys $9 billion

Others aren't:

--Cars $9 billion

--Meats $7 billion

--Non-prescription drugs $1 billion

--Hotels $550 million

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