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Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s (PART TWO)

The Shows They Sponsor
We conducted a sampling of Nike, Reebok, and Converse commercials between 7 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. on cable (MTV, ESPN, TNT, TBS) and network TV (NBC, CBS, ABC) for the month of May, 1990. (Data was compiled by Radio TV Reports, Inc.) Nike and Reebok commercials appeared more often on shows kids watch (MTV music videos, cartoons) than on sporting events, where a greater portion of the audience would presumably be adults.





(between 5/7 & 6/3/90)




90 times

21 times




22 times

19 times




5 times

3 times

  • “Kids are very brand conscious…. The Air Jordan shoe worn by perhaps the best athlete in the world is popular because Michael Jordan is an outstanding role model for kids and teens. We are seeing the effects of the Air Jordan campaign on sales, and we are pleased.” Liz Dolan (Nike)
  • “We made our sunglasses into a hip, must-have item through celebrity emulation…Now Ray-Ban is a generic term for quality sunglasses worn by Billy Joel, Madonna … Since kids and teens love to emulate stars, wearing our sunglasses gives them an easily recognizable status symbol …When Andre Agassi became a teen idol, we set up a booth at the U.S. Open. We were swarmed by kids asking for ‘the kind of Ray-Bans Andre Agassi wears.'” Norman Salik (Baush and Lomb)
  • “Kids and teens are generally more susceptible to many forms of inducement, among which music is one of the most powerful… Music is also used to project desirable lifestyles and manipulate peer pressure.” Scott Chatfield (KGB-FM)
  • “With the use of Paula Abdul as spokesperson, Reeboks are now favored by teen girls who want to be able to dance like Paula. A product that had turned uncool could reverse the trend by attaching itself to a popular musical celebrity who gave it a desirable quality.” Jan Mahoney (Weinstock Marketing)

Kids have looked up to celebrities as heros and role models for decades. And celebrities have endorsed products for decades, too. But it’s different today &emdash; the “status products” being pushed to kids have never been so costly, and the celebrity commercials have never been so slick.
Kids aren’t seeing these commercials by accident &emdash; they’re appearing on programs that have a large kid audience. While MTV isn’t a “children’s channel,” it has a large teen following (“12 to 32 years old,” according to MTV). Heavy advertising there can be doubly effective with younger kids, who are known to look up to older kids and their lifestyles and culture. The Reebok commercials that appear on children’s cartoons use a “celebrity” with as much appeal as any person to kids &emdash; Nintendo games where kids are players. Indeed, for kids, celebrity sell isn’t limited to real people &emdash; Barbie, the Ninja Turtles, and other “characters” are heroes and role-models to scores of kids.
Kids today have to contend with appealing celebrities in powerful ads, on the TV shows they watch and in the magazines they read, all trying to influence how they feel about a product. Kids have to contend with financial realities &emdash; they probably can’t afford the product, and convincing their parents may be tough. Kids also have to contend with peer pressure from their friends, who see the same commercials in the same media.
When celebrities sell products kids can’t afford, they’re putting undue pressure on kids, some of whom can’t handle it. Recent news reports of kids beating, shooting, even killing other kids for their status fashions dramatically illustrate how powerful “status sell” can be on kids. Of course kids can stand up to the pressure from the celebrities and the pressure from their peers and get along without costly products. Plenty of kids do. But it’s not easy, nor is it fun. Kids shouldn’t be put in that situation in the first place.
Celebrity-sell of costly products also puts added stress on family relationships and budgets. Kids’ wants get translated into requests for high-priced products that realistically are not suited to many family finances.
Commercials featuring celebrity endorsements are being shown on TV shows kids watch. Celebrities have enormous potential to influence kids, yet that potential is pretty much directed by the corporate sector, which pays millions to have stars influence kids’ brand preferences and loyalty. Several stars also try to provide positive personal leadership for kids. Michael Jordan, for example, delivers an anti-drug message, sponsored by McDonald’s. But the predominant message celebrities deliver to kids is a commercial one.
Within the past year, kids have been invited to join a number of new clubs. We joined the Nickelodeon, Fox, Sassy, MTV, Burger King, and Disney clubs to see what they offered.
A kids’ club establishes an ongoing relationship with its members, giving them symbols of belonging (like membership cards) and participatory activities. But the only way to participate in the clubs we joined is to buy things. If clubs reinforce certain interests and loyalties in kids, these clubs are reinforcing interest in purchasing and loyalties to brand-name products. The new kids’ clubs represent a novel twist in youth marketing: Kids voluntarily join (and usually pay for) a vehicle that will do little more than advertise to them regularly.
In a real club, kids are likely to find friends, shared interests and activities, and opportunities for fun and growth. In the promotional clubs common years ago, kids were likely to get membership cards, decoder rings, or other symbols that reinforced loyalty to the sponsoring radio or TV program, comic, or other product. In one of the new kids’ clubs, kids are likely to get hard sell from many advertisers, a monthly magazine cum sales catalog, discount coupons, and other powerful incentives to buy.

  • Sassy Club: Membership costs $5. (It does not include a $14.98 subscription to Sassy, which devotes pages to “club” merchandise.) We received a free make-up brush set for joining (a new-member gift, which changes each month), a membership card, and a sheet of 12 “Sassy dollars” — money-off coupons for club merchandise.
  • Nickelodeon Club: A one-year membership (which includes a subscription to Nickelodeon Magazine) costs $9.95 (but a special $7.95 introductory offer is advertised in the premiere issue). The magazine, with an insert promoting club membership, was launched in May 1990 through Pizza Hut. That insert promised special “kids-only” prices on club merchandise and “special offers or discounts” at Pizza Hut, Universal Studios in Florida, and TCBY yogurt. In addition to eight pages of ads, Nickelodeon magazine devoted nine pages to the “Nick Store,” where club merchandise is offered at two prices, a kid’s price and a higher adult’s price. One-third (17 of 52) of its pages sells things to kids. Other popular kid’s magazines with no club affiliation tend to devote a smaller percent of their pages to advertising: One fourth (22 of 80) pages of Sports Illustrated for Kids is ads, as is about one-sixth to one-tenth of 3-2-1 Contact. Club members will also be sent product samples and coupons from Nick Club advertisers.
  • Fox Kids Club: Membership is free. Members receive a club membership card, “Fox Kids Club” decal and stickers, a Simpson’s puzzle “Fun Page,” an “Official Membership Certificate,” a welcome letter signed by D.J. Kat, and a subscription to “Totally Kids,” the Fox Kids Club magazine, with ads for stamp collecting, a new movie, kids’ club library, the Burger King Kids Club, and a toy store spread over its eight tabloid-size pages. The welcome letter tells new members to “watch your favorite TV shows everyday on your Fox Kids Club station and find out about all the great discounts and ways you can use your new Fox Kids Club Membership Card!”
  • Burger King Kids Club: Membership is free. Applications are available at Burger King franchises that also sell Kids Club Meals, which come with a free toy to further attract kids. (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle clip-on badges were the first premium offered.) Members receive a membership card, a page of stickers, a mini-poster of comic characters (the “raddest new kids in town”), a free club newspaper, The Kids Club Adventures, and a certificate for a round-trip child’s coach ticket on TWA anywhere in the USA — “when purchased in conjunction with another TWA ticket….” This club seems to be designed to keep kids coming back to Burger King — the clubhouse — for Kids Club Happy Meals.
  • The Mickey Mouse Club: The Mickey Mouse Club of 30 and 40 years ago was free. You pay $12.95 to join this club. The Official Mickey Mouse Club Membership Kit contains: “The Club” watch; a “Do Not Disturb” sign decorated with M&M candy characters; a “Savings and Smiles” booklet with coupons for M&M candies, shirts, watches, and sunglasses; and a book of “Club Coupons” offering money off on Ocean Pacific clothes, Mattel’s He-Man figure and an accessory, admission to Disneyland, Quaker Oh’s, Smuckers toppings, Premier cruise lines, a Barbie Doll and accessories, Denny’s, Capcom video games, Thom McAn shoes, Hi-C, and more.
  • The MTV “Record Club”: This is a negative-option record club that also sells a variety of other merchandise. One-year membership costs $14.95 ($9.95 after a $5 “MTV discount”). Members get a membership card; MTV to Go, a monthly “magalog” (“a unique hybrid of magazine and catalog”); and three sets of coupons: one for albums (a free album with each one you buy); one for $5 off videos; and one for $5 off merchandise. Of MTV to Go’s 52 pages, 10 are ads for video games, Nintendo game systems, the Nintendo Power Glove, etc., and 15 describe club merchandise (CD’s, rock videos, clothes, etc.). MTV is directed to 12 to 34-year-olds.

In promoting themselves to kids, these new clubs portray themselves as lots of fun. But in advertising themselves to companies that are potential advertisers, kids clubs portray themselves as an effective way to promote to kids and build customer relationships “that will last a lifetime.” For example:

  • Nickelodeon: “You (the advertiser) can capture all the excitement of the Nickelodeon name, the on-air attitude, and the off-air environment, by delivering your product message or coupon to the young consumers of today and the brand-loyal customers of tomorrow. With the Nick Nack Pack (product samples and coupons mailed to kids) and the Nickelodeon Magazine, Nick offers you home delivery of an entire generation — the Nickelodeon generation.”

The preceding quote is from the packet Nickelodeon sends to prospective advertisers. It also quotes the Nickelodeon/ Yankelovich Youth Monitor: “All kids tend to influence their parents across a number of categories — clothing, food, entertainment, non-traditional and larger ticket items,” it says. Among the data given: “60% of kids buy products because they have coupons for them.” No wonder coupons are being offered by several kids clubs, and even in the classroom.
While the kids are joining a fun club, Nickelodeon is building a large database of names. Along with the Sassy and MTV clubs, Nickelodeon offers to sell its kids’ club memberhip list to direct-mail advertisers.

  • Fox: According to Bert Gould, Vice President of Fox Kids Club: “The Kids Club is a way for Fox to build on the success we have as the strongest kids’ station in the market…. This is a boon for advertisers. There are no holds barred for them as long as it is valuable for the kid. They can reach a national audience in one swoop.”
  • MTV: According to the Senior Vice-President of Marketing for MTV: “We are taking advantage of the MTV Trademark and everything it conjures up. The magalog is another way for MTV and its advertisers to reach our audience of young viewers. This is an elusive age group to target, but MTV reaches this audience very effectively.”
  • The Marketing to Kids Report: “Many companies today, in the business of marketing to children, are reviving the kids’ club theme in order to start building those happy childhood memories and warm feelings for their products. The marketing industry is realizing the importance of instilling brand loyalty at an early age, hoping it will carry through into adulthood.

“…. With competition in the kids market constantly growing, the industry is seeing a trend in ‘value-added marketing.’ Companies now have to work harder than ever for a share of consumer dollars. They are finding that kids clubs, if done well, are a great way to reach a tough market.”

  • Toys ‘R’ Us (Geoffrey’s Fun Club): It “could expand upon the toy chain’s high holiday volume and boost its presence in homes throughout the other three-quarters of the year. As advertising costs continue to rise, Carlson (senior partner in the club’s marketing agency) presents the club idea as offering ‘double efficiency — you’re developing a relationship with a customer over time, which is very valuable, and the customer is paying for it.’ The trick is to make sure they feel they’re getting what they paid for.”

“It appears that kids like the idea of ‘belonging to,’ they like to get mail — it shows they belong in their household — and it can bring much entertainment,” says James McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M. “For the marketer, well, it can be the beginning of a lifelong relationship. What a deal! … It’s potentially very powerful and very valuable to marketers.”
Because clubs can be so powerful, they are cause for concern.
Clubs disguise commercial messages. Kids are invited to join something that promises to be “theirs,” but turns out to be a way of manipulating them to buy things. The ad messages come disguised as “advice from your club,” making them more difficult to resist. The more a child’s guard is down, the more effective an ad can be.
Clubs also try to build premature brand loyalty. Rational consumption requires brand disloyalty — basing choices on judgment, rather than on impulse or emotional connections to a brand name. Children have the right to see their options before being steered into loyalty to one brand. It doesn’t seem fair to start wooing their loyalty before the age of 6.
If kids can withstand the “sell,” are kids’ clubs worth it? Do kids get something from them? Perhaps. A few of the magazines may be enjoyable, and stickers and decals can be fun. But the overall theme of these clubs and their materials is buying. If a kid manages to resist the sales messages, he or she may feel “out of it.”
Club marketing to kids is new and growing. There is little analysis and evaluation of its impact on kids and families. “Studies are needed, assessments by regulators are needed, and parents’ views need to be aired,” recommends McNeal.
Both product placements in movies and advertorials in magazines create brand awareness and communicate promotional messages. Both are less-than-forthright ways of selling to adults. Yet these techniques also pervade the media kids enjoy with their guard down. Products sold in this fashion include tobacco and alcohol.
Product placement picked up momentum when Reese’s Pieces were portrayed as the favorite food of America’s beloved alien, E.T. Fees charged by movie producers for placing brand-name products in movies range from $10,000 to $1,000,000. For example, Disney’s Buena Vista Distributing offered to place brand-name products in Mr. Destiny for $20,000 to $60,000, depending on how the product was to be shown — $60,000 if the star actually uses the product, less if it’s just shown.
In some cases, movie studios and producers accept merchandise or promotional support in exchange for placing a product. Burger King, shown in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, promoted that movie before it was released. Coca-Cola, the on-screen sponsor of Tom Cruise’s race car in Days of Thunder, planned a multi-million dollar promotion built around the movie.
Product Placement In Movies
Pepsi-Cola frequently places its products in movies. Its products have appeared in Ferris Buellers Day Off, Stand and Deliver, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lean on Me, Cocoon: The Return, Flashdance, Back to the Future II and Big, among others. Some additional product placements in or planned for upcoming movies include:

  • Domino’s Pizza in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Nintendo Video Games and Mattel Inc.’s Power Glove in The Wizard.
  • Chevrolet, Hardee’s, Coca-Cola and Exxon in Days of Thunder.
  • Burger King and Coors Beer in Gremlins.
  • McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in Mac and Me.
  • Toyota, Miller, Nike, AT&T, USA Today, and Pizza Hut in Back to the Future II.
  • Ray Bans and Seagrams Champagne in Top Gun.
  • Sanyo, Wheaties and Nike in Rocky III.
  • Miller products&emdash;High Life, Lite and Genuine Draft&emdash;in Caddyshack II.

Cigarette and Alcohol Placement
The National Coalition on TV Violence, an Illinois-based organization, monitored 150 films in 1989 and found tobacco use in 83 percent of them; alcohol consumption in 93 percent. The following list identifies a number of movies that have brand-specific cigarette smoking:

  • Marlboro in Crocodile Dundee
  • Century in Legal Eagles
  • Chesterfield in Heaven Help Us
  • Lucky Strike, Kent in Beverly Hills Cop
  • Camel in Desperately Seeking Susan
  • Marlboro in Children of a Lesser God
  • Marlboro in Tin Men
  • Marlboro in White Knights
  • Benson and Hedges in Agnes of God
  • Pall Mall in Heavenly Kid
  • Marlboro in Superman II
  • Marlboro in Baby
  • Carlton in Splash
  • Lucky Strike, Camel in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  • Marlboro in Crimes of the Heart
  • Marlboro in Risky Business
  • Salem in Batteries not Included

In 1989, Ohio Congressman Tom Luken introduced a bill to ban cigarette companies from paying to have their brands in films. Luken claimed that Philip Morris and the Liggett Group paid $350,000 to place Lark cigarettes in the James Bond film License to Kill and $42,500 to have Marlboro appear in Superman II; that Liggett paid $30,000 for its Eve cigarette to appear in the movie Supergirl.
Product Placement in Print and Games
Hobbico paid thousands of dollars in licensing fees for its remote control car, Kyosho, to appear in the story line of Archie comic books. The Wall Street Journal quoted a Hobbico director of corporate merchandising as saying he hoped that young entry-level buyers would “graduate into the more complicated products.” In other ventures, 25 advertisers paid $30,000 each to appear as part of the board game “It’s Only Money,” introduced by ESM Marketing Group. Pepsi’s logo appears in the Nintendo Video Game, “Magic Johnson’s Fast Break.”
The opportunity to reach children with print ads has increased over the last decade. There are now some 160 children’s magazines, up from 85 in 1986. An increasing number of magazines aimed at children and teens carry advertising. For example, Children’s Television Workshop’s 3-2-1-Contact now carries ads, as does the year-old Sports Illustrated for Kids
But many of these ads are not playing it straight with kids. Recent examples of ads that try to look like editorial matter in kids’ magazines include:

  • An Instant Quaker Oatmeal ad that looks like a full-page Popeye comic appeared in Kid City (ages 6 to 10), 3-2-1-Contact (ages 8 to 14), Alf and Barbie. Called upon to demonstrate courage, Popeye proclaims, “CAN THE SPINACH! I want me Instant Quaker Oatmeal.”
  • A Hershey’s ad that looks like a maze puzzle appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids (ages 8 to 13), 3-2-1-Contact, and Kid City. At the top of the maze is a collection of Hershey products&emdash;syrups, mixes, chocolate milk. Scattered on either side of the maze are more chocolate products, along with signs that note “chocolate peak” and “chocolate falls.” The copy asks kids to “…count the number of spoons, straws, Hershey’s syrup cans, bottles, Hershey’s chocolate milk mix cans and Hershey’s milk cartons.”
  • A Crest toothpaste ad that looks like an activity appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids, 3-2-1-Contact, and Barbie. A brightly colored TV is filled with electronic squiggles and surrounded by lightning bolts. The copy invites kids to “… fold these pages at the arrows. And the sparkles in this tube will be clear.” When you fold the pages, you find a picture of Crest Toothpaste.
  • A Colgate Junior ad that looks like a board game appeared in 3-2-1-Contact and Kid City. The game asks true or false questions about dental health and Colgate Junior toothpaste, including: “Colgate Junior foams a lot more than adult toothpaste. T or F?”
  • Foot Locker ads that look like sports quizzes appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids. In addition to asking trivia questions, the ads also advertise “the hottest styles from Nike, Reebok, British Knights and L.A. Gear.” Another Foot Locker ad looks like a puzzle with hidden objects.
  • An Epilady Mini-Razor ad that looks like an advice column called “Ask Loren” appeared in Seventeen magazine. It promises “Your Personal Answers to Questions About Make-up and Fashion.” Among questions about swimsuit selection and hairstyles, there’s one touting the Epilady Mini. Seventeen also carried a 20-page advertising section for Maybelline that imitated a fashion and beauty magazine, complete with its own cover and table of contents.
  • Several magazines associated with kids’ clubs or toys are loaded with advertorials. Nintendo Power magazine has been described as a full-length advertorial, with promotions for all of Nintendo’s products.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller expressed concern about the saturation of our environment with hidden advertising. These product plugs, writes Miller, “work as subliminal inducements because their context is ostensibly a movie, not an ad, so that each of them comes sidling toward us dressed up as non-advertising.” Particularly in the case of children, such hidden advertising has great potential to mislead and deceive.
Advertising invites skepticism. When others urge us to do what they want, one is alerted to the possibility that their wishes may not be in our best interest. But product placements and advertorials disarm children and keep their defenses down. Use of such techniques to advertise to kids demonstrates a failure of marketers to play fair, and a failure of self-monitoring by the media as a way of protecting kids from undue pressures to buy. As such, it invites regulation.
Licensing is a traditional method of selling to children. Manufacturers pay a license fee for the right to use a popular character to produce a product kids will want. The Shirley Temple doll, Davy Crockett coonskin cap, Mickey Mouse watch, Superman underwear, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle slumber bag are all examples of this marketing strategy.
Licensing took a major leap in the 1970’s when the Star Wars license unexpectedly became a gold mine for the Kenner toy company. Since then, there has been a huge increase in the use of licensed characters to sell products to children. Cross-selling is double-barreled licensing: Two or more companies combine promotion efforts, as Burger King and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie did in 1990. The movie was promoted by Burger King before it opened; Burger King was prominently featured in the movie.
Many licensing fads — Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Nintendo, Barbie — target the young. “Well-promoted licensed characters can cause children not to give enough consideration to the major attributes of the product,” says James McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M. “Licensed fads have a snowball effect. As they buy and display licensed products, the children are becoming salespeople, of sorts, for the licensed products.” This report looks at some major licensing campaigns that target kids.
In 1980, sales of licensed products worldwide amounted to $10 billion. In 1989, sales hit more than $64 billion. The toy share of licensed products currently exceeds the entire total of licensed merchandise 10 years ago.
Three licenses are the acknowledged kings of marketing to kids: Disney, Nintendo, and Barbie. Products related to these licenses are routinely found at the top of toy-hit charts.
Disney’s co-campaign with Nabisco’s Bits for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids included posters and other materials for grocery and video store promotions. Disney has signed 15-year marketing agreements with Coca-Cola and Eastman Kodak. To support its videos, Disney arranged promotional tie-ins with P&G, Crest, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Jell-O and McDonald’s. Disney’s Buena Vista Television plans a $100 million marketing launch, including cross-promotions with McDonald’s and Kellogg’s.
Disney is using heavy cross-selling with its summer film, Dick Tracy. Marketing partners include McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Sixty-four companies have been licensed to sell Tracy products, including replicas of Tracy’s trench coat, Dick Tracy figures, a Crimestoppers kit, a videogame, and watches. MTV was developing a summer promotion around Madonna’s role in the film.
Barbie has been called “one of the most recognizable personalities in the history of licensing,” and “the queen of sheen.” An industry ad says: “Benefit from Mattel’s success by becoming a licensee. Barbie is a success story that continues to gather fans with over 90% market penetration. More than 470 million dolls have been sold to date.”
Barbie’s younger sister Skipper comes wearing clothes with the Pepsi logo all over them. Barbie Lifestyles is a new product line including “designer bags” for girls ages 3 to 10. Breakfast with Barbie is a Ralson Purina presweetened cereal. Barbie also adorns calendars, stationery, bicycles and so on. She even appeared in 1989-90 in a cross-selling arrangement with the Ice Capades.
Nintendo revived the U.S. video game industry in the early 1980’s, transforming it into a $2.7 billion business, according to the New York Times. Recently, growth has slowed. Nintendo is actively looking to advertising and cross-promotions to increase sales.
Nintendo has launched the largest promotion the video game industry has ever seen: the Nintendo World Championships. The traveling exhibition will hit 30 cities, with the co-sponsorship of Pepsi, Reebok and General Foods. Playing tips for Acclaim Nintendo games will appear on Jell-O Pops packages. “Jell-O Pops are enjoyed by millions of kids, many of whom are Nintendo gamers,” explains an Acclaim marketing vice president. Nintendo has signed an agreement with Voyager Communications for comic books based on the Nintendo characters.
World of Nintendo boutiques are now located in many large toy stores. The products found there are heavily promoted in Nintendo’s bi-monthly magazine, Nintendo Power. To quote one ad: “Nintendo’s got the coolest T-Shirts and sweatshirts around…. You can accessorize with a 14K gold Triforce charm, and keep definite Power Time with a neat Nintendo watch. And try moving to the sound of your favorite Nintendo tunes on CD…Make your room your own with Nintendo comforters, posters, sheets and towels&emdash;plus a great Nintendo slumber bag. Keep it all neat in a Power trunk. When you’re cleaning up your room you can even slam dunk your trash into an outrageous Nintendo bag…Make the day fly by with Nintendo book covers, bookmarks, notebooks and stickers…”
Popular kids’ TV shows are prime sources for licensing and cross-selling. In 1989, for example, the licensing of Sesame Street characters brought The Children’s Television Workshop $22 million.
The Simpsons on Fox TV is a new merchandising phenomenon, heavily targeted to the hard-to-reach 12- to 17-year olds. “In my business, you have to get inside kids’ heads,” said a vice president of marketing at a chewing gum company. “Kids want to be seen with something that’s cool. Bart (Simpson) is clearly cool.” Licensees include: Amurol products for chewing gum, BananAppeal for ceramic mugs and magnets; Ben Cooper for costumes and masks; the Bibb Company for sleeping bags; Chadwick Industries for children’s shoes and boots; Dan Dee imports for talking dolls; Hamilton Group for talking dolls and PVC bendables; hi-Flier Manufacturing for Kites; M.L. Berger company for wristwaches; the Shirt Shed for t-shirts and sweat-shirts; and Western Graphics for posters.
Nickelodeon cable (“the channel for kids”) has signed a $20 million-a-year deal with Pizza Hut. Under the agreement, “Pizza Hut will expand its ad presence on the network; be a charter advertiser in Nickelodeon magazine … develop premiums and promotions tied to the network’s programs; be a sponsor of Nickelodeon Studios at the Universal Studios Florida attraction; and be a sponsor in Nickelodeon’s 20-city shopping mall tour this summer…”
Mitchell Fried of Nickelodeon: “We’re saying to advertisers, you can be a sponsor of an event…. We’ve created Nickelodeon magazine which … is a kid’s magazine, a lifestyle magazine for children. So advertisers can go in there. They can sponsor the studio. They can go into licensing… we’ve packaged this now so that it’s at home, it’s in the school. It’s on television. It’s in the shopping environment.”
Looney Tunes’ Bugs Bunny’s 50th anniversary has helped Warner Brothers sign on 150 licensees. Bugs and his Looney Tunes friends will appear on kids’ microwave dinners from Tyson Foods, called Looney Tunes meals, with a $15 million ad campaign aimed at children. “Our target (kids 2 to 12) can name off the Looney Tunes characters,” says Tyson’s ad agency. Holiday Inn and McDonald’s are planning promotions around Bugs. Six Flags parks will feature the characters prominently. There is a cross-licensing program with Major League Baseball.
Yogi Bear (Hanna-Barbera) and Wendy’s are co-promoting the “Yogi Treasure Hunt” line of videos. Wendy’s will offer six different Yogi Bear toy gliders along with “Kid Meal” boxes containing discount coupons for the cassettes, and support it with a spot TV campaign. Wendy Moss, of Hanna-Barbera: “It works out well for everyone…They’re looking for these gliders to drive kids into the stores, where they’ll learn about our tapes.”
Movie Tie-Ins
Films can be a profitable license or cross-selling medium. The spring 1990 licensing/cross-selling winner was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which benefited from both licensing and cross-selling. In 1988, Playmates Toys introduced a line of Turtle action figures that (according to a company press release) “helped launch a licensing frenzy that has turned the Turtles into an American marketing phenomenon.” Two hundred licensees produce “everything from turtleized lunch boxes, backpacks, pajamas, pillow sets, jogging suits, shampoo, breakfast cereal, Halloween costumes, drinking straws, calendars, decals and a talking toothbrush to one of the hottest video game cartridges for Nintendo.” In 1989 the Turtles earned more than $350 million in license fees and merchandising.
The film was promoted at Burger King prior to release. Free Turtle toys were included with Kids Meals and low-priced videos (with commercials for Turtle products) of the TV show were sold. K-Mart decorated 2,200 stores with Turtle banners and promoted a Turtle sweepstakes that was advertised with inserts in 72 million newspapers. Upon release, the movie grossed approximately $25.4 million on the first weekend.
Ralson-Purina has put a movie poster giveaway on three million TMNT cereal boxes. Kraft is using the Turtles in a $1.5 million TV ad campaign for Light ‘N Lively yogurt. Conagra will feature them on 53 million Banquet pot-pie boxes.
In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Domino’s Pizza was prominently featured. This product-placement followed in the wake of Pizza Hut’s appearance in the 1989 movie, Back to the Future II.
Jim Schwartz of Pizza Hut: “… product placement (is) a technique perhaps mastered by our parent company, PepsiCo. The film is set in the year 2015, and in a spectacular scene, a mini pizza pellet is placed in a microwave-type machine and in three seconds and much hoopla, a Pizza Hut pizza is produced.
“The movie also features futuristic sunglasses, which we have reproduced for a promotion targeted to junior high school, ‘tween and early high school students, probably aged 11 to 15, where fashion, clothes, and music are a big part of their lives… All our 6,000 restaurants will sell these ‘Solar Shades’ for $1.99 with a pizza purchase… Theater personnel will get the sunglasses and buttons with both ‘Back to the Future’ and Pizza Hut logos to wear.”
Most adults treasure the memory of some licensed toy of the past. The difference between then and now is the volume and intensity of the sell. Whereas before an occasional toy or piece of attire was loved because of its link with a movie or TV character we’d come to know over time, today advance promotions and cross-selling make licensed items in demand even before the movie is released. And the excitement over one fantasy character can make numerous unrelated products very desirable.
The purpose of licensing and cross-selling is to forge powerful links in the minds of young consumers between a favorite movie, TV show, or character and some product they might not want or notice otherwise. It’s instant advertising that triggers buying for emotional reasons. But when it encourages kids to want products without regard for their attributes, or to want a food because the Turtles ate it or because Barbie is on the box (instead of for nutrition or taste) — kids are being misled. This way of promoting food appears to be growing. The Hollywood Reporter sees “two worlds coverging: entertainment on the one hand, and beverage/fast food/packaged goods on the other… Image conscious restaurant chains, beverage marketers and packaged goods companies eagerly seek tie-ins with family-oriented G and PG movies.”
Licensing encourages kids to keep on buying, to get the latest fad, and chuck it when a newer one comes along. Ghostbusters stuff was outdated by Batman, which was outdated by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Keeping in mind that kids are learning about their consumer role, what all this licensing furor is teaching is continuous consumption and acceptance of planned obsolescence.
Referring to the Disney-McDonald’s The Little Mermaid promotion, Janet Maslin, film critic for the New York Times, says: “It’s lovely to feel that a movie has won your heart. It’s less lovely to feel that marketing strategists have done to you what Hannibal did to the Roman legions at Cannae.”
This look at recent campaigns shows that companies wishing to sell to children are spending many millions on licensing fees and cross-promotions. The hook is affection — for a favorite show, movie, character. The goal is a purchase. The target is a child. The problem, as we see it, is the immense pressure to purchase.
Marketers to children are banking on the fact that children have a natural desire to buy something that reminds them of a beloved friend. But does a child understand those 10 Batman action figures will soon be superceded by 14 Dick Tracy pals? That a Nintendo bedroom may not seem as much fun next year? That Barbie cereal doesn’t taste better just because her face is on the box? That a Cookie Monster bandaid isn’t worth a lot more money than a plain one?

  1. Make schools ad-free zones, where young people can pursue learning free of commercial influences and pressures. To accomplish this:
    • Schools and school districts should adopt and enforce guidelines restricting the use of business-sponsored materials. As a model, they should look to the 1989 guidelines developed by the International Organization of Consumers Unions, which call for all business-sponsored education materials to be:
      • Accurate: Be consistent with established facts appropriately referenced, and current.
      • Objective: Present all relevant points of view, and clearly state the sponsor’s bias.
      • Complete: Not mislead by omission.
      • Non-discriminatory: Avoid ethnic, age, race and sex stereotypes.
      • Non-commercial: Not contain any of the sponsor’s brand names, trademarks, related trade names, or corporate identification in the text or illustrations; avoid implied or explicit sales messages.
      • Evaluative: Encourage cognitive evaluation of the subject taught.
    • All companies that provide educational materials for schools should comply with these guidelines, or with the similar guidelines developed by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business.
    • National and local education groups, including PTAs, Boards of Education, and professional teaching associations, should support guidelines for business-sponsored materials. They should help their members comply by covering the issue in their publications and at their conferences, and by addressing the larger political problem of the underfunding of our schools.
    • Teachers should support the adoption of business-material guidelines in their schools and use such guidelines to screen all teaching materials before using them in the classroom.
  2. Promotions that target kids must meet higher standards than those aimed at adults. They should not exploit the inexperience and vulnerabilities of kids; and they should clearly identify themselves as advertising.
    • Publishers of children’s magazines and broadcasters of TV programming for children share some responsibility for the fairness of advertising they bring to their young audiences. They should not accept advertorials or celebrity-endorsements.
    • The Federal Trade Commission should recognize that kids’ clubs, whose purpose is to sell products, may mislead children, even if the commercial nature of the clubs is obvious to adults. The FTC should require kids’ clubs to provide a substantial non-merchandising service or activity for kids. Clubs intending to sell members’ names in mailing lists should disclose that fact and give kids the opportunity to keep their names off the list.
    • Congress should enact legislation that would bar tobacco and liquor companies from paying to place their products in movies. This disguised advertising of hazardous and potentially addictive products should not be tolerated by a society that values the health of its children.
  3. Educate children about the nature of commercial messages directed at them and build their ability to resist sales pressures. Schools and parents need to balance some of the promotional influences on kids’ development as consumers and citizens.
    • Schools and teachers should teach kids to analyze ads, demythologize products, and clarify the alternatives one faces in the marketplace. Such consumer education fits naturally into a number of conventional subject areas. It should begin in the elementary grades.
    • Parents should contribute to their children’s education by regularly discussing purchasing and money-management decisions with their children, and by critically analyzing advertising with them.