Conning the Kids

WASHINGTON–Once upon a time children’s food habits and taste were primarily shaped by their parents. Not any more. Television ads, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings, have taken over and no one knows this better than the constantly nagged mothers and fathers.

To get an idea of the massive television exposure directed toward children, you have to read some of the well-documented Congressional testimony of Robert Choate, the well-known crusader against commercial exploitation of children and Chairman of the Council on Children, Media and Merchandising. Choate estimates that the moderately viewing child watches television 23.1 hours per week and is exposed to as many as 22,000 television commercials each year.

A large majority of these ads are promoting snacks, candies, sweets, sugared cereals and other so-called “foods.” (At the same time nutritionists, such as Professor Jean Mayer of Harvard worry about the inadequate diets of children—the ones with the full stomachs as well as the poor.)

Very few of these ads relate food and nutrition and good health. The themes that predominate emphasize flavor (including obviously sweetness), appearance, shape, packaging, physical-oral characteristics, plastic toys in the package, and what can be called “zoom-boom” imagery, action and language.

For example, the advertisement for Borden’s Cracker Jack has as its punch line: zulaba-wacking, “Lip-smacking, whip-cracking, patty-wacking/ sculaba-zacking,cracker-jacking, Cracker Jack! Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize.” Another TV ad, for Kool-Aid, advises the child, “If your mother’s very clever, she makes Kool-Aid every morning
and puts in in the fridge where you can get it, Then you never have to nag her when she’s gluing on her lashes…”

Another assault on the child’s impressionable mind is the imagery of violence. The Snickers Candy Bar ad shows gladiators hitting each other with metal clubs while the audience eats a fistful of peanuts. Super Sugar Crisp devoted one whole ad selling a plastic “funny straw,” telling the young viewers nothing about the cereal that happened to also be in the box. An Armour hot dog ad describes children as “Fat Kids, Skinny kids…tough kids, sissy kids…sad kids, funny kids, big kids, little, kids, kids who like a fight” to provide the context for selling that adulterated, fat-ridden product.

A nationwide parents group called Action for Children’s Television (ACT) has studied the elaborate mind-control techniques which advertising firms and their behavioral consultants have developed to “reach the child.” After all, these companies are paying up to $15,000 or more a minute for these television ads and they want to get their emotional and deceptive messages across with indelible efficiency.

Advertising executive Mel Helitzer candidly noted one of the goals: Children can be very successful naggers. By and large parents quite readily purchase products urged upon them by their youngsters. In Helitzer Advertising’s research, it was found that a parent will pay 20 percent more for an advertised product with child appeal-‑even when a less expensive, non-advertised product is no different. There is no doubt in the advertising world about the importance of asserts: TV commercials. A vice president of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn “You can reach 90 per percent of the youth market in one week by scattering TV commercials in shows that are slated to the young.”

One coordinated TV and Sunday supplement campaign was hailed by an advertising executive in exuberance terms. “A parent would need nerves of steel to avoid being KO’d by such a two way punch’ he said.

Parents who don’t need nerves of steel might want to get involved in the citizens of movement against TV commercials which trick, manipulate and defraud the minds of children under twelve. They can obtain information by writing to Action For Children’s
Television (46 Austin Street, Newtonville, MA 02160) ,and Robert Choate (1346 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D,C,20036) Little Pamela Kastner of Rochester, New York, had the right initiative when she wrote us complaining of deceptive advertising. “I’d like to know what I can do about things like that,” she asked.

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