Commercial overload

When my older daughter was 6, she didn't want much for Christmas. At the top of her short wish list: "marshmallows, the big kind." From 7 on, the list has been much longer, brand specific and, needless to say, more expensive to fulfill.

So what happened between her sixth and seventh birthdays? Commercial TV, of course. For her first six years, we restricted her to noncommercial TV-
Sesame Street

and the like-and thus shielded her from those powerful electronic pitches for toys, games and dolls. So, come Christmas, her demands were modest. But as soon as we let her loose in the world of commercial TV, she suddenly developed the same TV-inspired wants as every other red-blooded American girl.

As every parent knows, you can't protect your children from the world forever-from the real one or from the make-believe one of TV. Learning to deal with appealing ads for dubious products is part of growing up in America, and much of the programming the advertising supports is well worth seeing-clever and funny and meaningful. Instead of flat-out banning commercial TV, I try to instill a little skepticism in both my daughters. That stuff just ain't as good as it looks, kids.

I'm not joining the academics who protested the children's advertising awards in New York last month and who demand government regulation. Yet I'm bothered by the whole business of advertising to kids, by children's marketers and their eager accomplices, children's TV programmers. And the better the ads, the more it bothers me.

Isn't there something creepy about grown-ups who go to work each day to study children so they can better sell them stuff? Of course, those in the business don't see it that way. They say they are merely trying to satisfy the emotional and psychological needs of kids. They are doing them and their parents a favor.

That's the way Gene Del Vecchio spins it. He's a children's marketing consultant and author of
Creating Ever-Cool: A Marketer's Guide to a Kid's Heart.

But he sort of gives himself away in discussing "the battle" over the $160 billion worth of goods and services whose purchase is influenced by children. "The battle will be won by the company that best understands kids, their emotional needs, their fantasies, their dreams, their desires. Such knowledge is the mightiest weapon in a marketer's arsenal to win a child's heart."

In a book of 253 pages, Del Vecchio devotes two to discussing (and basically defending) the propriety of marketing to kids. The rest is simply a highly readable handbook on child psychology and how to put it to work in creating and selling products for kids.

It's too bad kids have so few places to go to avoid commercials. The only places I can think of are HBO and the Disney Channel. But HBO's children's offerings are limited, and Disney is one long promo, apt to accept outside advertising after its transformation from a pay to basic service is complete.

What about PBS? Surely the publicly funded network provides a safe harbor against child psychologists/marketers. Not according to Judi Cook, an assistant professor at Salem State College in Salem, Mass. She studied the programming day of WGBH-TV Boston last February and found it was loaded with advertising spots and most of them-80 out of 97-aired before or after children's shows. The sponsors were familiar-the likes of Juicy Juice, Kellogg's, Chuck E. Cheese and KB Toys.

"Reducing children to commodities and serving them up to underwriters is not exactly something one normally associates with public television," Cook's paper concludes. "And yet, this appears to be the way of the future."

The only thing kids have going for them is the 1990 law setting limits on commercials in kids programming: 12 minutes per hour on weekdays, 10.5 minutes on weekends. Unfortunately, some broadcasters cannot seem to play within those generous bounds. Between 1996 and 1999, the FCC fined or admonished 194 TV stations for exceeding the limits. Way to go, broadcasters.

My oldest, the marshmallow fan, is now 16 and on her own in dealing with the media. But I still caution my 12-year-old about those relentless commercials promising excitement, happiness and popularity. And to all those who toil to create such ads, I say, get a real job.

Jessell may be reached at or

at 212-337-6964.