Bringing Up Baby

Between now and April 4, Sesame Workshop faces a unique marketing task: to design a TV spot introducing parents to a series of DVDs aimed at children younger than 2 years old. In 30 short seconds, Sesame must show parents that the Sesame Beginnings DVDs aren’t your typical children’s entertainment. Rather, they’re meant to encourage active learning through parent-child interaction.

But if the challenges of creating this single TV spot are formidable, those surrounding the nonprofit group’s broader foray into baby learning products may be even more so.

The number of videos and DVDs produced for young babies has mushroomed from practically none in 1998 to about some 750 today, judging by the offerings on Parents can also choose from learning products in a slew of other media—CDs, flash cards, books, electronic games. But consumer advocates, concerned about children’s exposure to advertising, are monitoring the category carefully. And Sesame’s new DVDs will no doubt be a target. By offering infant-learning content on a TV screen, they violate a key guideline of the American Academy of Pediatrics—that children under 2 should not watch television. And by planning to negotiate product-licensing deals for the series’ characters, Sesame is putting itself smack in the middle of the growing debate about whether companies should market to kids at all—and especially to those so young.

The debate has grown increasingly urgent. In early 2004, the American Psychological Association said that children 7 and younger flat out should not be exposed to TV advertising. The APA says it based that recommendation on research that indicated “children under the age of 8 are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased.” For example, advertising to kids may lead to poor nutritional habits, the APA task force said. (In many ways, concerns about childhood obesity have driven the greater scrutiny of ads aimed at kids.) And last month, two consumer advocacy groups said they would sue Kellogg and Viacom for marketing unhealthful food to children.

Discussions are also under way at the AAP to issue a similar guideline about advertising to children. “Kids under 2 or 3 can’t separate advertising from programming and think the characters crawled into the TV through the electric plug,” says Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and lead author of the proposed guideline, which is under consideration by the academy’s board.

Not everyone is convinced by the scientific studies. “There is no consensus on when a child can distinguish persuasive intent,” says Elizabeth Lascoutx, vp and director of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, a unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus that works with children’s advertisers on responsible messaging. “Even if they know it is a commercial, they may not know what that means, and that is the concern. We don’t take a position on this. We don’t look at where commercials appear but only that they comport with our guidelines.” Those guidelines, broadly speaking, involve making sure ads are truthful, accurate and sensitive to their particular audience, according to CARU’s Web site. Last week, CARU said it would review its guidelines, partly in response to concerns raised about the role marketing may play in childhood obesity. CARU will examine online games, product placement and licensed characters.

The advent of Sesame Beginnings follows last September’s launch of a 24-hour cable TV network for preschoolers, PBS Kids Sprout, a joint venture among Sesame, PBS, Comcast and Hit Entertainment. The network carries ads aimed at parents at the end of each program block. The advertising is limited to two minutes per hour of programming.

Gary Knell, Sesame’s president and CEO, is sensitive to concerns that his company, often considered the gold standard of children’s programming and content by parents who don’t want their kids to see ads, is further aligning itself with advertising to support its programming. “We felt it was an income stream to support this network, and if we were diligent enough to have [the ads] only targeted to parents and to products that only a parent would be interested in, like diapers and automobiles, we would not be violating any child-development restrictions,” Knell says.

As for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that kids under 2 not watch any TV, Knell says that is simply unrealistic in today’s world. According to a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study, one in four children under 2 have a TV in their bedroom, and kids that age spend an average of 2 hours and 5 minutes a day in front of a TV, computer or electronic game screen.

“Parents are blowing through that recommendation, whether it is out there or not,” Knell says. “Who is to say that a 22-month-old may not gain something educational from a program that is billed for her?”

What Knell won’t do is make claims in the marketing that Sesame Beginnings DVDs will make a child smarter. “The whole idea of making your kid a genius is ridiculous,” he says.

Claims about educational benefits may become a flash point in the debate, as advertisers in theory need to support them with hard data. A December Kaiser study titled “A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers” said there was no scientific research to back up educational claims made in many baby-learning products, and in fact declared that the “main tool many parents have to assess the quality of products for in-home use is the products’ own marketing and advertising.” The study examined products from Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein, Baby Nick Jr., Disney, LeapFrog, Sesame Workshop and VTech, among others. Kaiser singled out Sesame for actually conducting research.

Marcia Grimsley, a senior producer at Brainy Baby, based in Alpharetta, Ga., said at a Kaiser seminar in December that her company bases some of its marketing claims in its product catalog—phrases like, “A little genius in the making” and, “Aimed at whole brain development for children”—on “testimonials from parents.”

Likewise, at the same seminar, Julia Fitzgerald, vp of marketing for VTech Electronics, which creates electronic learning toys, said, “Parents don’t care about data. The anecdotal piece is very important.”

However, the Federal Trade Commission and the BBB’s National Advertising Division, which monitors adult-targeted ads, do care about data when it comes to advertising claims. And while the FTC has received no complaints so far regarding these products, Mary Engle, the federal agency’s associate director for advertising practices, says companies that fail to back up their claims could run afoul of rules governing fair, truthful and nondeceptive advertising. “If they are making objective claims about boosting intelligence, then they need to have appropriate support for those claims,” Engle says. “And generally speaking, anecdotal information is not adequate substantiation.”

The BBB’s NAD unit has not received any complaints either. But Andrea Levine, vp and NAD director, says her review process would hold companies to the same standard. “The bottom line is, the plural of anecdote is not data,” Levine says. “You need a well-controlled study. If you say a certain percentage of kids learn to read faster [by using a product], then you need a test to say so. If it is all just implied in the name of the product, then NAD would want to see some evidence that consumers were taking away the message that the product was going to enhance the development of their child.”

Levine added that she was not passing judgment on any particular product, since no complaint has been filed.

Some children’s advertisers are heeding the warnings. Brainy Baby, for example, is changing its tagline from “A little genius in the making” to “Learning for a lifetime,” according to president and CEO Dennis Fedoruk. “We want to make sure we stand before our consumers pure and clean,” he says.

Disney bought Baby Einstein in November 2001. Baby Einstein videos aimed at infants 2 and younger include ads at the end promoting other baby Einstein titles and products. Videos aimed at kids 3 to 6 have Disney movie trailers aimed at the same age group. Disney says it does not claim its products make children smarter.

Still, some wonder what all the fuss over baby videos is about. “Give moms some credit to make the distinction between a clever name and a true claim and benefits,” says Julie Halpin, CEO of The Geppetto Group, a New York-based youth marketing agency that handles clients like Little Tikes. “What we as a marketing community owe to consumers is clarity about what we are selling,” says Halpin, who is the mother of a 3-year-old. “Do I really think my 6-month-old is learning his ABCs? Probably not yet. But there is a need for activity and toys and stimulation.”

It seems undeniable, though, that younger kids are more brand-savvy than ever before. In a 2000 survey of some 2,500 parents with kids ages 2 to 5, nearly half of the respondents said their children had “demonstrated brand awareness before age 3,” according to Paul Kurnit, who was then president of Griffin Bacall, which conducted the study and handled Hasbro. The most noted brands included Cheerios, Disney, McDonald’s, Coke, Pop Tarts, Barbie and Froot Loops.

With the growth of media outlets like PBS Kids Sprout, Kurnit, now founder and president of a marketing agency called KidShop in Chappaqua, N.Y., says the real question is: “What kinds of decisions are marketers going to make about targeting Mom during those programs, either for products irrelevant to kids or completely acceptable to kids?” If done well, Kurnit argues, the outcome could be beneficial for parents and kids. As an example, he points to Kimberly-Clark’s advertising for Huggies pull-up diapers on PBS Kids Sprout.

“It may well be that advertising facilitates toilet training, and it could have a healthy byproduct in terms of developmental behavior,” Kurnit says.

Joey Mooring, a K-C rep, says his company does not market directly to children and that K-C is advertising on PBS Kids Sprout “to provide moms and parents an interactive and educational environment that will allow them to gain access to health and hygiene information to benefit their children and families.”

Product-licensing agreements are a real flash point, because the characters can have such a powerful influence on children, child advocates say. Sesame has more than 700 licensing agreements with makers of toys, greeting cards, food, clothing and toothbrushes, among others, says Maura Regan, the company’s vp and general manager of global consumer products. Sesame earned nearly $48.3 million from its licensing deals last year. Regan says that money is used to create new programming for children.

In the food category, Sesame characters appear on packaging for the Hain Celestial Group’s Earth’s Best brand of breakfast and snack foods for children and for Musselman’s apple products by Knouse Foods. Sesame also launched an initiative with Sunkist in December that has Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the gang encouraging kids to eat citrus fruits as a healthful snack.

Regan says some Sesame licensing agreements in the food category have not worked out. She points to a deal with General Mills and its fruit snacks that was scrapped last year. The concern centered on the fact that the snacks did not contain real fruit. In fact, CARU, which is part of the BBB’s National Advertising Division, came to an agreement with General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft to change the description of such products in the packaging and ads to say “fruit-flavored snacks.”

“Sometimes we have to live and learn. In good conscience, it is not fruit,” Regan says. “People really trust Sesame, and I am very much aware of the financial pressures, but I think it is short-sighted to take on those products for the long haul.”

Sesame’s licensing guidelines are about what one would expect from a producer of preschool content: no alcohol or tobacco products, obviously, and no candy. Sesame’s licensing plans for the Sesame Beginnings characters—baby versions of Big Bird and his aunt, Elmo and his dad, Cookie Monster and his grandmother and Prairie Dawn and her mom—include infant toys from Fisher-Price, first-birthday products from American Greetings and a line of bedding with an as-yet-unnamed manufacturer.

PBS Kids Sprout president and general manager Sandy Wax says the goal of the channel is to bring children’s programming grounded in research to the preschool set of kids 2 to 5 and to provide a limited amount of advertising to sustain a 24-hour network. “Parents tell us they understand advertising is a necessary thing, and as long as it is done in a respectful way and a limited way, they are OK with it,” Wax says.

No ads are inserted in the middle of programs, and ads are targeted only at parents. A committee of the network’s board meets quarterly to review all advertising decisions, and educational experts are consulted about the ads. In addition to the Huggies ads, Universal has been running ads for its movie Curious George during the first two weeks of this month.

It’s not just television, either. Product placement in children’s books has exploded since the late 1990s, as companies use brands to teach kids everything from reading to math. The M&M’s Brand Counting Book, from 1994, was among the earliest examples. In 1998, the success of The Cheerios Play Book, a collaborative effort from General Mills and Simon & Schuster, led other cereal, candy, cookie and snack-food makers to jump in. As the Institute of Medicine, a health-advisory group within the National Academy of Sciences, noted in a December report, there are a number of brand-name books aimed at kids under 6, including Kellogg’s Froot Loops! Counting Fun Book, The Oreo Cookie Counting Book and The M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies Counting Board Book.

While some parents and nursery-school teachers believe the books can use a child’s natural love of food to help them learn, others think they simply encourage snacking on high-caloric foods. “Product placement is a whole other line of advertising to children that is often under the radar,” says Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. “And for companies that like to think they are serving the best interests of children, they need to be very careful about what they tie their characters to. Market forces themselves are not enough to make an industry behave responsibly.”

The way media is going these days, it seems likely that ever younger children will be exposed to even more advertising. And the debate about how it affects them, and how it should be regulated, will only grow louder. Some believe the answer lies in putting more money into research. A bill introduced in Congress last March by Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, would provide $90 million over five years to study the impact of electronic media on child development. The bill, which has been referred to a Senate committee, also calls for a pilot study that would examine the effect of advertising on childhood and adolescent obesity.

Others want advertisers and their agencies to take a leading role. “This industry works with child psychologists, uses the latest technology and the most sophisticated marketing techniques to undermine parental authority and get kids to nag their parents,” says Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a coalition of health-care professionals, educators and advocacy groups, which plans to sue Kellogg and Viacom. “Of course parents are responsible. But what about corporate responsibility? What is society’s responsibility to children?”