In the twenty first century, there has been growing concern about the phenomenon of marketing to children. Campaigners argue that childhood has become inexorably commercialised: children today are subject to a growing barrage of advertising and marketing, using ever more sophisticated techniques. In recent years, there has been legislation to restrict the advertising of particular types of products to children – most notably so-called ‘junk food’. There are also ongoing efforts to regulate more covert and deceptive forms of marketing in online and social media. However, the topic also raises much broader concerns: the apparent ‘commercialisation’ of childhood is seen by some as a kind of corruption of its fundamental innocence and purity; while others regard it as an instance of consumer capitalism at its most rapacious and unprincipled. In this respect, the anxiety about marketing to children appears to unite conservatives and political radicals in a nostalgic yearning for a ‘golden age’ in which childhood was apparently untainted by commercial forces.[i]
However, this is not a new issue. There is a long history of marketing to children, which can be traced back well into the nineteenth century; and campaigns to restrict and regulate it, while they are more recent, also date back several decades.[ii] In this essay, I focus on a particular period – between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s – when there appeared to be a step change in marketing to children. This was most obviously about the advent and dissemination of the new medium of television; yet this was accompanied by a broader shift in marketing strategies and appeals, and by the growth of market research. Not all of the innovations of this period were unprecedented, and traditional forms of marketing persisted. Yet in many respects, we can see the beginnings of a much more intensive ‘mediatization’ of marketing to children at this time; and while the technologies may be changing, many of the techniques and approaches that provoke particular concern today have their origins in this period.
After briefly describing the broader context of marketing at this time, both in general and specifically in relation to children, I move on to look at the increasing significance of market research, across a somewhat broader time-scale. I then consider in more detail some of the strategies and appeals used in marketing and advertising to children, using specific examples: I consider the differences between girls and boys as consumer markets; and the advertising of two key areas, food products and toys. I draw on a range of sources, including published accounts written by researchers and marketers at the time; articles and advertisements in the commercial trade press; and archival material (industry reports, campaign plans, internal company memos and correspondence). I also look at specific advertisements, both in the form of print (magazine and display advertising) and television commercials: while in some instances I have been fairly systematic about my sampling here, in others (most notably television) I have inevitably been reliant on the material that has been preserved. Most of this material relates to the United States, but some of it is taken from UK sources – and while I can make some comparisons here, I don’t have enough evidence to be definitive about this.[iii]
The making of modern consumers
The baby boom of the post-War period was not simply a demographic phenomenon: it had social and cultural dimensions whose influence is still felt today. Over 75 million children were born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. By the end of this period, as the birth rate started to decline, almost 40% of the population was aged under 19 – by comparison with the current figure of less than a quarter.[iv] After the privations of the Great Depression and then the Second World War, these children were being born into an era of growing overall affluence. Unemployment was historically low, and average household incomes grew in real terms from just under $40,000 in 1955 to $60,000 by 1967. (It should be emphasised that these are averages: although there was no significant increase in income inequality, around one quarter of the population still lived in poverty.)
While there is a longer history here, it’s during this period that we can most clearly trace the development of a modern, so-called ‘consumer society’ in the United States.[v] By the end of the 1950s, the average US family had seen a 30% increase in its disposable income over the decade. Credit became commonplace. Technological advances meant that new products – cars, home décor, appliances, electronic gadgets – became available with bewildering rapidity, and many had a limited lifespan. It’s estimated that US consumers consumed as much as one third of the world’s goods and services at this time, while representing only 7% of the overall global population.
Media, and particularly television, were self-evidently crucial here. The number of households with at least one television set in the US grew from under 10% in 1950 to well over 90% (over 52 million) in 1965. Across the 1950s, the number of daytime hours of programming quadrupled, while weekend hours increased ten-fold. As early as 1955, the average TV set was switched on for five and a half hours a day. And of course, the growth of television was almost completely driven (and funded) by advertising. At the start of the 1950s, spending on TV advertising leapt from $12 million (in 1949) to $128 million (in 1951), and increased almost ten-fold again to $1 billion by 1955. Across the following decade, the largest advertising agencies quadrupled their income; and by 1965, advertising expenditure across all media surpassed $15 billion.
While it was undoubtedly lucrative, the advertising industry was also increasingly competitive. Agencies began to expand and diversify their offer, providing a ‘total service’ to clients that included research, public relations and merchandising, as well as advertising across a range of media. This period is often described by advertising historians as one of ‘creative revolution’ – and this account has undoubtedly been reinforced by the successful AMC series Mad Men (2007-2015).[vi] Famous campaigns, epitomised by Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen, eschewed the traditional hard sell in favour of a more knowing, iconoclastic, quirky approach. At the same time, this period also saw the rise of ‘marketing science’, as agencies began to employ researchers with expertise in ‘depth psychology’, and even psychoanalysis: ‘motivation research’, often using innovative qualitative methods, became fashionable, although there was continuing debate within the industry about the balance between research, economic and creative imperatives.
In the case of television, which quickly came to account for the bulk of advertising expenditure, there was a gradual shift in approach. The sponsorship model – in which the shows and the advertising were often produced by agencies themselves, and named with single brands (Kraft Television Theater or Goodyear TV Playhouse, for example) – gave way to spot advertisements featuring a wider range of products. Such advertisements were typically shot on film (videotape was not used until the mid-1960s), and many used more sophisticated editing, special effects and camera techniques than were possible in many of the programmes that surrounded them. Advertising could well take up twelve minutes in every hour: it was not until the very late 1960s that regulators began to consider limiting the quantity of TV advertising, at least to children. (The situation in the UK was rather different: commercial television did not arrive until 1955, and it was not allowed to feature commercially sponsored programmes. Time for spot advertising was also restricted, although this meant that it was more commercially valuable: by 1957, in a significantly smaller market than the US, expenditure on advertising on the single commercial channel was already £25 million per year.)
The rise of the children’s market
In some respects, as we’ll see, advertising to children may have lagged behind wider developments in the industry. There’s little evidence of a ‘creative revolution’ in the material I have studied, and most advertising to children remained fairly straightforward. While teenagers were effectively discovered or ‘invented’ as a target market in the 1940s, the younger children’s market was believed to be relatively small. For example, while a range of new toys emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s, many toy manufacturers initially believed they could do without advertising. However, across the period I’m considering, children gradually came to be seen as a distinctive and lucrative market – one for which advertisers would require particular techniques in order to know and to reach.
Again, television was crucial here. While marketers could more easily target teenagers through other media (most notably magazines and cinema advertising), the advent of television offered significant new opportunities to reach younger children, who were more likely to be confined to the home, and less likely to be able to read.[vii] While advertising in children’s comics and magazines certainly continued, advertising to children in mainstream newspapers began to decline as the new medium took hold.[viii] As with adult television, we can see a steady shift from sponsorship to spot advertising; although programmes for younger children in particular (such as Ding Dong School and Howdy Doody) tended to rely on ‘host selling’, where the presenter would pause the action in order to deliver (often ad-libbed) commercial messages about breakfast cereals, candies and toys.
However, Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, first broadcast on ABC in 1955, was a significant landmark in this respect: it was put together with funding from twenty leading advertisers, paying half a million dollars each. In some respects, Disney might be seen as a special case: right from its inception in cinemas in the 1930s, it has always depended on cross-media ‘synergy’, whereby media and merchandise are locked together in a more comprehensive marketing effort. However, the programme’s phenomenal success (it apparently reached 90% of the available child audience) led to a remarkable acceleration in advertising to children; and it was accompanied by Disneyland, an hour-long anthology series targeting the entire family.
The most prominent advertiser on Mickey Mouse Club was an emerging toy company, Mattel, whose ads I’ll consider in a later section. Mattel’s ubiquitous Barbie doll (launched in 1959) was the most successful girl’s toy of the era; but the company branding – as well as other strategies such as the development of accessories and ‘collectables’, and the use of market research – were replicated in the marketing of Mattel’s other toy ranges as well. Advertising in this context was essentially unregulated: in addition to ‘host selling’, commercials were able to make exaggerated claims about the nutritional benefits of breakfast cereals and candy, and display toys in ways that made them appear larger, faster and more realistic, with little fear of censure (such practices were not banned until the 1970s). While children could be exposed to as many as 14 toy commercials per hour, some in the industry were concerned that not as much time was available as they would have liked.[ix]
Meanwhile, early market researchers showed that children had an impressive recall of television advertising (not only in children’s programmes), and that it helped to cultivate brand loyalty. Most importantly, children were also shown to recognize branded products on shopping trips, and to exercise considerable influence on parents’ purchasing decisions.[x] What was initially regarded as a mainly seasonal market (especially in the case of toys) eventually came to be seen as one that needed to be addressed and targeted the whole year round. By the end of the period I’m considering, it was estimated that advertisers were spending more than $50 million per year in their efforts to reach the child and youth market.[xi] Such was the rate of expansion that some industry commentators began to complain of an ‘oversaturation’ of the children’s market. They were impressed by research that demonstrated children’s memory and attention to commercials, but they also feared that it was losing its impact, and that children were becoming more sceptical and more resistant to ‘involuntary exposure’.[xii]
Several broad trends can be identified in marketing and advertising to children across the mid-twentieth century, although many of them arguably accelerated during this period.[xiii] Advertisers increasingly addressed children directly, rather than seeking to reach them through their parents – although even in the case of toy advertising, children’s appetite for ‘fun’ was often balanced against more parental concerns with educational value, affordability and safety. Children increasingly came to be recognized (or indeed constructed) as active, independent, desiring consumers in their own right. As in advertising more broadly, there was an growing emphasis on novelty as a motivation for increased purchasing: products were diversified and spun off into new lines, flavours and varieties; and in the case of toys, there was an emphasis on the ever-increasing range of attributes and accessories for children to collect. The children’s market also became increasingly segmented, especially in terms of age and gender: new categories (‘teenagers’, ‘pre-teens’ and ‘toddlers’) began to be identified, along with new products that would apparently meet their unique needs.
Perhaps the most distinctive development during this period, however, was the increasing ‘mediatization’ of children’s consumption and play. This was by no means new: media ‘tie-ins’ had appeared in radio in the 1930s, and Disney represents another obvious precedent. Indeed, it’s possible to identify examples of licensed toy characters and product placement in the early twentieth century, from Kewpies, Billikens and teddy bears through to Buck Rogers and Shirley Temple dolls.[xiv] One of the most sustained examples has been the Campbell Kids, who have been used in the marketing of Campbell’s soup since they were first created by the illustrator Grace Drayton in 1904: after being dropped in the mid-1920s, they were revived in the early 1950s for their fiftieth birthday (for which half a million dolls were produced), and subsequently appeared in TV commercials. While these characters have mainly operated within the world of advertising itself, they have been used to brand a very wide range of merchandise over the years, from kitchen equipment to clothing, dolls, games and other toys. As with many of the other products I’ll be mentioning, they also sustain a sizeable market of nostalgic adult collectors to this day.[xv]
Nevertheless, the advent of television generated a step change in the use of media, not only as a means of advertising and branding, but also of influencing and defining children’s consumer behaviour, and their activities much more broadly. The distinctions between promotion and ‘content’ became increasingly difficult to discern, as characters crossed and re-crossed the boundaries between them. Goods arrived in the marketplace accompanied not only by advertisers’ claims about their attributes, but also by narratives that suggested how they should be used in children’s play. While concern about the consequences of this is a more recent phenomenon, it undoubtedly has a much longer history.
The children’s market in context
Despite my emphasis here on the importance of media, it is vital to see this in a broader context. The rapid growth of this consumer market was not simply a consequence of developments in media and technology – nor indeed a result of advertisers brainwashing audiences into believing in ‘false needs’. It needs to be understood in the context of other, equally far-reaching social and cultural changes.
In the United States, the post-war period saw growing numbers of people moving out of city centres into low-density suburban locations, where they were encouraged and enabled (for example, via the GI Bill) to buy houses for the first time. Social interaction – and indeed children’s play – came to focus more on the home than the street; families were increasingly dependent upon private automobiles; and shopping was largely focused around purpose-built malls, which also became venues for leisure (not least for teenagers). Meanwhile, with the development of high schools, young people were staying on for longer in full-time education; although the favourable employment situation meant that many of them could supplement pocket money with their own independent income. (It’s important to emphasise again that these developments were predominantly confined to white, middle-class families: black inner-city residents were often prevented from migrating to the new suburbs, for example.)
As Ellen Seiter describes, mothers were caught in a complex set of pressures here.[xvi] In the years immediately after the war, women were encouraged to abandon the workplace and resume their role as home-makers; but the percentage of women in the active workforce grew nonetheless. New technology appeared to provide ‘labour-saving’ devices, but evidence suggests that women’s hours of work in the home actually increased, not least because fewer families were able to employ domestic workers. Meanwhile, younger children were increasingly confined to the home; and the emergence of more ‘child-centred’ ideas about child-rearing meant that mothers were also urged to spend more time caring for, and engaging with, their children.[xvii] Children’s use of media and other consumer goods represented at least a partial escape from these pressures. Using TV as a ‘babysitter’ enabled mothers to get a break, and to get on with household chores; buying more toys meant that children had more to occupy themselves independently of adult supervision; and mothers often had no alternative than to take their children shopping with them.
Yet even here, the apparent solution came to be surrounded by guilt: television was increasingly condemned by commentators in other media, and mothers were advised that they should limit its use, or actively intervene in their children’s viewing. (Contemporary debates about ‘screen time’ appear to be re-playing many of these early anxieties.) Even in the apparently pioneering phase of the post-war ‘consumer society’, some commentators were beginning to regard children’s consumption as a problem – although at this point, marketers themselves rarely perceived there to be any ethical issues at stake in advertising and selling to children.
[i] Seiter (1993) provides a good critique of these arguments. See also Buckingham (1995).
[ii] My book The Material Child (2011) includes a brief overview of the history of marketing to children, as well as a critical overview of contemporary concerns. More extended historical accounts include Cook (2004), Kline (1993) and Seiter (1993). Useful studies of earlier periods include Denisoff (2008) on the nineteenth century and Jacobson (2004) on the early twentieth century.
[iii] See the note on archival sources at the end of the essay. In trawling through children’s magazines and the trade press, for example at the New York Public Library, I was able to sample specific years in a systematic and comprehensive way. With respect to television, I have mainly used Ira Gallen’s extensive private collection, which might appropriately be described as a ‘fan archive’; while the UK television material comes mainly from the History of Advertising Trust (online). It’s impossible to know how far either of these collections is representative.
[iv] Statistics in this section are from: Baby Boomer Headquarters site: https://www.bbhq.com/bomrstat.htm; Statista.com: https://www.statista.com/chart/18418/real-mean-and-median-family-income-in-the-us/; Buffalo History: http://www.buffalohistory.org/Explore/Exhibits/virtual_exhibits/wheels_of_power/educ_materials/television_handout.pdf; Douglas Galbi https://www.galbithink.org/ad-spending.htm; as well as Fox (1984) and Kern (2015).
[v] Useful histories here include Cohen (2003) and Spring (2011).
[vi] See Fox (1984).
[vii] My account in this section draws particularly on Kline (1993), Cross (1997), Pecora (1998) and Alexander et al. (1998).
[viii] Barcus (1962) notes a decline in advertising to children in newspapers between 1947 and 1955, particularly in ads using a ‘dramatic’ format, with characters and storylines (for example in comic-strip format).
[ix] A.J. Vogt, ‘The changing face of the children’s market’, Sales Management, 18th December 1964.
[x] Several such studies are cited in Alexander et al. (1998), of which the most notable is one by Munn (1958) on parental influence.
[xi] Vogt, op. cit.
[xiii] See Cook (2004), who discusses these developments mainly in relation to children’s clothing.
[xiv] See Cross (1997), Chapter 4.
[xv] Today this has become the focus of a different form of consumerism among adults: new collectable merchandise is still being produced. See https://www.ufdc.org/ufdc-museum-exhibit-campbell-kids-grace-drayton/
[xvi] Seiter (1993), Chapter 1. On the ambivalent early response to television, up to the mid-1950s, see also Spigel (1992).
[xvii] On this, see also Sammond (2005).