It seems that about once every two weeks there is a story about an arrest of a man who was caught soliciting sex from someone under 18 online. Child predators have discovered that the Internet can be a tool to prey on children. Within the past few years the web resource MySpace has come to the attention of parents and law enforcement agencies since some child predators have used that site to target underage users.
Primarily men will often pose as another youth, develop cyber-relationships, and build trust with unsuspecting children. Once this trust has been developed the child predator will often invite the targeted child to a location so that they can be assaulted or kidnapped. I think that most people find this type of behavior reprehensible and the tactic of online deception unacceptable. However, sexual predators are not the only ones who use media to target children.
Since the 1980s there has been a significant shift in how media companies and advertisers view children. Children used to be seen as audiences of only toymakers, cartoon executives and fast food companies. These days, children as young as 6-months old are considered a target for what many companies call the development of brand loyalty.
In the late 1980s child psychologist James McNeal wrote the book Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. The basic premise of McNeal’s book can be summed up in this quote, “Kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers; they have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken.” Children are in the perfect position to be taken? Does this seem remarkably similar to the thinking of online child predators?
Since McNeal wrote this book there has been a whole shift in how media companies and advertisers think about children. His framing of children primarily as customers has paved the way for an explosion in the ways that children are targetted by media companies. Mike Searles, President of Kids “R” Us says, “If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.” Nancy Shalek, President of the Shalek Agency, has this to add, “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without the product you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork of they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids.” So how does this type of thinking play out in the media world?
At Fisher Price, there is a full time staff of seven people, several with advanced degrees in developmental psychology, who every year film 3,000 to 4,000 children while they take part in focus groups or one-on-one sessions to better understand how kids respond to their toys. They don’t just make toys, put it in a box, and set them on a shelf. Fisher Price and thousands of other companies are constantly working on ways to more effectively target your kids. In fact, media companies see the branding of your children as essential to long-term marketing. That is why Donna Sabino, editor of Nickelodeon magazine says, “What we are doing here is starting in the cradle marketing: A toddler goes from Nick Jr. to Nickelodeon to TEEnick to MTV to VHI to Nick at Night.” One way that Nickelodeon will do this is through licensing products like Sponge Bob Squarepants. They don’t just create and broadcast a cartoon character, they market a whole line of products based on characters. In 2005, Nickelodeon made $750 million from the sales of licensed Sponge Bob Squarepants merchandise. However, Nickelodeon’s licensing income paled, though, beside AOL-Time Warner ($6.6 billion) and Disney ($13 billion).
Then there are companies like Big Fat Inc. which hires youth to observe and spy on other youth in order to gather “intelligence” about what young people are wearing, eating, the music they listen to, etc. Two years ago media giant NewsCorp bought up MySpace.com primarily for the purposes on data mining. What better place to find information on what people do, think, and what their buying habits are. Sue MacDonald of Intelliseek in Ohio has made data mining the focus of her company’s work. In one day alone her company analyzed 475,000 individual blog posts to gauge what they had to say about products or individual companies.
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently conducted a study that looked at how food companies used TV commercials as a way of luring kids to their websites. The study found that “The vast majority (85%) of the leading food brands that target children on TV are also either directly targeting children on the Internet or providing online content likely to be of interest to them.” In addition the study found that “Almost two-thirds (64%) of sites in the study make use of viral marketing, in which children are encouraged to send emails to their friends about a product, transmitting the company’s marketing information to their peers. Embedded in these emails are news, activities and entertainment that are favorable to the brand.”
These tactics of targeting children are not just limited to media venues, but increasingly schools have become arenas to bombard kids with commercial messages. Lifetime Learning Systems – how’s that for an Orwellian name – helps companies target kids in school. Here is their little advertising pitch, “Kids spend 40% of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can’t reach them. Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well.” This translates into corporate “educational materials” that companies provide to schools for free, soda contracts, book covers, and the newest effort called BusRadio. BusRadio is a service that companies can now use to push commercial messages on your kids while they are held captive on school buses in the morning and after school.
Even video game creators and manufacturers have entered the arena of product placement and hyper-commercialism. More and more video games include the use of branded products as part of the game. Popular online multiplayer games such as “Lineage,” “Guild Wars” and “City of Heroes,” all have been inserting branded products into the game’s designs. Then there are what industry people called Advergames. Advergames are games that are produced by companies like Burger King with titles such as “Sneak King” and “Pocketbike Racer,” which were a big hit last summer’s gaming trade shows. Besides hyper-commercialism in video games, the industry is opposed to using the technology as an educational tool. A couple of years ago, Nancy MacIntyre, then LucasArts senior game director, complained about the original Star Wars game that “there was lots of reading, much to much, in the game. There was lots of wandering around learning about different abilities. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat.”
So what are we to make of all this? First, I think it is crucial that we teach kids to be critical thinkers when it comes to media. Parents, teachers and social workers should make it a priority to teach media literacy to children. Second, we all need to become more aware of how media works and what drives commercial media makers. Third, we can become watchdogs of media in our own communities. We should familiarize ourselves with the news agencies, places that show movies, radio stations, billboard companies, Internet service providers, and phone companies. Fourth, we need to be aware of the fact that these companies are constantly trying to push new legislation or deregulatory policies that are not in the best interest of the public. Lastly, we can support or make more of our own media. There are great websites, documentary makers, indie music labels, independent venues and a whole score of opportunities to make media that isn’t trying to sell us crap we don’t need or treat our children as customers for the taking.