For Every Screen, A Commercial

Jan 18

When I hear one of my kids singing a commercial jingle, I cringe.¬† It’s not that I don’t enjoy their high pitched, bouncy voices; but rather, I resent the ease with which a giant corporation can brand their unblemished minds with a typically useless product.¬† As many parents can attest, a catchy tune and a few special effects is all it takes for a child to turn their glazed eyes toward Mom and Dad to plead, “Can I have it?”¬† Until the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns shift their power of persuasion to benefit, rather than burden, parents, the desire to shelter kids from advertising will persist.¬† In today’s age of the glowing screen, however, that effort is bound to grow more challenging.

Mobile phones have become the latest vehicle for product promotions

When my kids were toddlers, their TV viewing was limited to commercial-free stations, like TVO Kids, where advertisements are limited to a quick thank you to their sponsors.¬† As they’ve drifted away from The Wiggles and toward SpongeBob, the ban on ads is gone and kids are exposed to a slew of new toys and sugary cereals that they’d otherwise never know about.¬† Parents may take some solace in their children’s replacement of television with video games which have fewer, if any, commercial interruptions; however, advertisers have crept into those forums, as well.¬† In fact, the smallest, most personal screens – mobile phones – have become the latest vehicle for product promotions.¬†

According to a recent article in Advertising Age, companies like Kraft and Nike are offering interactive applications, such as dinner menu planning or ski reports, on mobile devices to better engage consumers with their top brands.¬† Rather than force-feed their audience an ad, they provide free online (logo-heavy) programs that conveniently integrate into recipients’ daily lives.¬† It’s an interesting concept and even die-hard anti-corporate crusaders will be hard pressed not to use a product if it makes their life easier. Parents should be concerned, however, that as more children join the population of mobile device owners, companies that sell children’s products will be salivating at the prospect of reaching them through those mini screens.¬† ¬†¬†

Advertisers are also likely to engage in tactics that are more intrusive and less welcome than the voluntary downloadable programs.¬† Last week, AT&T sent a large portion of their 75 million customers a text message promoting the season premier of the reality show, American Idol.¬† It’s sort of like having a telemarketer join your phone conversation with your spouse to let you know of a sale on ventilation cleaning.¬† It’s no wonder the backlash by its customers was swift and fierce.¬† However, this experimental effort by AT&T to promote its offerings via texting will likely become a regular occurrence as more companies discover the ease with which they can capture the eyes of millions of consumers.¬†

It’s a shame there are no profits to be earned by encouraging children to be more obliging of their parents’ requests.¬† Every kid in North America would be getting a mobile device for his next birthday if that were the case.¬† But that’s the stuff of fairytales.¬† In reality, parents who want to limit the forces competing for their children’s hearts and minds may want to dim some of the screens in their lives.¬† One added benefit?¬† Fewer targets on your wallet.

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Are Kids Addicted to Video Games?

Nov 08

An autopsy on Friday confirmed that the body found in a field north of Barrie was, indeed, 15-year-old missing boy, Brandon Crisp. Parents across North America commiserate with the tragic loss of his parents and sisters, particularly because this story of video game addiction resonates with the personal experiences of so many. Removing privileges, such as video games, is a common, and often effective, means of teaching life lessons and has been practiced by generations of parents. Unfortunately, in Brandon’s case, what had seemed a normal course of action for concerned parents led to a tragically irrational response from a boy with an addiction.

Addiction has traditionally been relegated to vices – alcohol, drugs, smoking.

The concept of addiction has long been relegated to traditional vices – alcohol, drugs, smoking. But this incident has forced many to realize that the seemingly benign pastime of video game playing may need to be added to the list. Last Christmas, my husband and I decided to give each of our boys a DS Nintendo. Their ecstatic whoops of elation warmed my heart – that day. But, the battles that ensued for months afterward over how long and how often they could play had, on many occasions, tempted me to throw the beeping metallic boxes in the garbage (or better yet, hammer them to pieces.) The boys (6 and 8 years old) even woke late in the night sometimes to creep downstairs and play their games gleefully. Fortunately, they would guiltily confess their trespasses each morning. And I would have to find new hiding places for their DS’s.

Clearly, my husband and I realized, these little screens of animations were highly addictive and we were concerned. Now, almost a year later, we have come to a mutual understanding that the video games come out only every other day, and are timed for 30 to 40 minutes (with some exceptions.) My kids are lucky, however (or unlucky, depending on whose point of view), because I’m a fighter. They can whine and tell me I’m a mean mom until they’re red in the face (which they do) – I stand by my convictions. And it is exhausting. Just ask any parent of a video game console.

According to the National Institute on Media and the Family four out of ten parents whose kids play video games argue sometimes or very often with their children about the amount of time they spend playing. They also discovered, in a study on grade 8 and grade 9 students, that addicted video game players were involved in more physical fights, more arguments with friends and teachers than their non-addicted peers. It’s easy to sympathize with a parent who is tired of the constant battles and thinks, ‘what’s the big deal… It’s just a video game?’ After all, everyone plays video games these days. They’re right, almost.

Today, 92% of American children aged 2 – 17 play regularly. Market research firm, NPD, counts 174 million people as “gamers”, that is, those who play computer or video games. Of these, 22% of them are categorized as “young heavy gamers” and they comprise one-third of the population of console owners, with a particular preference for portable systems (DS Nintendo and PSP.) No surprise, then, that they are a marketing target for the big video game producers – Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. According to NPD’s Kids & Gaming Report, “When kids get to the 6 to 8 year-old age range is when we see them turn into more serious gamers. Not only does the amount of time they spend playing games increase the most dramatically, but they migrate from using ‘kid’ systems to using more portable and console systems as well” says Anita Frazier, an industry analyst, “This appears to be a critical age at which to capture the future gamers of the world.”

Microsoft spent $500 million to launch their Xbox 360

Microsoft hauled in a huge catch in 2000, when they spent $500 million to launch their Xbox 360 – the most they’d ever spent on a new project launch. In 2008, Microsoft was the most awarded advertiser, according to creativity-online.com, for their successful marketing of video game, Halo 3. This Christmas, they plan to invest more money than ever to woo a wider audience for their Xbox 360.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSdSnYGL7YA

It’s the quintessential David versus Goliath parable. Parents have little hope of defeating the forces of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo with a measley sling shot. But, all is not lost. They can arm themselves with knowledge and awareness about the very real possibility of addiction for video game players and keep a vigil eye on the types of games kids play, and for how long. Kudos to Microsoft for recently creating the to help parents limit their children’s video game content and usage. Perhaps it will help improve the grade ‘C’ that NIMF’s 2007 Video Game Report Card gave parents for their level of involvement in their children’s gaming habits as a result of their failure to use the ESRB ratings system, and their continual complacency in allowing children to purchase and play Mature rated games. Call of Duty 4 is among the top ten games NIMF recommends parents avoid for their children and teens – the very same game Brandon Crisp, tragically, lost his life for.
Do you suspect your child may have an addiction? Try this Quiz for .

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Marketing Apples to Children? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Aug 21

Too many Canadian kids are fat.  This is a fact.  Over the past few years, newspapers and health advocates have decried the rising obesity rates, but it’s not headline news today.  As Canadians have come to accept this weighty truth and various organizations and governments scramble to find solutions, it’s hardly surprising that finger pointing has begun.  Who is to blame for this epidemic of chunkiness?  The list of culprits is exhausting and their culpability impossible to define – from the nutritionists in Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food (Fat bad!  Carbohydrates good!) to parenting experts that bemoan Mommy’s use of the word “no” – the blame game will very likely find few winners.  A recent report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, however, shows both the food and media industries are strong contenders.

 

According to the report, $1.6 billion was spent in 2006 by 44 major food and beverage marketers to promote their goodies to kids aged 2 to 17 years old.  For children aged 2 to 11 years, a total of $229 million was invested in breakfast cereals alone – while the amount spent on fruits and vegetables was $8.4 million.  Is it any wonder then, that kids are especially vocal about their preferences in the cereal aisle of the grocery store?  Take a teen to the local Loblaws, and it’s more likely to be the soda shelves that invigorate his taste buds.  That’s because the marketing strategy shifts toward carbonated beverages for 12 to 17 year olds where $472.2 million was invested in making sure your kid begs for Red Bull rather than V-8.  In that same age category, fruits and vegetables received a measly $6.2 million to promote their not so hip qualities.

 

The report also chastises the media for bombarding children and teens with messages and images that promote unhealthy eating habits through television advertising, the internet, and movie tie-ins.  In the reported year, food and beverage products were tied to about 80 movies, television shows, and animated characters that appeal to children.  It specifically cites the use of characters from Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean to sell fatty food products.  According to a , Dr. Martin Schiff, weight-loss expert and best-selling author of The Thin Connection, goes a step further in blaming Hollywood for North America’s gluttonous habits.  He is now part of a health campaign that urges the movie industry to add a new rating – “O” for Obesity.  According to Schiff, shows such as Sex in the City where skinny, beautiful women constantly eat yet never gain weight are setting an unhealthy example for thousands of children (as opposed to the promiscuous sex and shallow lifestyles?)  While this proposal is a noble effort to curb the overeating that has gripped our youngest generation, it’s not likely that an industry that profits from gratuitous violence and lurid sex scenes is going to omit all-you-can-eat buffet scenes from their movies.  Furthermore, parents busy censoring their children from lewd language, nudity and blood spilling are not about to whisper “cover your eyes” when some chubby kid eats a twinkie on the silver screen. 

 

A battle against America’s corporations to focus their energies less on junk food and more on healthy eating is, quite frankly, fruitless.  Although the report concedes that some of the largest food and beverage companies have taken “important steps to encourage better nutrition and fitness among the nation’s children” by limiting their advertising to foods that meet certain nutritional standards, if the “standards” are met by injecting a few vitamins into a sugar-laden gummy, children and parents are not much better off.   Maybe advertisers will bear some of the responsibility for North America’s unhealthy eating habits, and maybe they won’t.  Only time will tell.  But one thing is certain, all this finger wagging and strongly worded criticisms will do little to shrink the enlarged girth of a ten-year-old.  Regular trips to the farmer’s market, less time in front of the television, and a firm and well-practiced “No” will shed pounds and transform bad eating habits long before anyone sees an ad touting the funky pink treat that dances in your mouth and spreads cool antioxidants to your finger tips called … Watermelon!

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