The PBS television show Teletubbies targets toddlers so young many of them can’t stand on their own two feet or pronounce their own names, still less walk to the neighborhood store and order a specific product. But that doesn’t discourage advertisers. Both Burger King and McDonald’s have taken turns underwriting the show, and the latter company has distributed plush Teletubby toys to kids through its Happy Meals.

In the U.K., meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline recently sponsored publication of children’s book—aimed at kids on slightly older than those who watch Teletubbies—that promoted the use of anti-allergy products. The book, part of the popular Mr. Men series, tells the story of Mr. Sneeze and His Allergies and includes nine pages of story, four pages of allergy advice from the charity Allergy UK, and two pages of information about GSK products Piriton and Piriteze.

Muriel Simmonds, who chairs Allergy UK, says, “Mr Sneeze is the perfect way to help children understand their allergies, and the information at the back will help to reassure parents about some of the suitable treatments available.”

Saatchi & Saatchi, one of a growing number of advertising firms with a dedicated youth marketing division, recently hired cultural anthropologists to observe teenage for 50-hour stretches in their native habitats to better understand the way they use media and technology.

Reebok, meanwhile, is building a new marketing campaign around young basketball phenom Mark Walker. How young? Walker is three years old. There’s a TV spot, and other clips can be accessed at Reebok’s website.

Says Slate’s Rob Walker (no relation), “A three-year-old saying ‘I am Reebok’ strikes me as just about the creepiest and most disheartening image that a company could possibly offer to society. But I suspect that many viewers will have a different reaction—more along the lines of, ‘I want in on that. My boy can be Reebok, too.’”

Kids are hot.

Marketers are devoting more time and money to reaching the youth market than ever before, and they’re targeting younger and younger kids with ads for an ever-increasing portfolio of products—cars, vacation destinations, financial services products, as well as the traditional candies and games and movies.

The bombardment of commercial messages is turning teens and into the most sophisticated and skeptical consumers in the world, resistant to conventional advertising.

At the same time, all this activity is attracting the attention of children’s advocates, who are concerned about defending younger consumers from violent entertainment, bad nutrition, and the pervasive and pernicious influence of commercialism in general.

That creates a double challenge for marketers, who must craft campaigns that don’t trigger the hypersensitive bullshit detector deployed by most young consumers while remaining sensitive to the concerns of parents and others worried that vulnerable young minds are being warped by underhanded and manipulative marketing techniques.

How come kids are suddenly so popular?

“Almost every aspect of today’s tween-ager is different from what we have seen among past generations,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Child. “They’ve grown up faster, are more connected, more direct and more informed. They have more personal power, more money, influence and attention than any other generation before them.

“No other generation has ever had as much disposable income as this one. So it’s no coincidence that this emerging generation has become powerful enough to have a specific allotment in every marketing director’s budget.”

Industry spending on advertising to children alone has exploded in the past decade, says Wendy Watson, leader of the youth marketing practice at Porter Novelli in Los Angeles, up from $100 million in 1990 to well over $2 billion today.

“Today’s kids have more autonomy and decision-making power within the family than ever before,” says Watson, who says teen spending is up 60 percent in the past five years, despite the recession. “Parents are willing to buy more for their kids because of trends such as smaller family size, dual incomes and the postponement of children until later in life, which translates to families having more disposable income.”

At the same time, she says, kids are able to buy more stuff for themselves, not only because they have more money, but because they can do so online, “without having to ask mom or dad for a ride to the mall.” Kids spent a staggering $1.3 billion online last year, with boys twice as likely to buy over the Internet as girls

And they’re not just buying entertainment products.

“More companies are expanding their product lines to appeal to teens,” says Doug Dome, president of Chicago-based Dome Communications, which includes a youth marketing practice called Dome Drive. Pottery Barn and Ethan Allen, for example, are now making furniture specifically for teenagers’ rooms.

“Pottery Barn has a catalog for teens called PB that’s smartly ‘disguised’ as a glossy magazine. The furniture is cool. But more important, Pottery Barn shows teens it understands them. It’s telling teens: We know your bedroom is your sanctuary. We know you’re more involved when it comes to decorating and protecting your room; you’re outgrowing Hello Kitty and superheroes. We know you don’t want your mom’s sofa; you want your own sofa.”

The health and beauty category is also targeting teens. Helene Curtis, the cosmetics company, is introducing Suave for Kids shampoo in Orange-Splash and Cherry Blast flavors. Other products courting the lucrative teen market include cell phones, mp3 players, computers, hotels and vacation destinations, and even banks and automakers.

“There has been a notable rise in teen-targeted marketing of health and beauty products, which have become huge across both genders, particularly with the recent crop of male styling and grooming products,” Watson says. “It’s interesting to note that the average teen boy takes as much time getting ready for school as do today’s teen girls.”

But it’s not just teens who are attracting the attention of today’s marketers.

“In the 1960s, consumer behavior was seen as starting at age 12,” says James McNeal, an academic who has been promoting youth marketing for 30 years. “Our data shows the median age of when children begin influencing parents’ choices is 24 months. A child will be in a grocery store and say, ‘Tony Tiger, Tony Tiger,’ and Mom just delights in loading the shopping cart down. Children are very central decision-makers.”

That’s probably the biggest reason for targeting kids. While many marketers hope that kids will develop loyalty to products even before they are able to purchase them they recognize that even if they can’t make purchases themselves, kids of all ages are influencing the decisions their parents make. They have an influence on all kinds of family purchases.

“Teens today are influencing their parents’ spending more than ever before for several reasons,” says Dome. “First, teens are marketed to more than ever before, so they are learning about, making connections to, and making decisions about brands at an earlier age. Second, teens feel entitled and are more vocal today about what they want than teens in the past. Whether it’s accompanying their parents to the store and asking for a product, encouraging parents to buy a brand they prefer, or asking for gifts, today’s teens aren’t shy.”

In a 2003 survey, RoperASW found agreement among children and their parents that tweens are influencing more and more purchasing decisions. More than four out of five parents (84 percent) and almost as many kids (78 percent) say 8-17 year olds have some influence over food purchases. More than two-thirds say kids have influence over DVD and music purchases. But kids also have influence over which cable or satellite TV service their parents choose, consumer electronics, and even, in about one out of every four households, over home décor.

“Purchasing clout among today’s kids has expanded beyond the traditional borders of snack food and video games,” says Ed Keller, CEO of RoperASW. “We are beginning to see children as young as eight having an impact on new, more sophisticated areas like home design.”

All of this activity has changed the way teenagers in particular relate to brands. 

“Brands have become an integral part of the way tweens define themselves,” says Brand Child author Lindstrom. “It’s the way they express who are they are at home, at school, at parties and even on the Net. Tweens are the most brand-conscious generation yet. Our numbers reveal that it is far more important to wear the right label than it is to wear the right clothes. It is largely through their choice of brands that tweens distinguish themselves from one another.”
How do you reach such a skeptical bunch?

“Schoolteachers of the 1970s and 80s spent a fair amount of energy teaching children to be critical of media messages, and how to be sensible consumers,” says Lindstrom. “These lessons are now irrelevant. The message filter that most of us did not possess, but had to develop from scratch, is an integral part of the tweens’ world…. Tweens have the ability to sift through the cornucopia of ads without appearing to so much as notice them.

“Whether it’s a banner ad on the Internet, a jingle on the radio, or a commercial on television, they have the situation under control. They’re aware of the intention of the communication, and more importantly they’re aware of the downsides.”

They are resistant to advertising and sensitive to attempt to manipulate them, but they still want cool products and they are still prepared to give their loyalty to brands that seem authentic.

When it comes to marketing, “teens are not so much as skeptical as they are sophisticated,” says Dome. “They see thousands of ads in a given day. They don’t know life without ad bombardment. They know what marketing is and when they are marketed to. As a result, they tend to ignore or see through most marketing.”

And they are particularly resistant to mass media advertising.

“There is definitely a rising immunity to traditional media among this audience,” says Watson, who cites a survey conducted by Yankelovich on behalf of Nickelodeon showing that only 50 percent of kids trust TV reporters, 37 percent trust ads in magazines, 30 percent trust radio ads, and a mere 25 percent believe what they see on TV ads.

For that reason, “You can’t work through traditional media,” says Alan Rambam, who heads the youth marketing practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Rambam’s credentials include work in the Clinton White House, heading a campaign against youth violence, and founding his own youth-oriented non-profit, Shine. “They’re not reading newspapers; they’re not watching television. What works is anything experiential. We have to integrate products into their lives. And we have to be interactive. Television and radio are passive media. The Internet is their medium.”

But of course the message is as important as the medium, and the message has to be right not only in content but also in tone.

“On the one hand, marketers are taking this age group seriously, very seriously, because they know that if you grab the youth, you grab the future,” says Ryan Peal, a youth marketing expert at Hill & Knowlton. “On the other hand, a lot of youth marketers only pay lip service. They don’t really listen to young people, because they don’t really tune in to their soft spots.

“The situation gets even worse when those marketers are thirtysomethings who still feel young themselves and have the arrogance to think that they sill are automatically tuned into what moves young and cool people. If they aren’t out and about and really living and breathing this new generation they will be way off their mark with their efforts.”

The key to reaching the skeptical youth marketplace, says Watson is to use the 4 Ps: peer-to-peer communication (word of mouth); the power of the web (“word of mouse”); pop culture (working with or through celebrities); and parents.

“Peer-to-peer communication works because it’s credible, it’s authentic,” says Rambam. But he warns that picking the right messenger is not as easy as it looks. “There’s a misperception that you need to focus on the influencers, but the cheerleaders and the football players are so concerned about holding on to their status they don’t have time to be advocates for your brand. The advocates will vary from product to product. It might be the gamers, but in other groups there are other influencers. You have to know who they are and where you can reach them.”

Lindstrom’s research, conducted with Millward Brown, identifies four distinct groups of tweens:
 Edges: Independent, rebellious tweens who don’t necessarily see themselves as being on the cutting edge. They’re anti-fashion and supposedly anti-brand, but they often identify with brands that reflect their rebellious nature.
 Persuaders: The most popular tweens, their decisions are adopted by the group. This is the group marketers are targeting, because they are speedy adopters of new trends. They are conscious of style and substantially more mainstream than the edges.
 Followers: This group represents the mainstream and forms the bulk of today’s tweens. They’re never the first to try anything. Their self-esteem is not particularly high and they don’t consider themselves cool.
 Reflexives: Outsiders who try to increase popularity and acceptance among their peers, generally without much success. They rarely pick up fashion tends and don’t go out much.

Each group, not surprisingly, has its own peers. They are likely to adopt new products at a different pace and to be persuaded by a different set of influencers. But in each case they are more likely to respond to other young people than to traditional thought-leaders.

“This is a no-bullshit generation,” says Lindstrom. “Tweens put a premium on straight talk and are drawn to brands that display utter confidence and offer full-on accountability.

“Forget the authoritative ‘experts’ who persuaded the tweens’ parents,” he advises. “This group won’t believe a word they say. In short, tweens insist on drawing their own conclusions, whether about brands, music, film, games, or social choice. Bear in mind the many anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns waged across the globe that get the thumbs-down because they merely dictate a particular opinion. They fail because they do not leave room for tweens to reach their own conclusions. Rather, they tell them what opinion to have—an approach to which tweens simply don’t respond.”

Authenticity is vital.

“It’s important to know that teens are sophisticated when it comes to marketing,” says Dome. “You can’t trick them. Instead you need to create an emotional but respectful connection with them. The key is to speak to them in an authentic voice. If you can show that your brand embraces teen values, you will earn a place in their world.”

As an example, Dome points to Interface FLOR, which makes modular carpet squares, and has traditionally targeted businesses and adults. But the company “recognized teens today have become more sophisticated about their environs and opened a new revenue stream when young, hip designer Todd Oldham used their product on MTV as a decorating idea.”

Another example, he says, is PlayStation’s presence at popular spring break locations, sponsoring events and offering interactive attractions that resonate well with teens. “PlayStation is going where the teens are...on their turf.  They know they’ll be looking for something cool to do, and respond to free fun.” 

While effective peer-to-peer communication can take place face-to-face, more and more of it is occurring over the Internet. Many kids are influenced by others they have never even met, except online. They gather in chat rooms devoted to common interests, or they instant message each other while playing games online.

“The fact that teens have grown up ‘digital’ has a significant impact,” says Dome. “They’re spending more time online than watching TV. Therefore, most marketing to teens has some type of online component.  And because a lot of teens are online, it’s an efficient and easy way for marketers to reach them. Your best bet for reaching teens is through a way they communicate to their friends, like e-mail and instant messaging,.

Dome also suggests “venturing into arenas where teens are not beaten over the head with advertising.” Product placement on television is one increasingly popular vehicle; ads in video games are also becoming more common.

Pop culture, of course, remains immensely powerful.

“Teens look for honesty and tangible information in marketing materials,” says Tina Vennegaard, a youth marketing expert at Golin/Harris. “As a result, our business has changed. Marketers need to be straightforward, provide useful information, and let young consumers experience the product for themselves. Or we need to work through people they trust: their peers and celebrities. We’re online, we’re doing peer-to-peer marketing, we’re using celebrities more than ever and we’re not doing the hard-sell, because we know they don’t respond to that.”

For the firm’s largest client, Nintendo, Vennegaard and her team implemented a celebrity and entertainment industry outreach program that includes participation in awards shows, celebrity parties, and movie sponsorships. The campaign has aligned the Nintendo brand with teen influencers such as Mark McGrath, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and The Osbornes and has generated coverage in outlets such as MTV, Extra, Access Hollywood, People, and Teen People. The firm has also placed product on MTV’s TRL and other shows.

Says Vennegaard, “Rather than a ‘hard sell,’ we align our brand with MTV—a brand teens trust and identify with—and, in turn, gain their trust and peer endorsements through the audience’s excitement.”

But Alan Rambam warns that companies looking to reach kids through pop culture need to do more than simply attach their name to a favorite artist.

“Music is overdone,” he says. “But it’s a passion point for young people, if you can cut through the clutter. It’s not enough to sponsor a concert. You have to find some way to make yourself part of the experience. Rather than just putting your name up there, you might make the event interactive by saying, ‘If you want to vote on what the next song should be, text message Cingular right now.’”

As for parents, “they have more power than you think,” says Watson. “With children eight to 12, parents serve as the first line of defense, acting as gatekeepers in categories such as health and beauty, food, toys, and games and entertainment.” A recent Harris poll found that 72 percent of kids ages 8 to 12 tell their parents about all their purchases.

“Annually, moms and dads hold top spots on kid’s hero lists,” says Watson. “Even as children grow into adulthood, parents still play a role in their children’s buying habits. With more than half of all 21-year-olds still living at home with their baby boomer parents, research is showing a boomerang reaction in the purchasing influence between parents and their children. Parents are exposing their children to classic movies, music and TV.”

There’s a fifth way to reach kids, and that’s to appeal to their idealism, to find a cause they identify with an make a commitment to it. Today’s kids “do not want to change the world,” says Peal. Their idealism is tempered with pragmatism. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to make a difference. For example, Four out of five kids in markets as diverse as the United States, Germany, Spain, Brazil, China, Japan and India believe products that are bad for the environment should be totally banned, according to the BrandChild survey. Just 5.5 percent disagree.

“This is a cause generation,” says Rambam. “They don’t vote but they do get involved. They have non-traditional ways of making a difference. And you have to find causes that are personal to them: diversity and respect are big issues. They are most interested in issues that affect their lives today, not 10 or 20 years from now.”

A survey by Porter Novelli, for example, found a tremendous interest in eliminating hate crimes and racism, as well addressing the epidemic of school violence.

“Through our work with leading youth-oriented nonprofit organizations and companies, we have found that teens today want to know how companies are supporting causes and do leverage their purchasing power to impact the issues they care about,” says Nikki Korn, vice president in the cause branding practice of Boston-based Cone.

“Companies looking to build or strengthen their relationships with the youth market can gain a competitive edge by supporting causes that resonate with teens. Over the years, we have found that when companies support causes that resonate with teens, they can strengthen their relationship with that audience who represent current or future customers for many corporations and also future employees.”

In fact, according to a 2000 Cone/Roper Cause-Related Teen Survey, when price and quality were equal, 89 percent of teens said they would be likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause.

“In today’s highly competitive youth marketplace, aligning with causes is no longer a nice-to-do for marketers but a must do. Companies are recognizing the values and intrinsic needs of the teen market to remain competitive in the future. However, this commitment must be genuine. Teens will recognize if programs or initiatives are not sincere and/or substantive.”

Korn points to a 10-year-old program run by the Taco Bell Foundation in partnership with The Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Through its TeenSupreme program, the Taco Bell Foundation supports a comprehensive teen development program preparing teens for college and the workforce. TeenSupreme connects 14-18 year-olds with caring mentors and peers to enhance their academic and leadership skills, explore careers, and serve the community.

Similarly, Chevrolet, through a partnership with S.A.V.E. (Students Against Violence Everywhere) and select local grant making, has become one of the country’s leaders in addressing the issue of school violence prevention. Chevrolet’s program, Chevy R.O.C.K. (Reaching Out to Community and Kids), reaches middle and high-school students with a powerful and relevant message about school safety and the important role students play teaching one another about conflict resolution, teamwork and community service. Chevrolet has helped S.A.V.E. grow nationwide increasing the number of S.A.V.E. chapters by 78 percent and student membership by 58 percent, Korn says.

But the key to a successful cause-related marketing program that targets teens is the same as the key to any successful cause-related program: a genuine commitment (rather than one that is merely skin-deep) and complete transparency.

Says Lindstrom, “Tweens like their brands to be transparent. They want them to incorporate a worldview that represents a responsible corporate attitude to society. Our research confirms that brands need to do more than talk the talk. If their walk contradicts their talk, they will be instantly rejected by the tween generation.

“Previous generations might have bought brand promises that were never delivered. This generation will not. A brand has to deliver on every promise it makes. There are no acceptable excuses. It’s almost as if advertising has become self-regulating…. This form of regulation achieves results no formal rules or censure would obtain.”

Are we warping their innocent little minds?

According to the Center for a New American Dream, babies as young as six months can form mental images of corporate logos and mascots. Studies show that children begin asking for brand-name products as early as 18 months old. By age 2, half of all kids show a preference for specific brands and by the time children head off to school most can recognize hundreds of brands.

A recent survey in Britain suggested that toddlers are increasingly leading a lifestyle once associated only with moody adolescents. The survey, conducted by Mother & Baby magazine, found that by age three, 42 percent of youngsters have a television in their own room and 50 percent have a CD player. The average toddler spends more than two hours a day watching TV.

Two thirds of mothers said they bought designer clothes for their toddlers and more than a quarter of the little consumers “choose their own haircut. “Today’s toddlers act like little teenagers—they’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt—but they miss out on good old-fashioned, imaginative fun,” says Karen Pasquali Jones, editor of Mother & Baby.

“Many marketers establish consumer loyalty to their brand by appealing to potential customers at a very early age,” says Dome. “Doing so allows marketers to create a bond that could last years down the line. However, marketing to very young children—seven years and younger—is questionable at best and unethical at worse because kids that young are vulnerable and cannot tell the difference between the commercials and shows they watch.”

If toddlers are acting like teenagers, many parents and activist groups are worried that teenagers are being encouraged to act like adults. Some complain about ads for fashion and beauty products that appeal to tweens with images of sexuality. Others believe entertainment products in particular target teens in inappropriate ways. A recent study by the Federal Trade Commission found that 80 percent of R-rated movies, 70 percent of mature video games, and all 55 music recordings with explicit content labels were marketed to children under 17.

Others are concerned that, regardless of content, the commercial bombardment is a bad thing. They point to surveys showing that kids are feeling pressures previous generations did not have to deal with. Almost three out of four (74 percent) worry that advertising causes trouble between kids and their parents, according to a new study by the Center for a New American Dream, while almost two-thirds (63 percent) express concern that there is too much advertising that tries to get kids to buy things.

Dome echoes those concerns when he says, “All you have to do is look at the nature of advertising to know that it’s unethical to market to young kids. Advertising sells angst.  It tells you you’re not thin enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not young enough, you’re not old enough, and you’re not rich enough. It keeps you longing for stuff that’s supposed to fill the gaps and get you ‘there,’ but never does. Until you’re able to know an ad when you see one, it only breeds insecurity, loneliness and fear.”

Last year, consumer activists gathered in New York to protest the Golden Marble awards, an advertising competition that honors ads aimed at children. Says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and assistant director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Children’s Hospital, “It is appalling to us that creativity is being rewarded in the service of manipulating children for profit. We hope this is the beginning of a cohesive national movement to challenge this.”

Linn points out that many winners of the awards—companies like Hostess pastries, Oreo cookies, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Burger King, Post and Kellogg’s cereals—are among those responsible for the growing childhood obesity epidemic.

These are concerns marketers need to be aware of, and address.

“Marketing to kids places a huge responsibility on you,” says Lindstrom. “You’re being closely watched by parents, who will not hesitate to criticize anything they consider wrong. So if you fail to maintain an ethical approach, it will soon come to light. And that will undermine the freedom of access that is granted in most countries across the globe. We need to earn and maintain the trust of both tweens and their parents.”

If marketers don’t, there’s a very real possibility that they will lose permission to market to kids. (If not in the U.S., where there’s a preference for self-policing rather than government regulation, then certainly overseas. Six European Union countries—Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Belgium, Norway and Italy—are working to ban advertising to children under 12 throughout the EU.)

“There is a growing concern about the over-commercialization of our life world in general,” says Peal. “This concern deepens when it comes to kids. You have to be very careful: open and honest in your communication, and also making sure that you are ‘ giving back’ things to the community you tap into. If you don’t—and people discover it, as they very often do—you will be crucified in the contemporary cultural climate.”

Are we poisoning their healthy little bodies?

A report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest says food makers are increasingly using powerful advertising techniques to market unhealthy foods to America’s youth. “Parents are fighting a losing battle against food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants, which use aggressive and sophisticated techniques to get into children’s heads and prompt them to pester their parents to purchase the company’s products,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center. “Kids are exposed to a relentless barrage of marketing from morning until night, wherever they go, or whatever they do.”

In fact, about half of all advertising aimed at kids is for food, according to Wootan, and four out of five of those ads are for sugary cereals, soft drinks, fast food or salty snacks, she says. She’s particularly troubled by advertising to kids ages 8 and under. “They don’t necessarily know the difference between the show and the ad,” she says. “They also don’t recognize that someone is trying to sell them something. Or that someone might exaggerate. They think Michael Jordan really does eat Big Macs all the time.”

Meanwhile, the activist group Consumer Alert has called on Sesame Workshop, which produces the children’s television show Sesame Street, to drop McDonald’s as a sponsor. In a letter to Sesame Workshop, the group asks, “Is it really the proper role of Sesame Street to seduce young children to nag their parents to take them to McDonald’s? Should you not promote healthful eating habits rather than junk-food eating habits?”

And public interest attorney Stephen Joseph has called for a ban on the sale of Oreo cookies to children in California. Joseph says partially hydrogenated oil —the stuff that makes the chocolate cookies crisp and their filling creamy—is so dangerous children shouldn’t eat it. He also criticizes that Nabiscoworld website, which includes games for children, including the Oreo On-line Project, which involves stacking Oreos as high as possible without toppling the tower. In 2002, more than 326 schools and classes around the country participated, according to the site.

The CSPI would like to see restrictions placed on the advertising of food products—particularly those of dubious nutritional value—to you children.

Mike Diegel, director of communications for Grocery Manufacturers of America, said CSPI was doing a “disservice to parents” by “offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem.” The trade group, like most food companies, says lack of exercise is the main cause of the obesity epidemic, and suggests the issue is one of personal responsibility rather than corporate responsibility.

The GMA and other groups have launched an initiative designed to encourage more exercise—funding athletic programs in schools, for example—but critics say the food industry is sending out mixed messages. The CSPI, for example, has criticized Kraft Foods for a game the company’s website in which players’ “health” is restored when they capture golden cookie jars. “The nutrition education website for kids that Kraft funds with other food companies,, pales in comparison,” Wootan says “Its games encourage children to do pushups and jumping jacks in front of their computer.”

As for the idea that parents should be responsible for sharing healthy eating messages with their kids, that’s fine in principal, say critics, but food companies don’t exactly make it easy.

According to Kelly Brownell, chairman of the philosophy department at Yale and director of the university’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, “The average American child sees 10,000 food advertisements a year on TV alone. This is 10,000 engaging, colorful messages, almost all of which are aimed at encouraging children to eat unhealthful foods.

“Let’s say you’re a parent. You eat every meal of the year with your child, and at every one of those meals you deliver a persuasive nutritional message. You don’t have Michael Jordan on your side, because McDonald’s has him. You don’t have Shaquille O’Neal on your side, because Burger King has him. And you don’t have Britney Spears on your side, because Pepsi has her.

“At the end of the year, that’s 1,000 messages for you and 10,000 messages for them. And they have all the brilliance of Madison Avenue on their side.”

Should schools be a safe haven from marketers?

“Schools used to be a place where children were protected from marketing messages that permeated their world,”. “Today, marketers see the school setting as an opportunity to deliver a captive audience in an environment that brings with it an implied endorsement of teachers and the educational system. Marketers have permeated the schools through educational materials, donated technology, exclusive deals with food companies, advertisements in classrooms and on buses, contests, school event sponsorships, and the list goes on.”

Yearbooks and textbook covers have ads.  And schools needing money have allowed corporate sponsors to donate computers, install vending machines and advertise on the football fields.  And then there are companies like Planet Gruv that have a more subtle approach: marketing to kids at high school events.  Plant Gruv brings a cool concert to teens with state-of-the-art sound, lights, video screens and DJs.  But it’s sponsored by several advertisers looking to reach a captive teen audience. 

Says Dome, “The issue of marketing in schools raises many hotly debated questions. How much corporate involvement should be allowed in schools? What kind of marketing crosses the ethical line from informing teens to manipulating and exploiting them as consumers? Who controls public education and who decides what information and what values are communicated? What are students’ rights and who, if anyone, has the right to market in public schools, and what exactly do they have the right to market?”

Different marketers are likely to give different answers to those questions—and children’s advocates are likely to give even more different answers—but there is a broad consensus that some kids are too young.

“We tend to say be very, very careful here,” says Peal. “Never underestimate the intense anger of parents when you touch their kids with the slightest suggestion of malicious intentions.”

Vennegaard says she’s not comfortable with marketing to kids in grammar school, but “once you get into high school and college, certainly these kids can think and make purchase decisions for themselves and we’ve designed some very successful initiatives for Nintendo over the years.”

For example, Golin/Harris works with the game company to provide product to 100 high schools throughout the country for journalism students to review in high school newspapers. The firm works directly with the high school advisors to ensure this program will help students build valuable journalism and writing skills while giving them the opportunity to write about topics interesting and exciting to the students.

More recently, Nintendo hosted its first ever Nintendo College Media Day, bringing college journalists to tour Nintendo headquarters and get an exclusive inside look at upcoming Nintendo titles. “The students were very excited to have the opportunity to meet with Nintendo representatives to get a sneak peek,” says Vennegarrd.

But soft drink companies Coca-Cola and Pepsi have come under fire for placing vending machines in school. The companies get the opportunity to reach a young, captive audience, building brand loyalty at an early age. The schools, typically, get a share of the profits that they can use to buy educational materials and sports equipment.

“Around the nation, there isn’t a whole lot of people who are willing to come in and put money toward education,” says Jim DiCella, assistant supervisor of an Arizona school district. Arizona has been debating whether to reject soft drinks machines, a decision already taken by schools in Los Angeles and New York. “This is one way to get it.”

But Alex Molnar, an Arizona State University professor who studies commercialism in schools, calls soft-drink sales “dirty money” because a school’s financial gain comes at a cost to student health.

In November, Coca-Cola responded by published new guidelines for its relationships with schools. Company officials say the company discourages selling soft drinks to elementary students during the day, and encourages schools to offer water, sports drinks and fruit juice in their vending machines. Pepsi, meanwhile, says it does not sell soft drinks to elementary students and discourages large up-front payments to schools.

But most in-school programs exist within a moral grey area. Are efforts to encourage attendance or achievement to be discouraged if they are sponsored by companies whose products are considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

A Krispy Kreme promotion that came under fire by the CSPI offers elementary school students one free donut for every “A” on their report cards. The report argues that such techniques teach children to associate unhealthy food products with teachers and other trusted authority figures. But a spokesperson for the company says the donuts are occasional rewards for hard work and did not pose a significant long-term health risk.

“In-school marketing is ethical as long as there is a meaningful message to go along with it,” says Watson. “I think sponsoring a curriculum about a beneficial topic is a great way for corporations to lend a helping hand to teachers while passing along an educational message. Ultimately it’s up to the teachers to decide if the curriculum is useful anyway, so overly commercial messages usually won’t get used.” But “school marketing can be a dangerous playground for marketers if they’re not supporting education and not appealing to educators and parents in a meaningful way.”

Says Dome, “The best defense is media literacy in schools, making kids aware at a very early age to think critically and understand the nature of the relationship that advertising wants to have with consumers.”

But in the end that may be only the first line of defense. Kids may be sophisticated, even skeptical consumers of advertising and marketing messages, but they’re still kids, and the urge to protection from manipulation and exploitation is strong. If companies aren’t sensitive to the concerns of parents and child advocates, they will find themselves first excoriated in the press, and later perhaps regulated and restricted in their youth marketing activities.

Worst of all, they may alienate the very people they are trying to reach. Young people are already appearing in ads telling their peers not to be deceived by tobacco industry propaganda. Will the soda companies, the fast food marketers, the fashionistas or the game companies be next. Don’t bet against it?