During Tuesday's debate, Al Gore promised to "give parents the tools to protect their children against cultural pollution."
The vice president was clearly alluding to recent Federal Trade Commission findings that entertainment companies routinely market R-rated fare to children. But the problem goes way deeper than that. Whether they are trying to sell ketchup or lip gloss, marketers are constantly whispering to children to grow up fast. And a lot of parents, devoted to their children's empowerment, don't seem to be getting too excited about it.
It's known as "aspirational advertising" - appealing to people through images of what they wish they were - and a quick visit to the mall makes it clear that marketers believe what girls, at any rate, want to be is an 18-year-old starlet on the make. Snakeskin pants, belly shirts, faux leopard jackets and bikini underwear are this season's offerings for little girls. New kid clothing lines are just as clear a sign of the symbiotic relationship between the clothing and entertainment industries as the celebrity face on this month's Harper's Bazaar.
Consider One Clothing, whose fashion, according to the company's president as quoted in Women's Wear Daily, is based on the notion that "girls want to dress sexy and dress like the stars they see on television." Or there's No Boundaries, with a label that sports a sultry young thing whose interest in breaking boundaries appears to be more on the order of Madonna than Marion Jones. Or how about the marvelously titled Self-Esteem, a new Los Angeles concern offering to improve a young girl's self-confidence by selling her "the trendy styles her big sister would wear"?
Aspirational marketing is nothing new. Toy companies have been promoting Suzy Homemaker kitchen appliances and Burp-Me baby dolls for girls who aspired to be like Mom since the industry itself was in its infancy. And it was way back in 1959, when Mattel introduced that vamp named Barbie, that the industry announced itself ready to redefine the aspirational model as teenagers - independent, sexy, and with pockets full of baby-sitting and paper-route money, ready to shop till they dropped.
But the teening of childhood began in earnest only a little over a decade ago. That was when marketers first noted that with the dramatic changes in domestic life, brought about by single-parent homes, working mothers, and a new philosophy of child empowerment, kids as young as 8 were making a lot of the household and clothing-purchasing decisions once left to the housewife. They even developed a term for these new consumer prodigies, calling them "tweens," a nod to their teenage aspiration.
Jordache Jeans was one of the first companies to spy the trend, and they celebrated it by releasing an R-rated TV ad campaign with denim-clad youngsters musing along the lines of "Have you ever seen your parents naked?"
Though the ad led to a storm of complaints and was ultimately pulled, tween marketing, with its edgy appeal to children's longing to assert their independence and ape their ripe older siblings - "We know how to be cool. We have our own ideas," goes one ad for Bonnie Bell cosmetics for girls, "And make our own decisions. Watch out for us." - has become so commonplace as barely to invite notice. Aspirational age marketing with its hip, savvy youngsters has spread from fashion to Heinz ketchup, to Kodak cameras and even Ford Explorers.
And as tweens have become such a familiar persona on the cultural landscape, marketers are increasingly focusing on pretweens (teeny tweens?), claiming that these younger kids aspire to be like tweens (who already aspire to be like teens) in their taste for clothes, music and video games.
It's all part of what marketers, feigning I-didn't-have-anything-to-do-with-it innocence, call KGOY - kids getting older younger. Gail Stern of the supposedly kid-friendly Nickelodeon says the company has plans to "age-up and fashion-up" its current fashion lines so that 4- and 5-year-olds can dress with no boundaries. Meanwhile, Burger King promotes the Backstreet Boys with their Happy Meals. And a VP of marketing for Disney/ABC Cable Networks promises, "It's not your little brother's Disney anymore!"
Only two weeks ago, protests from parents caused NBC to drop a Nike ad from the family-friendly Olympics involving a masked man with a chainsaw and a woman about to get into a bathtub. Yet most parents don't get too excited by in-your-face promotions of lip gloss and cameras.
This is a mistake, for the marketing of R-rated violence and aspirational ads are inextricably related. A 10-year-old in an Abercrombie tank-top listens to Britney Spears and watches MTV and Dawson's Creek, two venues mentioned in the FTC report. Naturally, she wouldn't be caught dead going to a G-rated movie, as film companies, who have been rumored to add a four-letter word or two to a picture threatened with the dreaded rating, have discovered. When she happens on to an ad for I Know What You Did Last Summer when she is flipping through Cosmo Girl, can parents really complain? That's KGOY for you.