Adolescence: You take it for granted. It was manufactured!

Before the 60s, teenagers didn’t exist. Youngsters were considered children until their late teens. Children and teens wore the same types of clothing as adults. Before the 60s, children were considered pests, or, at best, free labor. It was marketers who developed the art of consumer segmentation (markets), in order to place their client’s goods.

I have scanned for you, a chapter from the book “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard, who seems to share the disdain of adults for children, or “moppets” and “kiddies” as they were referred to at the time. As the age of consumerism emerged, so did the adolescent who was presented with one fad, after another, in order to distinguish himself from his parents. It is normal that, after a while, much of adolescent commercial agitpropping became less about rebellion against parents and more about imitating adulthood via the glamorization of spending money and sex. Many teenagers find themselves bombarded by so much conflicting and confusing commercial marketing that they don’t even have the presence of mind to enjoy adolescence. Adolescence is a time of leisure when parents are still responsible for taking care of most of your expenses and laboring to keep you housed, fed and clean. But as time goes on, this state of mind and lifestyle becomes longer and longer, encroaching into adulthood.

It is also important to note that this demographic has been widened with the creation of the tween, 8-12 year-olds obsessed with mimicking adolescence.

Manipulation of children's minds in the fields of religion or politics would touch off a parental storm of protest and a rash of Congressional investigations. But in the world of commerce children are fair game and legitimate prey.
Joseph Seldin, The Nation, 1955

The marketer still considers adolescents as daft and weak and will stop at nothing to manipulate him into buying high-margin, low-value goods. Young people define themselves by the brands they consume and the artists they follow. They may not have a connection to a character trait, but will gladly buy it printed on a T-shirt. Today, the marketer will continue to flatter and stroke the ego of the adolescent into his twenties and thirties. The continuation of the adolescent mindset, or “permadolescence” is very new. In fact, if adolescence was the most significant lifestyle invention of the 20th Century, “permadolescence” might just be the most self-indulgent improvement to this lifestyle.

The following chapter is truly the infancy of marketing to children. It may set you up on a further journey.

Chapter 15: The Psycho-Seduction of Children

The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957

DR. RIESMAN in his study of the basic changes taking place in the American character during the twentieth century (i.e., from inner-directed to other-directed) found that our growing preoccupation with acts of consumption reflected the change. This preoccupation, he noted, was particularly intense (and intensively encouraged by product makers) at the moppet level. He characterized the children of America as “consumer trainees.”

In earlier more innocent days, when the pressure was not on to build future consumers, the boys’ magazines and their counterparts concentrated on training the young for the frontiers of production, including warfare. As a part of that training, Dr. Riesman pointed out in The Lonely Crowd, the budding athlete might eschew smoke and drink. “The comparable media today train the young for the frontiers of consumption—to tell the difference between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, as later between Old Golds and Chesterfields,” he explained. He cited the old nursery rhyme about one little pig going to market while one stayed home and commented dourly: “The rhyme may be taken as a paradigm of individuation and unsocialized behavior among children of an earlier era. Today, however, all little pigs go to market: none stay home; all have roast beef, if any do; and all say * wee-wee-wee.’ ”

The problem of building eager consumers for the future was considered at a mid-fifties session of the American Marketing Association. The head of Gilbert Youth Research told the marketers there was no longer any problem of getting funds “to target the youth market”; there were plenty. The problem was targeting the market with maximum effectiveness. Charles Sievert, advertising columnist for the New York World Telegram and Sun, explained what this targeting was all about by saying, “Of course the dividend from investment in the youth market is to develop product and brand loyalty and thus have an upcoming devoted adult market.” A more blunt statement of the opportunity moppets present appeared in an ad in Printer’s Ink several years ago. A firm specializing in supplying “education” material to schoolteachers in the form of wall charts, board cutouts, teachers’ manuals made this appeal to merchants and advertisers: “Eager minds can be molded to want your products! In the grade schools throughout America are nearly 23,000,000 young girls and boys. These children eat food, wear out clothes, use soap. They are consumers today and will be the buyers of tomorrow. Here is a vast market for your products. Sell these children on your brand name and they will insist that their parents buy no other. Many farsighted advertisers are cashing in today … and building for tomorrow … by molding eager minds” through Project Education Material supplied to teachers. It added reassuringly: “all carrying sugar-coated messages designed to create acceptance and demand for the products …” In commenting on this appeal Clyde Miller, in his The Process of Persuasion explained the problem of conditioning the reflexes of children by saying, “It takes time, yes, but if you expect to be in business for any length of time, think of what it can mean to your firm in profits if you can condition a million or ten million children who will grow up into adults trained to buy your product as soldiers are trained to advance when they hear the trigger words ‘forward march.’ ”

One small phase of the seduction of young people into becoming loyal followers of a brand is seen in the fact that on many college campuses students can earn a part of their college expenses by passing among fellow students handing out free sample packages of cigarettes.

The potency of television in conditioning youngsters to be loyal enthusiasts of a product, whether they are old enough to consume it or not, became indisputable early in the fifties. A young New York ad man taking a marketing class at a local university made the casual statement that, thanks to TV, most children were learning to sing beer and other commercials before learning to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Youth Research Institute, according to The Nation, boasted that even five-year-olds sing beer commercials “over and over again with gusto.” It pointed out that moppets not only sing the merits of advertised products but do it with the vigor displayed by the most raptly enthusiastic announcers, and do it all day long “at no extra cost to the advertiser.” They cannot be turned off as a set can. When at the beginning of the decade television was in its infancy, an ad appeared in a trade journal alerting manufacturers to the extraordinary ability of TV to etch messages on young brains. “Where else on earth,” the ad exclaimed, “is brand consciousness fixed so firmly in the minds of four-year-old tots? … What is it worth to a manufacturer who can close in on this juvenile audience and continue to sell it under controlled conditions year after year, right up to its attainment of adulthood and full-fledged buyer status? It CAN be done. Interested?” (While the author was preparing this chapter he heard his own eight-year-old daughter happily singing the cigarette jingle: “Don’t miss the fun of smoking!”)

The relentlessness with which one TV sponsor tried to close in on preschool tots brought protests in late 1955. Jack Gould, TV columnist of The New York Times, expressed dismay at a commercial for vitamin pills that Dr. Francis Horwich, “principal” of TV’s Ding Dong School for preschool children, delivered. It seems she used the same studied tempo she used in chatting to children about toys and helping mother while she demonstrated how pretty the red pills were and how easy to swallow they were. She said she hoped they were taking the pills every morning “like I do,” and urged them to make sure the next time they visited a drugstore that their motherpicked out the right bottle. Gould commented: “To put it as mildly as possible, Dr. Horwich has gone a step too far in letting a commercial consideration jeopardize her responsibility to the young children whose faith and trust she solicits.” First, he pointed out, was the simple factor of safety. Small children should be kept away from pills of all kinds and certainly not be encouraged to treat them as playthings. A lot of different pills (including mama’s sleeping pills) can be pretty and red and easy to swallow, and after all prekindergarten children can’t read labels. Gould doubted whether TV had any business deciding whether tots do or do not need vitamin pills. He felt that a vitamin deficiency is better determined “by a parent after consultation with a physician” rather than a TV network. Finally, he observed, “Using a child’s credibility to club a parent into buying something is reprehensible under the best of circumstances. But in the case of a product bearing on a child’s health it is inexcusable.” Doctors wrote in commending. Gould for his stand; and a mother wrote that she found herself “appalled at the amount of commercialism our children are being subjected to.”

Mr. Gould’s complaints notwithstanding, the merchandisers sought to groom children not only as future consumers but as shills who would lead or “club” their parents into the salesroom. Dr. Dichter advised a major car maker to train dealer salesmen to regard children as allies rather than nuisances while demonstrating a car. The salesmen, instead of shoving them away, should be especially attentive to the kiddies and discuss all the mechanisms that draw the child’s attention. This, he said, is an excellent strategy for drawing the understanding permissive father into the discussion.

In late 1955 a writer for The Nation offered the opinion that the shrewd use of premiums as bait for kiddies could “mangle the parent’s usual marketing consideration of need, price, quality and budget.” He cited as one example General Electric’s offer of a sixty-piece circus, a magic-ray gun, and a space helmet to children who brought their parents into dealers’ stores to witness new GE refrigerators being demonstrated. Sylvania reportedly offered a complete Space Ranger kit with not only helmet but disintegrator, flying saucer, and space telephone to children who managed tocdeliver parents into salesrooms. And Nash cars offered a toy service station. This writer, Joseph Seldin, concluded: “Manipulation of children’s minds in the fields of religion or politics would touch off a parental storm of protest and a rash of Congressional investigations. But in the world of commerce children are fair game and legitimate prey.”

Herb Sheldon, TV star with a large following of children, offered this comment in 1956: “I don’t say that children should be forced to harass their parents into buying products they’ve seen advertised on television, but at the same time I cannot close my eyes to the fact that it’s being done every day.” Then he added, and this was in Advertising Agency magazine, “Children are living, talking records of what we tell them every day.”

Motivational analysts were called in to provide insights on the most effective ways to achieve an assured strong impact with children. Social Research got into this problem with a television study entitled “Now, for the Kiddies…” It found that two basic factors to be considered in children’s TV programs are filling the moppet’s “inner needs” and making sure the program has “acceptability” (i.e., appease Mom, for one thing, so that she won’t forbid the child to listen to it, which is an ever-present hazard). Social Research offered some psychological guideposts.

A show can “appeal” to a child, it found, without necessarily offering the child amusement or pleasure. It appeals if it helps him express his inner tensions and fantasies in a manageable way. It appeals if it gets him a little scared or mad or befuddled and then offers him a way to get rid of his fear, anger, or befuddlement. Gauging the scariness of a show is a difficult business because a show may be just right in scariness for an eight-year-old but too scary for a six-year-old and not scary enough for a ten-year-old.

Social Research diagnosed the appeal of the highly successful Howdy Doody and found some elements present that offered the children listening far more than childish amusement. Clarabelle, the naughty clown, was found consistently to exhibit traits of rebellious children. Clarabelle, it noted, “represents children’s resistance to adult authority and goes generally unpunished.” The report stated: “In general the show utilizes repressed hostilities to make fun of adults or depict adults in an unattractive light. The ‘bad’ characters (Chief Thunderthud, Mr. Bluster, Mr. X) are all adults. They are depicted either as frighteningly powerful or silly.” When the adult characters are shown in ridiculous situations, such as being all tangled up in their coats or outwitted by the puppets, the child characters in the show are shown as definitely superior. “In other words,” it explained, “there is a reversal process with the adults acting ‘childish’ and incompetent, and children being ‘adult* and clever.” It added that the master of ceremonies, Buffalo Bob, was more of a friendly safe uncle than a parent.

All this sly sniping at parent symbols takes place while Mother, unaware of the evident symbology, chats on the telephone content in the knowledge that her children are being pleasantly amused by the childish antics being shown electronically on the family’s wondrous pacifier. In turning next to the space shows the Social Research psychologists found here that the overall format, whether the show was set in the twenty-first century or the twenty-fourth, was: “Basic pattern of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad men’ with up-to-date scientific and mechanical trapping.” Note that it said bad men, not bad guys.

The good guys interestingly were found to be all young men in their twenties organized as a group with very strong team loyalty. The leader was pictured as a sort of older brother (not a father symbol). And the villains or cowards were all older men who might be “symbolic or father figures.” They were either bad or weak. Much of this fare might be construed as being anti-parent sniping, offering children an exhilarating, and safe, way to work off their grudges against their parents. “To children,” the report explained, “adults are a ‘ruling class’ against which they cannot successfully revolt.” The report confided some pointers to TV producers for keeping parents pacified. One way suggested was to take the parent’s side in such easy, thoughtful ways as having a character admonish junior to clean his plate. Another good way was to “add an educational sugar coating. Calling a cowboy movie ‘American history’ and a space show ‘scientific’ seems to be an effective way to avoid parental complaints.” A final hint dropped was: “Cater a little more to parents … The implication that children can be talked into buying anything … irritates parents. Slight changes along these lines can avoid giving offense without losing appeal for the children.”

Some of the United States product makers evidently solicit the favor of moppets by building aggressive outlets right into their products. Public-relations counsel and motivational enthusiast E. L. Bernays was reported asserting in 1954 that the most successful breakfast cereals were building crunch into their appeal to appease hostility by giving outlet to aggressive and other feelings. (He has served as a counsel to food groups.) The cereal that promises “pop-snap-crackle” when you eat it evidently has something of value to kiddies besides calories.

One aspect of juvenile merchandising that intrigued the depth manipulators was the craze or fad. To a casual observer the juvenile craze for cowboys or knights or Davy Crockett may seem like a cute bit of froth on the surface of American life. To fad-wise merchandisers such manifestations are largely the result of careful manipulation. They can be enormously profitable or disastrously unprofitable, depending on the merchandiser’s cunning. An evidence of how big the business can be is that the Davy Crockett craze of 1955, which gave birth to 300 Davy Crockett products, lured $300,000,000 from American pockets. Big persuasion indeed!

American merchandisers felt a need for a deeper understanding of these craze phenomena so that they could not only share in the profits, but know when to unload. Research was needed to help the manufacturers avoid overestimating the length of the craze. Many were caught with warehouses full of “raccoon” tails and buckskin fringe when, almost without warning, the Crockett craze lost its lure. One manufacturer said: “When they die, they die a horrible death.”

This problem of comprehending the craze drew the attention of such motivation experts as Dr. Dichter and Alfred Politz. And Tide magazine, journal of merchandisers, devoted a major analysis to the craze.

The experts studied the Crockett extravaganza as a case in point and concluded that its success was due to the fact that it had in good measure all of the three essential ingredients of a profitable fad: symbols, carrying device, and fulfilment of a subconscious need. The carrying device, and the experts agreed it was a superb one, was the song “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which was repeated in some form in every Disney show. Also it was richer in symbols than many of the fads: coonskin cap, fringed buckskin, flintlock rifle. Tide explained: “All popular movements from Christianity’s cross to the Nazis’ swastika have their distinctive symbols.” As for filling a subconscious need, Dr. Dichter had this to say of Crockett: “Children are reaching for an opportunity to explain themselves in terms of the traditions of the country. Crockett gave them that opportunity. On a very imaginative level the kids really felt they were Davy Crockett … ”

What causes the quick downfall of crazes? The experts said overexploitation was one cause. Another cause was sociological. Mr. Politz pointed out that crazes take a course from upper to lower. In the case of adult fads this means upper-income education groups to lower. In the case of children, Politz explained: “Those children who are leaders because of their age adopt the fad first and then see it picked up by the younger children, an age class they no longer wish to be identified with. This causes the older children deliberately to drop the fad.”

Both Politz and Dichter felt not only that with careful planning the course of fads could be charted to ensure more profits to everybody, but also that profitable fads could continually be created. Tide called this possibility “fascinating.” Dr. Dichter felt that with appropriate motivation research techniques a fad even of the Crockett magnitude could be started, once the promoters had found, and geared their fad to, an unsatisfied need of youngsters.

Politz felt that the research experts could certainly set up the general rules for creating a successful fad. In a bow to the professional persuaders of advertising he added that once the general rules are laid down, the “creative” touch is needed. Both he and Dr. Dichter agreed that this challenging task for the future-creating fads of the first magnitude for our children—is the combined job of the researcher and the creative man. ■