Lighten Up On Hard Selling To Kids

It may be time for a "time-out" for aggressive marketers targeting children. It's great that we live in a society that allows the free flow of information, including product information. But freedom also requires sensible restraint when it comes to selling to seven-year-olds. Parents are becoming increasingly uneasy at how marketers are treating their children as consumers. It goes way beyond appealing to teens with Joe Camel and "heroin chic" to an unrelenting pressure to build brand lust in kids, starting from the moment they are born. Responsible marketers will reassess their onslaught before public reaction generates pressure for regulation.

Take the Internet. Some 4 million kids under 17 went online in 1996 alone. What have many of them found? At one Web site designed for children, marketers were offering free stuff to kids in exchange for personal information about themselves and their families. No parental consent was requested for this data. This should stop. So should the marketing of brand names in schoolrooms. It is one thing for companies to donate computers to schools that need them. Providing needed scholarships in your corporation's name, as in the Westinghouse science scholarship program, is also a good deed. But packaging a way of proving your spaghetti sauce is thicker than your rival's as a science experiment? It's bad enough that some textbook covers now carry advertising.

Marketers are increasingly ignoring the line between childhood and adulthood. Do kids really need margarita- and tequila-flavored lollipops? Not long ago, it was considered inappropriate for advertisers to take advantage of children because they were seen as too immature to make the proper decisions for themselves. Marketers pitched their wares to parents, who were the gatekeepers. We'd like a return to that era. Web site developer KidsCom Co. now notifies parents by E-mail before it gives their children free merchandise in exchange for information. All marketers would be wise to show such self-restraint. Children need time to learn how to become wise consumers. Parents should insist they get it.