Junk food, cereal and snacks increasingly marketed to children through "pester power"

Monday, June 26, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: manipulative advertising, consumerism, parental responsiblility

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Before the 1980s, with the exception of Disney and McDonald's masterminds Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, companies felt little incentive to market their products to children because they felt children had no buying power. This perspective made sense at the time: Children have little or no income and limited ability to buy items on their own -- unless they use "pester power" to get the materialistic goods they want.

Though Kroc and Disney began marketing their products specifically to children during the 1960s, child-centered marketing really didn't take hold until nearly twenty years later. The boost in children's advertising during the 1980s is a perfect example of how cultural change leads to more cultural change. During that time, more and more children began growing up with no stay-at-home parent, due to an increasing number of single-parent and two-working-parent households. In his bestselling book "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser explains this cultural change's link with increased child-focused marketing: "Many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started spending more money on them." Consequently, companies began directing their advertising toward children because suddenly the children could ask their parents for a product with a better chance of actually getting it.

This parental guilt gives children buying power, as it operates on the message, "I buy you what you want because I love you." As misguided as this belief is, working parents often feel that their job schedules and household duties give them little alternative to showing their love through material goods and in effect, giving children "pester power."

Pester power simply describes children's ability to ask -- or, actually, nag -- their parents for products with a good chance of having their wishes granted. Some children have more pester power than others, and pester power takes many different forms, but one thing is for sure: Children quickly learn the pestering methods that work most effectively for their particular parents and then use them to the best of their advantage.

In his book "Kids as Customers," James U. McNeal divides these pestering methods into seven categories:

  1. The demonstrative nag -- characterized by throwing temper tantrums, holding one's breath and crying in a public place, usually a store; high risk for the child because the demonstrative nag may backfire and result in punishment for embarrassing the parent instead.
  2. The forceful nag -- extremely pushy but not as overtly threatening as the threatening nag; may involve phrases like, "If you don't buy it for me, I'll go ask mom and she will."
  3. The persistent nag -- asking for the same item over and over with the hope that the parent will eventually break down and give in.
  4. The pleading nag -- distinguishable by words like "please" and repetitive whining of the parent's name, such as "mom, mom, mom."
  5. The pity nag -- links parent's refusal to buy a product with claims of becoming a social outcast at school or being miserable forever.
  6. The sugar-coated nag -- exchanges affection for purchase; characterized by phrases like, "You're the best dad in the whole wide world."
  7. The threatening nag -- children learn blackmail early; involves threats of running away, hating a parent forever, refusing to go to school ever again, etc.
If you have children of your own, you've probably experienced one or more of the previous nagging techniques being performed on you. If you haven't, you probably remember using the nagging techniques on your own parents. Which nagging technique do kids use the most? Whatever works best in getting the parents to do what they want.

Giving in to pester power is ultimately bad for both parents and children; there are ways around it

Pester power is unfortunately common in modern American society, and it has a number of negative consequences. First of all, it teaches children instant gratification, which encourages children to focus on immediate pleasure rather than long-term consequences.

Desire for instant gratification can make a 10-year-old choose to watch television rather than doing homework, regardless of the negative consequences that going to school without his or her homework will bring. However, if this focus on instant gratification continues until adulthood, the now 20-year-old adult may decide to sleep late rather than going to work, choosing immediate gratification (extra sleep) over fear of long-term consequences (getting fired). This is why it's important to teach children the importance of thinking things through and taking long-term consequences into account, rather than living life according to whims.

Solution: Don't give in to pester power first explain to your child why, in the long run, it is better if you do not buy the product for him or her.

Second, giving in to pester power allows children to make decisions about topics like food choices that they don't have the maturity to make. Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen explain this in their book "Food Fight:"

"The commercial exploitation of children ... is particularly egregious. Recognizing that children are not fully mature with regard to making informed decisions, we control the promotion of alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. Yet we assume that young children can rationally decide about food choices that have important health consequences, and we expose them to intense marketing of products that are largely devoid of nutritional value but replete with calories."

Of course children want that trip to McDonald's, bowl of ice cream or candy bar; it tastes good. Children, especially very young children, are not aware of junk food's negative effects on the body. Have you ever heard a 4-year-old ask how many calories his or her Happy Meal has? Kids don't pay attention to fat, calories and cholesterol, and the only thing they care about regarding sugar is that it tastes good.

Solution: Teach your children basic nutrition using the Honest Food Guide.

Giving in to pester power teaches children materialism, and materialistic goods will never substitute for your love and attention.

  • Solution: If you work 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday, then make time for your children on weekends.
  • Solution: Allot a certain time slot each evening for family time, even if it's just 30 minutes.
  • Solution: Buy your child "just because" items sometimes but not all the time. This will make the items seem more special and will also avoid materialism.
Hearing a child whine or nag is never fun, but giving in to pestering is actually counterproductive, as rewarded pestering will only lead to more pestering.

The experts speak on pester-driven buying power

The history of direct-to-child advertising

[T]wenty-five years ago, only a handful of American companies directed their marketing at children -- Disney, McDonald's, candy makers, toy makers, manufacturers of breakfast cereal. Today children are being targeted by phone companies, oil companies, and automobile companies, as well as clothing stores and restaurant chains. The explosion in children's advertising occurred during the 1980s. Many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started spending more money on them.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 43

To the great pleasure of the defendants and their supporters, however, the judge found not libelous the leaflet's assertions that McDonald's is cruel to animals, exploits children in its advertising practices, and depresses wages in the British fast-food industry. He said, for example: "In my judgment McDonald's advertising and marketing makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom [business], both their own and that of their parents who must accompany them, by pestering their parents ... [T]his is an inevitable result of advertising at all to children who cannot buy for themselves. So be it."
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 162

In his book "Kids As Customers" (1992), McNeal provides marketers with a thorough analysis of "children's requesting styles and appeals." He classifies juvenile nagging tactics into seven major categories. A pleading nag is one accompanied by repetitions of words like "please" or "mom, mom, mom." A persistent nag involves constant requests for the coveted product and may include the phrase "I'm gonna ask just one more time." Forceful nags are extremely pushy and may include subtle threats, like "Well, then, I'll go and ask Dad." Demonstrative nags are the most high-risk, often characterized by full-blown tantrums in public places, breath-holding, tears, a refusal to leave the store. Sugar-coated nags promise affection in return for a purchase and may rely on seemingly heartfelt declarations like "You're the best dad in the world." Threatening nags are youthful forms of blackmail, vows of eternal hatred and of running away if something isn't bought. Pity nags claim the child will be heartbroken, teased, or socially stunted if the parent refuses to buy a certain item. "All of these appeals and styles may be used in combination," McNeal's research has discovered, "but kids tend to stick to one or two of each that prove most effective for their own parents."
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 45

The commercial exploitation of children ... is particularly egregious. Recognizing that children are not fully mature with regard to making informed decisions, we control the promotion of alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. Yet we assume that young children can rationally decide about food choices that have important health consequences, and we expose them to intense marketing of products that are largely devoid of nutritional value but replete with calories.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 97

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