Modernising (and resisting) marketing

The ‘mediatization’ of the children’s market was not a dramatic, overnight revolution, but a gradual and uneven development. Television undoubtedly made a significant impact, but at this time it was largely perceived as ‘mass’ medium. In the early 1950s, programmes for children were a key part of the incentive for parents to invest in buying a set in the first place[i]; but by the end of the decade, with access to television rapidly reaching saturation, attention shifted more exclusively to the ‘family’ audience. Children’s programmes were initially screened in the afternoons, after school hours, but children came to be regarded as a less lucrative audience for advertising than ‘housewives’; and as a result, children’s shows were increasingly confined to Saturday mornings – the so-called ‘kid vid ghetto’ – when adults were assumed to be less available to view. Marketers continued to use print media – comics, magazines, leaflets, posters and so on – in their attempts to target children specifically. Nevertheless, print media themselves became increasingly influenced by – and connected with – television and other media: marketing became increasingly ‘integrated’, cutting across and combining different media.

Even so, there were some notable differences in this respect, not least between boys and girls. Some insights here can be found by comparing two relatively conservative children’s magazines from the 1950s, Boys’ Life and American Girl. Both were first published in the 1910s (1911 and 1917 respectively) and both were the official publications of the US scouting movement (Boys’ Life continues, although American Girl ceased publication in 1979). Both were targeted at children and pre-teens (or ‘sub-teens’ as they were sometimes called), rather than the youth market addressed by magazines like Seventeen: the circulation of each was around half a million at this time.[ii] While one might expect a central focus on the outdoor life, these titles provide some insights into the overall range and content of advertising to children during this period.[iii]

In the years I reviewed, between 1954 and 1961, there was little change in the advertising in Boys’ Life. Many of the ads focus on hobbies, both outdoor and indoor: in 1954, this includes fishing, camping, shooting and sports, as well as photography, technology (building radios) and science and construction toys. Most of the clothing ads are for utility clothing (such as ‘anti-freeze’ jackets); only one (for Lee jeans) features an admiring girl in the background. An ad for Cuticura pimple cream reassures readers that this is ‘not a sissy cover-up’; while another claims that ‘He Men’ would choose Hickok belts and accessories. As the decade progresses, females make only rare appearances: they are sometimes present in ads for Coke and 7-Up, and the prospect of dating is mentioned in an ad for electricity. 1961 sees ads for Clearasil, Vaseline hair tonic and Max Factor ‘face conditioner’, but again most of the advertising is related to sports and hobbies. Neither in the advertising nor in the content of the magazine itself is there any sense that boys might be socializing with the opposite sex, or even interested in them.

The contrast with American Girl, the equivalent girls’ magazine, is very striking in this respect. As in Boys’ Life, there are some ads for scouting-related clothes, and for hobby equipment – in this case, including cooking and dress-making as well as sports. Both also carry ads for soft drinks and candy, as well as for ways of making money through part-time work (such as door-to-door selling). However, the advertising in the girls’ magazine is much more focused on matters of appearance: ads for deodorants, clothing and underwear, cosmetics and beauty products become more prominent as the decade proceeds. The fashions featured in the ads and the magazines themselves are by no means exclusively geared to the outdoor scouting life: there are ads for teen bras featuring admiring boys, and even one for ‘Young Enchantress’ nylon stockings. By 1961, there is a regular column of ‘teen shop talk’, featuring new clothing and accessories; and while many of the fashions are conservative and wholesome, the illustrations and captions emphasise values such as poise, charm and glamour.

Where girls are conspicuous by their absence in Boys’ Life, the reverse is not the case here: a growing number of ads feature boys, not only in relation to clothing but other products as well. While there is a central emphasis on hobbies and outdoor activities, American Girl also much more frequently features girls and boys together in social or dating scenarios. Advertising is also often tied in with advice, mostly to do with romance and relationships; by 1957, American Girl is carrying a ‘problem page’, and ads occasionally purport to offer such advice themselves. However, where boys’ biggest problems seem to involve ‘how to get the most out of your bike’ or how to ‘toughen up’ with a work-out, girls are seen to need advice on how to behave on dates. In 1961, girls are asked ‘do you feel timid around boys?’ and informed about ‘what boys want to hear’ and ‘what boys look for in a girl’, although there is nothing remotely equivalent in Boys’ Life.

The advertising and content in American Girl also becomes steadily more media-focused as the decade progresses. Issues in 1954 feature a movie column, and a cover picture of girls and boys listening to records; but by 1961, there are regular record and movie reviews, film-star pin-ups, and instructions on new dance crazes. Again, such material is much more marginal in the pages of Boys’ Life: there is very little evidence here of the forms of youth culture that are often seen as characteristic of the period.

In all these respects, American Girl comes much closer to teen girls’ magazines of the same period, such as Seventeen. Of course, it’s hardly a surprise to find that this is such a stereotypically gendered world (or indeed such an exclusively white one). Yet in all this, boys and girls also appear to have a rather different relationship with consumption itself. It’s tempting to say that, as compared with boys, pre-teen girls are increasingly constructed as consumers as the decade progresses. This consumption behaviour is steadily tied to sexuality and romance: for girls, consumption seems to involve much more intensive work on the self than it does for boys.

However, there is also a form of masculine consumption on display in Boys’ Life: it may be more obviously oriented towards activity, and much less focused on perfecting one’s appearance or on personal relationships, but it is nevertheless quite extensive in scope. Even the most natural outdoor activities seem to require comprehensive sets of accessories. Nevertheless, the advertising in Boys’ Life appears relatively unchanging across the decade, not only in the kinds of products that are advertised, but also in the nature of the appeals. The advertising here is less about showing, more about telling: it remains largely functional and descriptive, and there is less emphasis on style and symbolism – and certainly less on any form of ‘glamour’. In these respects, it appears curiously old-fashioned when compared with the equivalent consumer appeals that are being made to girls at the same time.


Resisting commerce

Of course, there were publications that attempted to avoid or resist these developments. Two of the longest-established children’s magazines in the United States are particularly notable here: the bi-monthly Jack and Jill and the monthly Highlights for Children. Jack and Jill was initially published in 1938 by Curtis Publishing, which also published the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal. Throughout its first two decades, under the editorship of Ada Campbell Rose, it billed itself as ‘the better magazine for boys and girls’. Highlights, first published in 1946, was even more sanctimonious: describing itself as ‘fun with a purpose’, it claimed ‘this book of wholesome fun is dedicated to helping children grow in basic skills and knowledge, in creativeness, in ability to think and reason, in sensitivity to others, in high ideals and worthy ways of living – for CHILDREN are the world’s most important people’. Clearly targeted at aspirational parents rather than children directly, broadly educational magazines of this kind are a perennial feature of the children’s market (British equivalents during the same period include The Young Elizabethan and Look and Learn).[iv]

Such publications typically present themselves as a positive alternative to commercial media. In terms of content, Jack and Jill was resolutely wholesome: it contained traditional stories and fairy tales, puzzles, art and craft activities, state flags to colour in, and factual feature articles about history and science. It did not carry advertising, and there was little indication that its child readers were living in an increasingly media-saturated environment: there was no mention of movies, pop music, comic characters or television, and very little of commercial toys. Highlights frequently featured moralistic stories about good behaviour, obedience, safety and good manners; and both publications contained advice pages for parents, giving guidance on follow-up activities, or where to obtain further reading.

However, towards the end of the 1950s, Jack and Jill began to change. Ada Campbell Rose was replaced by two younger editors, Nancy Ford and Jean La Wall, who took the magazine in a more modern direction. Across the issues I examined from 1959 and 1960, there is an increasing amount of material relating to other media, particularly television: we move from Shirley Temple and Mother Goose to Lassie, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Disney, with series previews, profiles of the stars and behind-the-scenes photography. In 1962, Jack and Jill eventually began to take external advertising, although its entry into the commercial media market remained quite restricted, probably for fear of alienating its parental market. Symptomatically, it is now published by the Children’s Better Health Institute, a non-profit division of the Saturday Evening Post Society; it regularly wins ‘Parents Choice’ magazine awards. By contrast, Highlights has remained pure: aside from the occasional ads for book clubs and encyclopaedias, it still does not carry advertising to this day.

Of course, it would be an illusion to regard these magazines as ‘non-commercial’. They may carry no advertising, or only a limited amount, but they are nevertheless commercial products in themselves. Like educational toys, they appeal to a particular market niche, and they do well in this respect: sales in the 1950s may have been only in the tens of thousands, but current figures are upwards of two million. However, what we can see here is a gradual process of commercialization and mediatization – albeit more in publications aimed at girls, and less so in those that are targeted primarily at a parent market. However, in order to explore advertising to children more directly, it’s necessary to turn to other print publications, and to television. In the following sections, I look at examples of advertising for two major product categories: food (especially snacks and breakfast cereals) and toys.


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[i] See Spigel (1992).

[ii] I haven’t been able to find historical figures, but the current membership of both Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations in the US is claimed to be around 3 million each (there are slightly more girls than boys).

[iii] I reviewed complete copies of both magazines from the years 1954, 1957 and 1961.

[iv] My own parents subscribed to Look and Learn on my behalf in the early 1960s, although I confess that I rarely read it.