At 13:58 on Wednesday, May 5, in Houston's St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, a consumer was born. Her name was Alyssa J Nedell and by the time she went home three days later, some of America's biggest marketers were pursuing her with samples, coupons, and assorted freebies. Proctor & Gamble hoped its Pampers brand would win the battle for Alyssa's bottom. Johnson & Johnson offered a tiny sample of its baby soap. Bristol-Myers Squibb Company sent along some of its Enfamil baby formula.
Like no generation before, Alyssa enters a consumer culture surrounded by logos, labels, and acts almost from the moment of birth. As an infant, Alyssa may wear Sesame Street diapers and miniature pro-basketball jerseys. By the time she is 20 months old, she will start to recognize some of the thousands of brands flashed in front of her each day. At age 7, if she is anything like the typical kid, she will see some 20,000 TV (television) commercials a year. By the time she is 12, she will have her own entry in the massive data banks of marketers. Multiply Alyssa by 30 million—the number of babies born in this country since 1990—and you have the largest generation to flood the market since the baby boom. More impressive than their numbers though, is wealth. The increase in single-parent and dual-earner households means that kids are making shopping decisions once left to the mother. Combining allowance, earnings, and gifts, kids aged 14 and under will directly spend an estimated USD 20 billion this year, and will influence another USD 200 billion. No wonder they have become the target of marketing campaigns so sophisticated as to make the kid-aimed pitches of yore look like, well, Mickey Mouse.
Marketers who had long ignored children now systematically pursue them—even when the tykes are years away from being able to buy their products. "Ten years ago it was cereal, candy, and toys. Today it is also computers and airlines and hotels and banks," says Julie Halpin, general manager of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising's Kid Connection Division. "A lot of people are turning to a whole segment of the population they have not been talking to before."
Those businesses that have always targeted kids, such as fast-food restaurants and toy makers, have stepped up their pitches, hoping to reach kids earlier and bind more tightly. Movies, T-shirts, hamburger wrappers, and dolls are all part of the cross promotional blitz aimed at convincing kids to spend. The cumulative effect of initiating children into a consumerist ethos at an early age may be profound. As kids take in the world around them, many of their cultural encounters—from books to movies to TV have become little more than sales pitches. Even their classrooms are filled with corporate logos. To quote clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, "Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important, today's marketing-driven culture is instilling in them the sense that little exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is something you buy at a shopping mall.
Some wonder if marketers are creating a relationship with consumers too soon and for all the wrong reasons. 1