Knowing consumers

As I’ve noted, one key dimension of the expansion of the advertising industry at this time was the growing significance attached to market research. One estimate suggested that there were as many as a thousand market research companies in operation in the United States by the end of the 1960s.[i] A small contemporary flavour of this activity can be found in a glossy book produced by the forward-looking J. Walter Thomson agency, probably in the early 1950s.[ii] Entitled Agency in Action, the book is targeted at potential clients, and seeks to reassure them that the agency’s hefty charge of 15% will offer a good return on their investment. The book contains photoplays illustrating the various stages of the agency’s work, but it places a central emphasis on research. While it acknowledges that ‘advertising is not an exact science’, and that ‘creative genius’ is vital, it emphasizes the need for ‘facts – first, last, always’. ‘Facts, predetermined, are one of advertising’s cheapest and best forms of insurance,’ it proclaims. ‘Properly used, research acts as a stabilizer for creative ideas, sees that they swing neither too far to the right nor too far to the left’. Qualitative research is seen as particularly important in this respect: it enables the agency to develop ‘a personal acquaintance with buyers’. ‘Getting the feel of the public’s pulse’ in this way is more than just a matter of obtaining ‘tabulated replies’; and it is seen as particularly important with ‘class C-D buyers’, or ‘the great mass market’.

This approach was also seen by some to be particularly important when it came to children – who were to some extent regarded as a difficult and even mysterious new market to reach. The historian Dan Cook has traced the early development of market research on children, which parallels the rise and popularization of academic psychology.[iii] As he suggests, this research contributed to the broader construction of children as autonomous, discriminating ‘little consumers’: consumption was seen as a natural, innate desire, running in line with the stages of children’s development. Earlier in the twentieth century, marketers’ knowledge about children largely took the form of rules-of-thumb, or a kind of commonsense ‘folk psychology’; but by the mid-century, it began to become more ‘scientific’. The growing market research industry claimed to provide definitive ‘knowledge’ about children that would enable their consumer desires to be more clearly identified and targeted.

Like Cook, I use scare quotes here to reflect a certain academic scepticism about the validity and status of this knowledge. As with any research, the ‘facts’ that are established by such studies are framed by their underlying theories and methods; and, like other commercial practices (advertising, product design, retailing, and so on), they help to define and construct the figure of the child consumer in particular ways. What Cook calls ‘commercial epistemologies’ are not neutral – not least in that the ‘knowledge’ they offer is intended to be bought and sold.

However, the dividing line between commercial market research and academic research is not entirely clear-cut. While there were a few academic studies during the period I’m considering,[iv] academic research on marketing to children didn’t really take off until the early 1970s; and when it did so, it arose at least partly in response to growing calls for regulation (and hence was framed by rather different assumptions). Nevertheless, even at this time, there were academic researchers who were keen to sell their work on the commercial market. Universities span off ‘Marketing Science Institutes’, like the one established in 1961 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which soon set up their own undergraduate and graduate programs; and the first doctoral dissertation on child marketing, by James McNeal, was published by the ‘Bureau of Business Research’ at the University of Texas in 1964.[v] As the child market became steadily more lucrative, so too did the business of producing ‘knowledge’ about it.


Marketing market research

From a slow start, this market research enterprise grew apace in the period I’m considering; and by the mid-1960s, there was a plethora of experts, agencies and ongoing research studies in the field of children’s marketing. In the archives I have reviewed, there are numerous reports and press articles describing the findings of research studies that are often very elaborate in scope.[vi] The focus at this point was primarily on high-schoolers, not least because they were seen to have the most disposable income; although it increasingly encompassed younger children as well.

Initially, questions about marketing and consumer behaviour were included in more general large-scale surveys. Probably the earliest of these was the triennial youth market survey, first conducted in 1948 by the Young Catholic Messenger: among other things, this explored the preferences, buying habits and influence on family spending of a sample of 1600 12-14 year olds in Catholic schools. Meanwhile, the Purdue Youth Panel conducted an annual survey with a sample of 15,000 high school students, which ran from the late 1940s through to the early 1960s[vii]; in 1953 the Rand Corporation’s Youth Research Institute began its annual Youth Poll, which still continues in various forms today; and similar surveys were conducted by industry-wide organizations such as the Market Compilation and Research Bureau and the Brand Names Foundation.

This period also saw the establishment of specialist divisions, and eventually entire agencies, devoted to the study of young consumers. Eugene Gilbert established his own agency as early as the mid-1940s, and was a dominant figure in the field until his early death in 1964; and he was later joined (and to some extent replaced) by Melvin Helitzer, whose Madison Avenue agency Helitzer, Waring and Wayne opened its doors in 1962. Both agencies conducted several of the specialist studies mentioned here; and I’ll discuss the work of Gilbert and Helitzer in more detail in the following section. Other specialists were to follow, including Leber, Katz and Paccone, the Child Research Service, Teenage Public Relations Inc. and the E.L. Reilly agency. Meanwhile, larger agencies like J. Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson also produced regular reports mapping the dimensions and characteristics of the teenage market, and noting the coming and going of specific ‘youth market fads’. While some of these were commissioned by specific clients, such as Ford and Coca-Cola, others appeared to be more generic attempts to sell the agency’s services.

In other instances, child-oriented publications and media outlets conducted surveys of their own audiences – not least in order to stimulate the interest of potential advertisers. The earliest of these were probably those undertaken for magazines like American Girl and Boys’ Life, but the most sustained were the regular studies of readers of Seventeen magazine, which began in 1958. Its annual ‘Teen Trends’ surveys (typically using interview samples of 1500-2000 readers) were mostly undertaken by Eugene Gilbert’s Youth Research agency, and were later supplemented by more specialized studies: by the early 1970s, these included reports on skin care, ‘back to school’ products, and what was called ‘personal daintiness’.[viii] Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, the magazine and book publisher Scholastic began publishing annual reports on the ‘socio-economic attitudes’ of high school youth, much of which focused on their relationships with key consumer brands. The Research Marketing Services division of ABC Television conducted a large-scale youth survey in 1964, using government data alongside its own commissioned research, claiming to tell ‘a very purse-warming story for today’s and tomorrow’s advertisers’. Other such reports were commissioned by publications aimed at parents, such as Baby and Parents magazines. A Parents magazine study from 1961, ‘The Fabulous Young Families with Children Market’, presents itself as ‘a service to national advertisers’ – although it is a service that is clearly designed to persuade them of the commercial value of its own readership.

As well as talking up the size and significance of the children’s and youth market, these reports are also keen to emphasise the necessity of research itself. They make strong claims about the scientific legitimacy and authority of their approach, as well as its commercial value; and they include stories about successful campaigns that illustrate the benefits both of broad-scale research and of specific market testing. Yet many of them contain a curious mix of hard data and generalized commonsense. On the one hand, there is clearly a premium on ‘facts’: most of these reports contain pages upon pages of descriptive statistics about young people’s disposable income, their spending behaviour and their brand preferences. Apparently illustrative quotations from interviews are also presented in quite a ‘raw’ fashion, with little attempt at interpretation.

However, such material is often accompanied with bland truisms and platitudes about what children and young people are ‘really’ like. Many of these assertions appear quite contradictory: young consumers, we are told, are both conservative and open to new ideas; they tend to copy each other, yet they also wish to be independent and individual; they want to assume responsibility, but they also crave freedom; they are impressionable, yet they are also frequently sceptical about advertising. Of course, such sweeping assertions might well be true of particular children or young people at different times and in different contexts; but the analysis here tends to remain at the level of superficial generalization. As we’ll see, much of the direct advice to marketers – about how to design campaigns, launch new products, or use different media channels – also seems somewhat banal and obvious.

Nevertheless, this research steadily became more ambitious. While there was little discernible use of the more esoteric forms of ‘motivational research’, many studies supplemented large-scale quantitative surveys with more child-centred qualitative methods such as ‘free association discussions’ and visual approaches, as well as observations in laboratories and homes.[ix] By the mid-1960s, some were making use of ‘improvisational settings’ and role-play, and extending beyond advertising itself to consider aspects of product design – approaches that are not too far from the contemporary vogue for ‘co-creation’.[x] Researchers urged marketers to ‘respect’ children, to treat them as people, and to avoid patronizing them.

The children’s and youth market was also increasingly segmented, at least in terms of age and gender; and the teen market in particular was constantly recalibrated into smaller sub-categories. As we’ll see, these arguments were typically based on simplified versions of developmental psychology, particularly a Piagetian ‘ages and stages’ approach. However, as the 1960s progressed, some of the more fashionable agencies also began to draw on more complex psychological theories, and on sociological research: for example, a compendious McCann Erickson study from the early 1970s, simply entitled Youth, provides an extensive socio-historical analysis of youth culture – albeit with frequent reference to the role of its client, Coca-Cola.

All this material was reported, not only in specialist trade papers like Printers’ Ink, Sales Management and Advertising Age, but also in the mainstream press – and often in somewhat breathless terms. Commentators marveled at the scale of the demographic boom, and the new-found spending power of young people; although they also expressed bewilderment at the apparently fickle and unpredictable nature of the children’s and youth market, and some vague alarm at children’s influence on adults. However, it was not until the very late 1960s that advertisers and market researchers began to recognize and address any ethical concerns. While market researchers were keen to emphasise the unpredictability of the youth market – and hence the need for their services – they also presented it as a promising, and partly untapped, commercial opportunity. Only when advertising came under attack did researchers begin to concede that it might not always be quite as effective as they had claimed.


The words of the gurus

Probably the most frequently cited expert in press reports during this period was Eugene Gilbert, who is often credited as the ‘inventor’ of youth marketing research – although he also wrote a good deal about younger children as well. I’ll look at Gilbert’s work in more detail below, and particularly at his book Advertising and Marketing to Young People (1957). However, I also want to set his work in a broader historical context, by considering the contributions of three other market researchers, whose books were published over a longer time span. Like the research reports I’ve mentioned, all these books are essentially designed to sell their services to potential clients; but they also purport to provide a wider body of scientific ‘knowledge’ about young consumers, and about how marketers need to address them – knowledge that, despite many significant changes, remains remarkably consistent across a period of five decades.

Evalyne Grumbine

The earliest of these books dates from as far back as 1938. Reaching Juvenile Markets: How to Advertise, Sell, and Merchandise through Boys and Girls, was written by E. Evalyn Grumbine, the advertising director and assistant publisher of Child Life magazine. (She also wrote children’s books, like the one pictured here.) Her book represents a summation of arguments she had been developing for some time in articles in the trade press. Like many of the reports I have mentioned (which date from several decades later), the book emphasizes the growing importance of the children’s market, both as a commercial opportunity in itself, and as a potential influence on parents – Grumbine is interested not just in marketing to children, but also (as in her title) through them to their parents. Despite the Depression, she is able to paint a picture of expansion across the decade: she points to the rise in radio ownership, the growth in the numbers and reach of ‘juvenile’ magazines, and the wider range of venues for promotional activity (for instance, the increasing trend towards children’s sections in department stores). This is all seen to feed the increasing expenditure on advertising: between 1931 and 1936, for example, advertising expenditure in the comics sections of newspapers had risen from $160,000 to $14 million.

The book provides a good deal of homespun ‘wisdom’ about children, much of it couched in very generalized terms. ‘Children,’ we are told, ‘are real enthusiasts ready to accept any challenge that demands action and gives them something to do. They are natural joiners and like nothing better than to belong to a club and have a secret password and badge or button to wear…’.[xi] However, these generalizations about what ‘children’ apparently want or need, and about how they think, are partly qualified by the use of developmental psychology. In common with a great deal of ‘marketing scientists’, Grumbine presents a version of Piaget’s ‘ages and stages’ model, cut across by generalisations about gender (where girls are generally seen to be ‘ahead’ of boys): marketers, she argues, need to segment their products and promotional appeals in ways that reflect the innate characteristics of boys and girls at different ages.

On this basis, the book goes on to provide a compendium of marketing techniques that are seen to be particularly appropriate: these include contests, premiums and gifts, clubs, coupons and vouchers, and various forms of packaging and store display. It is through such methods, Grumbine argues, that marketers can engage children’s innate needs and desires – for collecting, for exercising their imagination and curiosity, for joining and socializing, and for playing at being grown-up. She provides extensive statistical analysis and examples of companies that have successfully used such techniques, along with checklists of key advice. Further chapters then explore children’s preferences for different kinds of media – books, illustrations, magazines and radio programmes; ways of organizing clubs and competitions; and strategies for ‘selling children through schools’ through sponsored teaching materials, films, posters and worksheets.[xii]

Some of these techniques appear strikingly ‘modern’, and are the kinds of practices that attract growing concern today. For example, Grumbine discusses the use of children as salespersons and ‘junior representatives’ – or what we might now call ‘brand ambassadors’. There are also several instances of celebrity endorsements (Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers) and character licensing (not only Disney, but also Popeye, Mother Goose, Peter Rabbit and others). Some of her examples of in-store promotions might be described today as instances of ‘event marketing’ or even ‘experience marketing’. Equally modern in some respects is the overall construction of the child consumer. Grumbine does begin by expressing some concern about the ‘exploitation’ of children, but her abiding emphasis is on their autonomy: the market is an arena in which children can express themselves, and in which their natural, pre-existing desires can be recognized.[xiii]


Eugene Gilbert

The second book I’ll discuss here, Eugene Gilbert’s Advertising and Marketing to Young People was published almost twenty years after Grumbine, but it echoes many of her arguments and approaches.[xiv] Gilbert famously began his career as an after-school assistant in a shoe store in Illinois: when he proposed ways of researching and then targeting the store’s younger customers more effectively, there was a significant leap in turnover. He quickly formed a youth survey business, employing 300 of his peers to conduct polls at a rate of $3 per day.[xv] An entrepreneurial young man, Gilbert bypassed college and went straight to New York, where he set up his own research and marketing agency: within five years, he was employing 120 ‘field operatives’ in 250 locations, gathering data from 400,000 young people annually. As early as 1950, he had gathered 35 clients ranging from Pepsi-Cola and General Electric to the US army, and his income was reportedly ‘in five figures’[xvi]; by the end of the decade, he was claiming to employ 5000 ‘poll-takers’, and to have completed six million research interviews.[xvii]

As with Grumbine, Gilbert’s book brings together a compendium of advice developed over the previous decade, published both in trade journals and reports, and (in his case) in syndicated columns entitled ‘What Young People Think’, which were published in more than 300 national and regional newspapers. Like later marketing researchers, Gilbert sees young consumers in three main ways: as a market in their own right, with their own disposable income; as a means of influencing adults; and as a starting point for building brand loyalty over the longer term.[xviii] The book opens with a detailed statistical presentation of the expanding size, scope and influence of the young people’s market, and some projections into the future. This is a new and highly influential generation of young consumers, Gilbert argues: it is one that requires ‘new and forward-looking products’, as well as new methods of marketing. Yet twenty years on from Grumbine, there seem to have been very few changes in the basic wisdom of market research.

Thus, like Grumbine, Gilbert segments the child and youth market using developmental psychology (drawn more from Arnold Gesell than Piaget). This permits a series of generalized, normative statements. ‘The seven year old,’ we are told, ‘has not yet learned to be a good loser; he [sic] tattles, runs home if things go badly, bristles if he feels he’s been cheated, and exposes a good deal of sensitivity’. By contrast, the nine year old is ‘a self-motivating youngster’; the eleven year old is ‘a creature of boundless energy’; while the twelve year old ‘uses his own initiative in a more confident fashion’. Teenagers are apparently more about ‘inner forces and drives’: thirteen year olds are moody, reflective and over-conscientious; fourteen year olds are co-operative, frank and communicative; fifteen year olds are self-critical, independent and discriminating; and so it goes on. Here again, these generalizations often appear contradictory: children have enquiring minds, but they also jump to conclusions easily; they are very open to suggestion, but they are also likely to resist when they feel they are being duped; they are flexible and even volatile in their preferences, but they are also conservative.

As in Grumbine’s book, these assertions are used to support a series of detailed recommendations about the most appropriate marketing strategies and appeals. While he does consider the emerging potential of television, there is little sense at this time that television might be capable of addressing more specialized ‘niche’ audiences: rather, it is seen as a ‘mass’ medium, designed for the whole family. This aside, most of the approaches Gilbert outlines are very similar to those in Grumbine: there are chapters on contests, premiums, packaging and point-of-purchase techniques, character licensing and celebrity endorsement, sponsorship, marketing in schools, and so on – all accompanied by lengthy checklists of advice, case studies and lists of sources, media channels and opportunities for targeted promotions. Here again, methods are matched to the supposedly inherent characteristics and desires of particular age groups, as well as the nature of the products themselves.

Despite these apparently timeless generalizations, Gilbert insists that this is a rapidly changing market: assumptions are not enough – what’s needed is hard, scientific research, and a ‘constant flow of information’ about the latest developments. Gilbert goes to some lengths to persuade his readers/clients of the rigour of his research, and the commercial benefits that have accrued to those who have used it, particularly when pre-testing the appeal of new product lines. The book’s numerous statistical tables seem to exercise a strong rhetorical function in this respect; although in some cases, the empirical basis of this work is fairly questionable. For example, some of the data seems to derive from small coupon-sized survey forms that accompanied Gilbert’s newspaper columns – a tactic that enabled him to claim extremely large sample sizes.

However, the most notable aspect of Gilbert’s methodology was his recruitment of young people, both to conduct research interviews and to promote particular brands. This was partly on the basis that, as Gilbert put it, ‘kids can talk to kids’; but it also served as a form of ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing. He was particularly interested in using ‘opinion leaders’, who had high ‘elective positions’ in their schools, and were best placed both to identify and also to lead new trends. Recruits were provided with free merchandise and brochures to distribute; and in the process, the market researcher effectively became a kind of ‘brand ambassador’ or even a ‘cool hunter’. In this approach, the boundary between product development, research and promotion is very blurred.[xix] As the author of his obituary in the New York Times put it: ‘Realising that youthful purchasing habits follow a series of fads, [Gilbert] helped devise ways to generate the fads, rather than just waiting for them to happen.’[xx]

While he is keen to emphasise the complex and ever-changing nature of the youth market, and its growing influence on parents, Gilbert also offers some reassurance – particularly to the wider public audience who might read his syndicated newspaper columns – about the continuity of the generational order. Today’s teenagers may appear outwardly different from their predecessors; they have greater influence within the family, and parents themselves are younger and less certain about imposing their tastes and values. Nevertheless, he argues, young people are largely adapting to changing circumstances in fairly stable and practical ways.[xxi] The majority of youth, he frequently asserts, are quite conventional, and even conservative: they are not afraid of hard work; they tend to accept their parents’ authority; they endorse cutting taxes, and they aren’t in favour of strikes; and they don’t have much time for beatniks or delinquents, hard liquor or big-city life. ‘Jane Teen’, one column assures readers, ‘is really an old-fashioned girl’; while his book is unwise enough to describe rock-and-roll as a temporary ‘fad’ that would eventually ‘die down’.[xxii] Gilbert died at the age of 40 in 1966, and it’s hard to imagine what he would have made of the seismic events of the years that followed.


Melvin Helitzer

As I’ve mentioned, Gilbert’s place as the guru of youth research was taken over in the mid-1960s by Melvin Helitzer, who had formed his own specialist agency in 1962. Helitzer’s book, The Youth Market, co-authored with Carl Heyel, was published in 1970. As in the other books I’ve discussed, the children’s and youth market is described here in somewhat breathless terms, as a growing – and still somewhat underestimated – commercial opportunity. Addressed primarily to marketers, it is presented as a definitive compendium of market research knowledge about child and youth consumers.

Once again, the children’s and youth market is broken down into developmental ‘ages and stages’, drawing on psychologists such as Piaget and Gesell. We have normative statements about the needs and desires of three and four year olds, or fourteen and fifteen year olds – although the authors also suggest that advertisers should not be aiming at a specific target, but at a ‘rainbow’ of age differences, ‘where the individual hues may be brilliantly discernible, but shimmer and shift and merge one into the other’.[xxiii] Such evocative flourishes aside, Helitzer and Heyel place a strong emphasis here on research ‘science’ – although here we can begin to see greater mention of more participatory techniques, ‘play acting, simulated shopping situations, picture questionnaires and special interviewing and observational techniques’ especially suited to children.[xxiv] Yet however child-centred they might appear, the primary logic for such methods is that (as Helitzer and Heyel put it) ‘research pays’, both by preventing costly failures and by generating lucrative new ideas.

As in the earlier books, this one goes on to offer a range of successful case studies, and checklists of (seemingly somewhat obvious) questions about different marketing strategies. The range of techniques – the use of different media, packaging, in-store promotion, character licensing, marketing in schools, and so on – is familiar; and much of their guidance on ‘what works’ in children’s advertising – the use of music, animation and sound effects, ‘realistic’ performers, status appeals – echoes similar advice in Gilbert’s work. Here too, the children’s and youth market is described both as ‘malleable’ and as difficult to reach. ‘It is the young of any given market… that can be most easily shifted in purchase direction’, we are told[xxv]; and yet this is a ‘tricky business’, which needs to be informed (needless to say) by sound research.

Helitzer and Heyel also insist on the need for a more participatory approach, that will involve children more actively – encouraging them to sing along, to complete a drawing or a jingle, to send in ideas for new products, or to create their own ads. While this is certainly more in line with wider developments in the industry at the time, many of the ‘participatory’ techniques that are described (such as clubs, collecting, competitions, and providing feedback) can also be found in Grumbine’s book, thirty years earlier.

However, Helitzer and Heyel are writing at a moment where the influence of advertising is coming to be regarded as controversial. They point to the risk of provoking parental resentment over unduly ‘high pressure’ appeals; and to the bad publicity surrounding the advertising of war toys and cigarettes, as well as growing concerns around television violence. They caution advertisers to eschew the ‘pied piper image’, to avoid deceptive appeals, and to ensure that products are safe and of good quality. They also advise them to avoid playing on children’s influence, ‘asking mommy to buy’.

There is also a stronger sense here of young consumers’ potential resistance to advertising: to a greater extent than Gilbert, for example, the authors insist that even pre-teens are knowledgeable, and sometimes critical, about advertising appeals. Young people, they claim, are growing up more quickly, not just physiologically but also in terms of their media sophistication. In the wake of the so-called ‘youthquake’ of the late 1960s, they describe older teenagers as more independent, more critical, and more socially aware than those in the reassuring picture painted by Gilbert. Accordingly, ‘hard sell’ advertising is to be eschewed in favour of less direct appeals, ‘creative communications’ and approaches that seek to deflect or incorporate such scepticism.


Cy Schneider

The last book I’ll consider here appeared several years later, in 1987, although it draws a good deal on experiences that took place during the period I am considering. Like the others, Cy Schneider’s Children’s Television: The Art, the Business, and How it Works is primarily addressed to his fellow marketers; and despite its title, it is principally concerned with advertising. At the time of writing, Schneider had recently retired from his position as the first head of Nickelodeon, a new specialist cable channel aimed at children. Yet most of his career had been as an advertising executive. While working at the Carson Roberts agency and its successors from the mid-1950s through to 1980, he had directed the account for Mattel toys. Schneider wrote and directed Mattel’s commercials, first screened during Disney’s TV shows, including those for the Barbie doll; and he took Mattel from being a tiny start-up to the world’s leading toy company, with annual sales increasing from $4 million in the mid-1950s to more than $300 million by the mid-1980s. Interestingly, Schneider identifies the 1950s and 1960s as the key period in the development of the children’s market: ‘virtually all the innovations – the development of new advertising and marketing techniques, and the important research on children as an audience – took place during these years,’ he claims. ’What appears to be a new development today is merely a rehash and dressing up of an idea originally formulated years ago.’

In line with this, Schneider’s own book offers relatively little in the way of new ‘knowledge’. As in the others I’ve discussed, there is an appeal to the authority of developmental psychology, but much of the advice here is fairly banal. Marketers are urged to keep things simple, to emphasise fun, to appeal to kids’ desire to feel grown up, to be honest, and so on. Advertising shouldn’t lecture or patronise children; although equally it shouldn’t try too hard to appear cool or fashionable. Despite the emphasis on marketing science, the advice here rarely goes beyond the obvious.

The title of Schneider’s book suggests that it will be about children’s television; yet it contains very little discussion of the actual programmes themselves. The ‘art’ of his subtitle is barely considered: the book is predominantly about the ‘business’. Yet to a much greater extent than Helitzer and Heyel, Schneider is bound to address public criticisms of the commercialization of children’s television, which had significantly increased during the intervening years. His response to such concerns is quite aggressive: critics like Peggy Charren of Action for Children’s Television are dismissed in a chapter entitled ‘The Do-Gooders, Politicos, Pedagogues, and Assorted Other Ax-Grinders’. Schneider sweeps aside criticisms of practices such as character licensing and product-based cartoons, which were attracting widespread concern at the time (although he does express concern that they might have reached saturation point). Calls for increasing government regulation are also roundly dismissed: dealing with any negative aspects of children’s relationship with television, he suggests, should be a responsibility for parents.

In rejecting what he sees as exaggerated claims about the harmful influence of television on children, Schneider is also bound to emphasise their discriminating and sceptical attitude towards advertising as well. Children, he asserts, are not gullible or easily manipulated, but sophisticated, active viewers. He refutes the idea that advertising to children is like ‘shooting fish in a barrel’: this is a ‘fickle, faddish, constantly changing audience’ that is not easy to reach or persuade. He points out that many campaigns directed towards children have failed, resulting in ‘staggering’ financial losses. Yet, ultimately, this is an unashamed defence – indeed, a celebration – of television as a commercial medium, a means of selling audiences to advertisers. ‘Better’ television for children will arise, Schneider argues, not from the efforts of self-righteous campaigners, but from the operations of the market itself.


The historical narrative I’ve outlined here could be extended to more recent books on children’s marketing, such as Gene del Vecchio’s Creating Ever-Cool (published in 1997) and Martin Lindstrom’s Brandchild (2003). What remains striking is that, despite many far-reaching technological, economic and social changes, the fundamental approach of these books – and indeed much of the ‘knowledge’ and advice they purvey – remains remarkably consistent. Indeed, some of the methods – both of research and of marketing itself – that are currently considered fairly avant-garde are in evidence in these much earlier periods. While they may use different technologies, and a different vocabulary, the use of ‘participatory’ research, ‘peer-to-peer’ marketing, and even ‘co-creation’ – not only for youth, but also for children – can be identified as long ago as the 1930s. Likewise, many of the practices that later came to be viewed with suspicion – product placement, character licensing, mobilizing ‘pester power’ – are described by authors like Gilbert and Grumbine with very few ethical qualms. Perhaps the most significant difference today is that marketers are able to use digital means to gather data about consumers, and to do so much more effectively; although even in the 1920s and 1930s, they still had much more primitive and haphazard ways of doing the same thing (for example through competitions and mail-ins).[xxvi]

In the later books, there is a need to refute such criticisms more directly. The celebration of children as discriminating, sceptical consumers thus inevitably comes to the fore, although it is certainly apparent in the earliest publications I have discussed. As such, marketers increasingly have to acknowledge that success is not guaranteed – although in a sense, this merely supports their claims about the need for research, and for their own expertise. The ‘mediatization’ of children’s culture across this period was undoubtedly a significant shift; yet in many respects, the key change was less to do with new ideas about children or even new approaches to marketing than with the expanding scale and the apparent ‘professionalisation’ of market research itself.


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[i] Helitzer and Heyel (1970).

[ii] JWT London Office Records, Hartman Center, Duke University: Box 1.

[iii] Cook (2000).

[iv] A couple of these, by Munn (1958) and Barcus (1962), are included in my references and others are cited by Alexander et al. (1998). In a bibliography of the field, published in 1991, James McNeal presents his own PhD (completed in 1964) as ‘the first study of children’s consumer behavior’ – although he appears to ignore the work of market researchers like Grumbine, Gilbert and others, many of whose arguments about child consumers seem to prefigure his own.

[v] Children as Consumers: Marketing Study Series 9, Bureau of Business Research, University of Texas at Austin, 1964.

[vi] These studies and press reports were mostly accessed in the Hartman Center collection at Duke University, especially in the ‘Vertical Files’ of the J. Walter Thompson agency. Some newspaper and trade magazine reports were also consulted in the New York Public Library collection.

[vii] Its director, Dr. Herman Remmers, published a book entitled The American Teenager, co-authored with D.H. Radler, in 1957.

[viii] Helitzer and Heyel (1970) estimate that, by the end of the 1960s, Seventeen had conducted 300 such studies.

[ix] ‘Free association’ was used in a study of Jack and Jill magazine by the E.L. Reilly agency around 1964; while the use of visual methods was discussed in a more academic study by William Wells (1965), a Rutgers University professor who was engaged as a consultant by the marketing company Benton and Bowles.

[x] See Helitzer and Heyel (1970).

[xi] Grumbine (1938): 21.

[xii] There is a much longer history of marketing in schools that tends to be ignored by contemporary critics of the commercialization of education.

[xiii] See Cook (2000).

[xiv] Gilbert’s work and career are discussed by (among others) James Gilbert (1986), Osgerby (2002) and Palladino (1996); although he was also subject to a striking critique at the time by Dwight McDonald (1958).

[xv] See the early profile of Gilbert, then aged 19, in ‘How do you rate with kids?’, The American vol. 140: 153, December 1945.

[xvi] ‘Teenage tasters, Newsweek vol. 38, December: 77-78.

[xvii] ‘If I were looking for a job’, The American vol. 150: 32-3, September 1950; ‘Why today’s teenagers seem so different’, Harper’s Magazine November 1959: 76-79.

[xviii] This distinction is developed further by McNeal (e.g. 1992).

[xix] I discuss contemporary examples of this in youth marketing in Buckingham (2014).

[xx] New York Times, 20th June 1966.

[xxi] See, for example, ‘Why today’s teenagers seem so different’, above.

[xxii] ‘Young Jane really old-fashioned girl’, The Austin Statesman 15th August 1957; Gilbert, Marketing, op cit., 135.

[xxiii] Helitzer and Heyel (1970): 99.

[xxiv] Ibid: chapter 7.

[xxv] Ibid: 18.

[xxvi] Kyle Asquith (2015) makes a good case that contemporary forms of data mining and consumer surveillance were prefigured by the collection of box tops in the 1920s and 1930s.