The Next Great American Consumer

Infants to 3-year-olds: They're a new demographic marketers are hell-bent on reaching

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, author Jennifer Egan paints a satirical picture of a dystopian future where pop music is marketed to pre-verbal consumers called “pointers” who make purchases with their own handheld devices. Is that where we’re headed?

“We’re raising a generation of children who are bored unless they’re in front of a screen,” adds Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “There’s no credible evidence that babies learn anything useful from screen media.” (In 2009 the organization sued Disney’s Baby Einstein over the claim that its “developmental and entertainment” videos and toys for babies and toddlers were educational. Linn and her group claimed victory when Disney offered refunds for Baby Einstein products, acknowledging that the line does not, in fact, make babies smarter as advertised.)


In a policy paper for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Strasburger, who’s a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, writes that “children under the age of 7 are psychologically defenseless against advertising.” In Sweden, in fact, all advertisements aimed at children under the age of 12 have been banned. In 1750 B.C. the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi made it a crime to sell anything to a child, punishable by death. (Granted, the ancient Babylonians also made it a crime for a son to strike his father, punishable by having his hands cut off.)

But lest you think it’s just hand-wringing watchdogs and helicopter parents doing the tongue clucking here, one of the hottest advertising executives of the last generation has also called for a moratorium. Alex Bogusky, founding partner of Crispin Porter + Bogusky and now founder of the consumer think tank FearLess Cottage, recalls passing a McDonald’s with his kids when they were toddlers. Without ever having been to the fast-food chain, his children (now 12 and 15) told him they loved it and wanted to go—and all because of the restaurant’s advertising, he says, which focused on the toys and Ronald.

“Probably most of us have been in the car and had your kids be, like, ‘I want to go to McDonald’s, I want to go to Burger King,’ wherever. And basically you get in a fight over it,” he tells Adweek. “I don’t think that consumers are thinking it through. The fight you’re getting in is between you, your kid, and some MBA who has developed a relationship and a conversation with your child. I don’t know why we feel like it would be such a mistake to say, ‘You know what? We won’t advertise to kids.’”

But targeting younger and younger kids, as can be seen by the dollars pouring into the coffers of these brands, does not bother all parents.

“Although I’m not a huge fan of buying my kids products drenched in licensed characters, if it makes my life easier as a parent, then I’m all for it,” says Kristen Chase, an Atlanta, Ga.-based mother of four and co-editor of the popular parenting blogs Cool Mom Picks and Cool Mom Tech. “I owe Transformers underpants to tear-free potty training. And Dora bandages seem to make boo-boos better much quicker than the plain ones.”

Julie Robichaux, a Montpelier, Vt., mother of two who runs the blog A Little Pregnant, refuses to get too worked up over the fight for her kids’ attention. “Until someone sends my 3-year-old a credit card and takes him shopping without me,” she says, “I don’t much care one way or the other.”