A new initiative sponsored by the Bureau of Consumer Protection wing of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) features a rather novel take on educating kids and ‘tweens’ on the effect of advertising on their young lives. The initiative takes the form of a website called Admongo (admongo.gov), where visitors can get an “ad-ucation” by playing games that feature fictional products closely modeled on real ones.

This program, in partnership with Scholastic, a New York-based educational publishing company, starts off with the ominous words: “Advertising is all around you!”

The site’s goal is to have kids ask themselves “Who is responsible for the ad?” and “What does the ad want me to do?”

Research that has been conducted by the Wright Institute, a clinical psychology training program, has turned up surprising results.  Three- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that ‘transform’ themselves (G.I. Joe, anyone?) into something else. Eight- to 12-year-olds love to collect things…like the baseball card collection your mom threw out so many years ago.

The products and pitches used in the mock-up Admongo ads include familiar-sounding (but fictional) brand names. These, according to a New York Times article include ‘Choco Crunch’n Good’ cereal, ‘Cleanology’ acne medication (aimed at tweens), ‘Double Dunk’ sporting goods and the ‘Smile Meals’ (a la McDonald’s venerable Happy Meal) sold at ‘Fast Chef’ restaurants.
I think it’s an interesting approach. No parent needs to tell you the effect toy commercials have on children (especially around the holidays).  The wisdom the FTC is trying to impart reminds me of an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin turns to his mom and says, “Mom, you need to get me Frosted Coated Chocolate Sugar Bombs cereal! It gives me the PUNCH I need in the morning!” Calvin’s mom, with artist’s Bill Watterson’s help, sighs and forlornly serves her blonde progeny a bowl of good old-fashioned Cheerios.  Plain product, plain packaging…why would a kid want any of that? There aren’t even any toys in the box!
Advertisers’ efforts, despite reservations parents may have of their influence, seem to translate into big money. According to marketing expert James U. McNeal, PhD, author of “The Kids Market: Myths and Realities” (Paramount Market Publishing, 1999), children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year (based on circa-2000 economic figures). Teenagers spend nearly $100 billion on the brands that appeal to them. Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents. And since we don’t have to adjust for much inflation, those numbers still ring true 10 years later.

We’ll keep you posted on the findings. In the meantime, keep the kids off the Frosted Coated Chocolate Sugar Bombs.