Shrinks and con men

An unholy alliance of psychologists and advertisers targets kiddie consumers.

Published February 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A 7-year-old boy and his mother sit at play behind a two-way mirror, research subjects scrutinized by an ad team seeking ways to sell a new breakfast cereal.

An interviewer probes the child's feelings about some established brands, eliciting heartfelt opinions about Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch. After a while the boy begins to tire, though, and when he's asked about a particular brand, he turns to his mother and asks, "Do I like that one, Mom?"

For a parent, this vignette is oddly touching. It captures a truth about little ones: For all children's mulish intensity, their wants and plans are innocently evanescent; all that's real is the fiendish attachment to mother.

But for Langebourne Rust, who cons the soul of the family on behalf of corporations that want to sell more stuff to kids, this moment of childish confusion yields an insight that can be spun into gold.

The 7-year-old "couldn't remember, but he trusted his mom's judgment," concluded Rust, the marketing consultant at the controls on the other side of the mirror. "In the real world, lots of kids don't know what they want and look eagerly to Mom to direct them."

Rust, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia University, has been delivering emotional intelligence to corporate clients for 28 years. His craft is to convert knowledge of kids and their families into messages that sell. And it is Rust, and professionals like him, whom a group of activists have in mind as they lobby the American Psychological Association to discipline those of its 159,000 members who "use psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children." (The activists, most of them psychologists who belong to the APA, formally petitioned the association with their demands in October.)

Marketing aimed at children has reached "epidemic levels," their letter stated. It is an "enormous onslaught" that constitutes "arguably the largest single psychological project ever undertaken." Psychologists who lend their services to this business, it went on, "are not using their knowledge to mitigate the causes of human suffering. They are using it instead to promote and assist the commercial exploitation and manipulation of children."

Two groups of psychologists have been targeted by the campaign. One includes child psychologists like Rust, who work in corporate advertising or as consultants. The other includes the 700 members of the Society for Consumer Psychology, who do academic research that the critics charge is too frequently aimed at improving marketing techniques rather than examining their deleterious effects.

The petition for these new ethical standards will be discussed by an APA committee next month. No short-term action on it is expected. More than anything else, it's a sign of the worried times.

The use of psychologists and their insights in advertising is hardly new. After being booted out of Johns Hopkins University in 1920 for dating a graduate student, the behaviorist John B. Watson wedded psychology and advertising at the Chicago ad firm J. Walter Thompson.

A tradition of relinquishing one's moral convictions at the agency door evidently began with Watson, whose academic work stressed that humans should gain mastery over their emotions. Watson told mothers, for example, to refrain from picking up crying babies or hugging their toddlers to encourage the formation of coolly autonomous beings.

At JWT, though, Watson championed the use of advertising as a medium that played to emotions rather than rational thought. It was as if, after observing the incorrigible wimpiness of humans, he simply threw up his hands and decided to cash in on it. "Theoretically, I had been studying this animal [people] all my days," Watson said of life before his career change. "Practically, I didn't know how to get at him."

Over the years it grew harder for advertisers to "get at" us; American adults quickly became jaded about the persuasive techniques of advertising. But studies in the 1970s revealed that young kids weren't really able to distinguish the puffery of commercials from the programming they interrupted.

Motivated by these findings, Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, tried in 1978 to restrict TV advertising aimed at children under 13. A ferocious lobbying campaign killed his proposal, though, and the industry of stimulating childish wants began to expand.

Kid-oriented marketing firms and branches have sprouted like rain forest fungi as the direct buying power of the 4-to-12 set grew from $2.9 billion in 1978 to $24 billion in 1998. The same age group influences an additional $200 billion in family spending, according to Texas A&M University's James U. McNeal, the psychology-trained market researcher who is considered the godfather of marketing to kids.

Over these same two decades, surveys of high school seniors have revealed a dramatic shift toward materialistic life goals. To many signatories of the APA letter, it seemed that the ad bombing of America's youth had fed that greed, and that for all their purchases, greed wasn't fulfilling the children -- human fulfillment, after all, being the objective of the psychological profession.

"Since 1979 I've been asking kids what they want to do when they grow up, and 'Make a lot of money' is now the most common answer," says Allen D. Kanner, who has a psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, Calif. "The rich kids are depressed because they don't think they'll make as much money as their parents. The middle-class kids all want all these things. Even the very poor kids are obsessed with what's cool to buy."

For these concerned psychologists, the giddiness of Internet-driven prosperity masks familial anxiety. Parents are always working and kids seem to grow up so quickly, each generation's maturity accelerating faster, like gigabytes on a Pentium chip -- kids becoming 'tweens and 'tweens just teens without beards.

Advertisers have seemed eager to feed the communication gap fostered by the information revolution, splitting generations into X, Y and NeXt. "Today's children are like a new species," says Mark Smycka, a Toronto market researcher who organizes an annual award ceremony, the Golden Marbles, for the best ads aimed at kids.

No one observes this alienation quite as acutely -- and in quite as ambiguous a moral light -- as the psychologists who work in and around the advertising world.

In 1997, a group of University of Wisconsin researchers wrote in the Journal of Consumer Research that teenagers raised in disrupted families -- roughly half of all kids in America -- "exhibit higher levels of compulsive consumption than those reared in intact families.

"Elevated material values and compulsive buying serve an instrumental role," they reported with a curious neutrality, "in helping these young adults cope with the stresses and uncertainty associated with family disruption."

But if they accept that compulsive materialism is a simple given of American society, professionals working for Madison Avenue firms still draw vaguely defined limits on the methods used to fan those compulsions. At the very least, they agree, commercials shouldn't encourage children to smoke or drink or have sex.

"Children are consumers in training. Anybody can fool them, deceive them or cheat them," McNeal wrote in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Business Strategy. "It takes a mighty good marketer to satisfy children's wants and needs and not do anything unethical, intentionally or unintentionally."

Whiton Paine, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of Kid2Kid, a Philadelphia market research firm, last year developed an ethics audit to help companies avoid sending messages that "either delay or unduly accelerate a child's development." Stimulating desires for drugs, tobacco, sex and booze are taboo in Paine's code -- duh -- as are messages that promote "addiction" to products. While Paine won't discuss the specifics, he says he also has discouraged clients from using particular ads that depict angry relations between teenagers and their parents or overly coifed preteens, even though such ads, in roiling the emotions of their audience, may lead to greater awareness of a product.

On the other hand, the more innocent the product, the more acceptable it is to wallpaper a kid's brain with innumerable iterations of it, in the view of some of these professionals.

Pokimon is a prime example of licensing gone mad. The Pokimon story's "lack of dark-side behavior and emotions," says psychologist Dan Acuff of Youth Marketing Systems Consulting, in Glendale, Calif., "allows for penetration into the lucrative preschool and early school-age markets."

Paine gives Pokimon mixed reviews: good for promoting honorable Japanese values, bad for the creation of artificial shortages, which has led to schoolyard fights.

Paine likes to think of himself as a Jonah, battling the beast from inside. To be sure, "kids need protected zones where there's less marketing," he says. "Unfortunately, my very creative marketing colleagues are working so there are no protected zones." And "a lot of what I do is advise companies not to do what they'd like to do.

"If you look at Internet usage, you notice an enormous bump at 2:30," he says. "That's when the kids come home and the parents aren't. Everyone talks about parental responsibility, but the fact is that parents are relying more and more on companies to protect their kids. My argument is that any company that markets to kids takes on ethical responsibilities."

And what service, exactly, does Kid2Kid provide? A network of bright teenagers -- "peer guides" or "influencers" in the lingo of the trade -- leads younger kids in focus groups that examine ads and products from corporations like Nabisco, Kraft and AT&T. In other words, they help polish the campaigns for more brightly packaged detritus.

"We picked the color of the SnackWell's cookie box. It was green, an unusual color for a cookie box," says Natalie Dorazio, 19, a Kid2Kid peer guide for five years who enjoyed it so much that she's now studying marketing. "We picked those little canteens of Pringles." (To be fair, Paine and other psychologists also work in public-service-ad campaigns.)

If the fragility of children amid the stresses of modern life is to be respected, it can still be turned to a seller's advantage, gently massaged by corporations that wish to enter a family's comfort zone.

The basic advertising model for kid products is the "nag and gatekeeper" model, the idea being to maximize the nag until the gatekeeper lowers the bar. But marketing consultant Rust targets the mother and child as a snug team. "One thing [Jean] Piaget didn't see," he says in an interview, "is that kids are attracted to novelty only when they feel safe and comfortable.

"Children are very fragile in their ability to deal with things they've never experienced before. There's a wonderful intensity in their way of seeing the world, a concreteness, very deep, very vivid, very unique and rich. But that way of seeing does not equip you to cope with new things, and we have a social pattern in our society -- which I regret, but there's not much I can do about it -- where kids, even preschoolers, are constantly being ripped from one environment to the next to the next.

"One of the reasons for the tremendous and in many ways regrettable clutching that young children do toward brands," he adds, "is their need to fill their lives with familiar things. So sure, they look for Disney. And Mom looks for that too."

So, amid the swirl of afternoon TV, with its nearly indistinguishable action figure programs and ads for plastic action figures, one occasionally sees commercials aimed at cementing the fuzzy linkages of product to emotional comfort.

In a current ad running with the fiendish cartoons of after school, Ronald McDonald comes upon a little girl finishing a snowman. "He needs just one more thing," says the calorie-rich clown in a gentle, caring voice. Waving his hand he creates another snowman, "a friend." The second snowman, shown from behind, has the subtlest of identifying markers -- a McDonald's-yellow scarf.

A familiar product; a friend in a strange world. This is perhaps "regrettable" but not surprising, in Rust's view. "Parents want to line the nest," he says, "with familiar and predictable experiences for their children."


"Should psychologists have their own kind of Hippocratic oath?" Barry Ornstein, a New York ad researcher, told Media Life magazine. "I don't know; that's their business. But we're in the business of manipulating people."

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

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