Bart & Lisa (across various contexts, to Homer): "Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore? Will you take us to Mount Splashmore?"
    Homer (after trying to ignore): "If I take you to Mount Splashmore, will you two shut up and quit bugging me?"
    Bart: "Yeah."
    Lisa: "Of course."
    Bart & Lisa: "Well, will you take us to Mount Splashmore?"
    Homer: "YES!"
    Bart & Lisa: "Thanks Dad!"

    The Simpsons, Episode 7G18, "Brush with Greatness"

Kids nag parents to buy the products they see. That's no surprise. But what may surprise you is to what degree corporations rely on and have perfected the science of getting kids to nag. Cheryl Idell is chief strategic officer for the world's largest communications management company Initiative Media. She's done the research, eschewed the ethics, and provides some clear insights into how companies work the "nag factor" or "pester power."

First, some numbers. Initiative Media brags that 20-40 percent of the purchases made by parents for children would not have occurred unless the child nagged their parents. When you realize that for-children purchasing is a $23.4 billion USD industry way back in 1998, you can see that 20-40 percent is substantial. Four out of ten visits to child-oriented food restaurants are nag-bought. A quarter of all theme park visits are the same. Even car companies are starting in on the act, by showcasing kid-friendly features such as DVD players for the back seats. The kids see the ads and start in, complaining when they ride in the family's current, crummy, non-Spongebob-equipped vehicle.

And you can't really blame the kids too much. They have no resistance. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that kids under the age of 8 don't have the mental development to understand the difference between advertising and programs. They think that advertisers do so because what they are selling is good for them. Creepy, no? So, since the kids are much more exploitable for advertising, and the stakes are so high, corporations are highly incented to get in there and get the nag going.

In preparing their assault, they've done their homework. Idell's research identifies two types of nagging and four types of parents.

Types of nagging

  1. Persistence: Doesn't matter what it is with persistence nagging. Enough fits and the parents will eventually give in just for the peace, as the Simpsons quote illustrates.
  2. Importance: Nagging for importance is a more sophisticated tack, using insistence of the value of the product. "But if I don't get the Gulpin, then I won't have a complete collection!" And of course, you gotta catch 'em all.

The types of parents determine which nag works best.

  1. Bare Necessities parents are affluent and upscale but resistant to whining. Kids must use importance nagging to get anywhere with them.

    The other types of parents all respond to persistence nagging.

  2. Kid's Pals are younger parents who buy products for themselves as much for the kids. (Think PlayStation.)
  3. Indulgers are working parents who buy products to assuage their parenting guilt.
  4. Conflicted parents know they shouldn't buy their kids the crap they ask for, but they do it anyway. What's more, they appreciate advertising for the help it gives them in determining what to buy, adding to their conflict.

So, knowing these things, the goals for any advertiser are:

  • Show the "value" (if your product aims at the Bare Necessities parents). Give specific, repeatable reasons. Design products to need completion. (Such as Pokémon.)
  • Use wild animation & breakneck editing speed to dissuade the parents from wanting to watch.
  • Model the nagging to be used (actually show adults as the evil, reluctant authority, and how rebellious, cool nagging wins them over.)
  • Make kids feel that they will be rejected by their peers if they do not possess the product.

This last is paramount. According to Nancy Shalek, former president of Grey Advertising, "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention."

A slight tangent: It's terrifying that this is all legal in the US. In 1981 the Federal Communications Commission lifted the restrictions on advertising to children that had been in place since the 1960s. As you might imagine, the FCC had been heavily lobbied by the food, toy, broadcasting, and advertising industries. Since that time advertising to kids has exploded. Estimates are that American kids see 30,000 commercials each year on television alone. And in George W. Bush's way-pro-business Red America, the advertising arms of big business are being less and less shackled in this country. Expect the kids to be nagging even more.

Short of yanking the media IV out of their children's arms, what's a parent to do when the nagging starts?

Counter offensive

  1. Give the child a budget via an allowance or gift cap and let them decide what to purchase (maintain veto power of course).
  2. Be explicit with the child that nagging is not allowed. Clearly establish the rule and enumerate each offense. After the third, revoke a privilege or cut the child's budget for an appropriate length of time.
  3. For children under 8 years old, play a game with them, asking them to guess what the advertisement is trying to sell. They will have fun and be sensitized to the differences in advertising and programming. (Though admittedly this is becoming more blurry.)
  4. For children over 8 years old, try and point out to them the tactics and deceptions of advertising. Ask them to identify the emotions the ad is trying to raise, and then explain that advertisers want them to have this emotion to sell them something. Get them to state what the advertiser is doing out loud, and it helps the kid gain perspective.

But these tactics only address the response, not the actual pressure to consume. Corporations will continue their onslaught of nag advertising as long as it is profitable. The only thing that might get them to stop is organized resistance and government pressure. (But that belongs to a node on children and advertising.)


Sources
  • Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Free Press 2004
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Pestering Parents: How Food Companies Market Obesity to Children" 2003
  • Center for the New American Dream, http://www.newdream.org/

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