THE SECRET WORLD OF KIDDIE-CULT
Some breakfast cereals cost more than rib beef. So what? With a new tribe of TV cartoon characters leading the way, your children are taking over the economy
HI THERE, JESSICA, you cute little Toronto kid in your $50 silk embroidered party dress (now stained with Shake-A Pudd’n) that your Mom got you at Minou-Couturier For Girls in The Colonnade. You are just back from Shane’s birthday party and Shane's Mom got him a $59.98 Jungle Gym from Eaton's to help him keep his little muscles in tone, isn’t that nice. And you got a Dawk as a party favor, a Dawk being a little hippie figure with long purple hair, wearing sunglasses and sandals and holding one of two dozen interchangeable protest signs, in this case, IF IT'S HARD, WHY DO IT? Jessica — why are you starting to cry? Because Elsa Krammer said the Hands Down game you gave Shane was out, you should have got him this year’s game, the Kaboom game. And all the kids went and played the Mouse Trap game even though it’s outer than Hands Down, if that’s possible. Poor baby! You’ll just have to keep Mommy better informed. She doesn’t know what is going on. She’s not in the moppet market.
Jessica has oodles of company, though. There are nearly 4,500,000 Canadians between the ages of three and 12 — and that’s more than one out of every five Canadians. The moppet market is small fry — and big business. To start with, at least half of these youngsters get an allowance of at least 50 cents a week, which means that they spend personally at least $58,500,000 a year. Moreover, they exert a tremendous suggestive influence on their parents and are getting more precocious every year. A study indicates that they strongly influence one of every seven consumer dollars spent today. For instance, according to Gerry D. Robinson. president of Kellogg Co. of Canada Ltd., they are responsible for 70 percent of the sales of ready-to-eat cereal. They account for 13 percent of the sales of movie tickets. They often control the TV dial until bedtime, and if so much television seems to be aimed at the 10-year-old mind, that’s because it is. Says an advertising agency executive who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, “At this shop, if a program isn’t for kids, forget it.” One recent U. S. survey found that 94 percent of mothers were badgered by their children to buy products shown on TV. These kids are the ad agencies’ little helpers. They memorize commercial jingles and dialogue and parrot them all day long with enormous gusto. They are diehard naggers who have an incalculable say in the purchase of an astonishing variety of products from clock radios to insurance policies.
There is also a sort of secret moppet marketplace: a ghetto of kiddie entertainment on TV weekdays after school and Saturdays from 7.30 a.m. until after noon. Adults who venture into this mini-wasteland are befuddled by a yap gap and a tribe of strange new cartoon characters that whoop and holler around such familiar faces as Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny like Indians around a wagon train. The new heroes are native to TV; they owe nothing to the movies or radio. Back in the dark ages before television, such radio heroes as Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (“On, King. on. you huskies!”) and Jack Armstrong (played by Dick York, who later pleased kiddies again as the husband of a witch on TV) were dedicated to the conquest of evil, the titillation of children of all ages and the moving of cases of Grapenuts Flakes and Tootsie Rolls off grocery and confectionery shelves. It was a forthright business and the sell was hard. The radio would tell you to ask your Mom to get you a box of good hot Ralston today so you could send in two boxtops and be the first in your gang to get a Tom Mix Secret Decoder Ring. The new TV pitch is more accomplished, more subtle. The new TV heroes often make the pitch personally.
"My hero is Seadog.” says MaryAnn. who’s four, and Seadog happens to be Cap'n Crunch’s dog, and Cap'n Crunch is not only the name of a salty cartoon, it’s the name of a sugary cereal. Cartoon series and cartoon blurbs have somehow got all mixed up. “The commercials are better than the shows.” says Debbie Barkley, who is 12. But to adult eyes it’s hard to tell them apart: since imitation is the sincerest form of television, everything is pretty much of a blur. It’s a kids’ world, and the kids have picked up a whole new glossary of splendid trivia that will be campy nostalgia in 1992. Two tweets and one toot on Cap’n Crunch's bos'n’s whistle means: “Jiggers! Visitors!” The Rattler's nemesis is Cool McCool, who sounds like Jack Benny. Colonel Buzbee sounds like Paul Ford. Breezelv is a polar bear: the seal is, uh. Freezely or Sneezely? Punkin Puss chases Mushmouse on the cattoon successor to Tom and Jerry. That rabbit in the Trix commercials is an adult symbol (“Sorry, rabbit, Trix is for kids!”), but good old Bugs Bunny is a kid symbol in the Kool-Aid ads. always outsmarting Elmer (adult) Fudd. On the Frankenstein. Jr., show, those fellows with the moron-the-merrier expression are The Impossibles: Coil Man. Multi Man and Fluid Man. Who is Buz Conroy’s dog? Robar. Who wants to sell Magilla Gorilla? Who cares? The kids do. and they are taking over the world.
The moppet-market revolution started in 1955 when mass communications, mass marketing and the kiddie consumer all came of age together and launched Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. The Crockett phenomenon excited or exasperated most of us in passing, but hardly anybody knew what it meant. As far back as about 20 B.C. (Before Crockett) there were radio promotions of junky merchandise, and later there were TVinspired kiddie crazes — Hopalong Cassidy, for one, in 1950. But they were small / continued on page 34 potato chips. Sales of Crockett caps and other paraphernalia reached $150 million in the U.S. and maybe five million dollars in Canada (despite grumbles that Canuck woodland heroes were just as brave as Davy, and such viewings with alarm as an Alberta professor's remark that Crockett "works against Canadian cultural and
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literary development”). Because of its sheer enormity, the Crockett kick accomplished nothing less than a kind of emancipation of kiddie consumers. They were still kids, but they were no longer kid stuff. The Dad-why-can'tl-havc-a-hunting-knife set had arrived.
Melvin Helitzer, president of Helitzer Waring LaRosa, Inc., the first
U. S. advertising agency devoted entirely to the youth market (“We don’t use the terms ‘juvenile’ or ‘children’ because they have faintly unflattering connotations”) figures that $50 billion is spent yearly on and by 40 million U. S. subteeners. The Canadian figure is probably proportionate. Helitzer consults two child psychologists and
other experts to find out what makes kiddies tick. He even consults kiddies, who advise him indirectly that they don't like to feel stupid. He says the use of language is crucial. “ ‘OK’ used to mean great; now it means less than good. ‘Thousands’ means nothing to a child under 10, but ‘seven’ or ‘15’ they understand. They go for novelty ideas. We’ve found that a product costing 10 percent more than something comparable will sell if the 10 percent is used on a novelty package or a sales campaign that appeals to them. One of our accounts is a station wagon that will be on the market in two years with a special feature designed to appeal to kids. They arc also active in real estate. Kitchens used to be the big selling point in new houses. Now it’s playrooms and kiddies’ bedrooms.”
When it comes to cereals, the kiddies take direct action. They grab. A proliferation of pre - sweetened brands is stacked within toddlers’ reach on supermarket shelves and before a harried mother can say. “Cap’n Crunch,” her shopping cart is full of it. “The kids turn the packages over all the time to see what's inside.” says Edward Guest, the manager of a Toronto Loblaws. A clerk adds, “They throw whatever they want in the cart, and if Mom puts back the Honeycomb or the Coco Puffs there is a scene.” The cereal buyer for a large chain of food stores says the presweetened brands arc all overpriced — “but the parents just don’t care. They’ll buy whatever the kids want,
and the kids arc fickle little-. For
instance. Crispy Critters we don’t stock any more. There are four or five new ones every year.”
The new ones are designed and launched with all the care of prototype guided missiles. Post’s Honeycomb began with exhaustive market research on shapes and sizes — not of packages, but of flakes and puffs. Frank McGee, an account executive with Public Relations Services Ltd., explains, “Its size as opposed to some other, smaller pre-sweeteneds lent it to a much greater usage as a snack.” (Account execs really do talk this way.) The Quaker folks have been assiduously wooing the French-Canadian market. They translated Cap’n Crunch into Capitaine Crouche a couple of years ago, and sales in Quebec soared. Since then Quaker has made marketing history by designing a cereal especially for Quebec in terms of taste, crispness, sweetness, dimensions, color, degree of milk absorption and name (Tintin). The new brand is flourishing. Kellogg’s Apple Jacks has taken a good-sized bite of the U. S. and Canadian cereal market by alienating bullies. The campaign made it clear that Kellogg’s did ,not want to sell Apple Jacks to bullies. Non-bullies thought that was neat.
“Everybody hates bullies,” says W. A. Conway, the Canadian Kellogg marketing manager. “Even bullies hate bullies. The whole idea is that Apple Jacks keeps bullies away. The bullies come out the worse for wear when they tackle a little guy who has just had his Apple Jacks.”
What are all these esoteric labors for the almighty kidollar doing to our children? “There is a moral aspect about pitching at kids that i haven’t really considered,” says AI Guest, a Toronto animator whose work includes Kraft candy commercials. "Obviously, it's necessary to pitch to everybody, even dogs. But it's a tender subject. Maybe there’s a brilliant rationale ... I never thought about it.” Melvin Hclitzer rationalizes, “I don't want to sound Machiavellian. It's easy to take a blast at the youth market — enticing kids, washing your hands in blood. I guess you could interpret it that way. But it's a commercial world. A product that tries to appeal to a wider base is a better product. If you take a peanut-butter jar and make a bank out of it, that’s a better product. I've turned down clients on the basis that their product was inferior and they admitted it. 1 want to look everybody in the eye. A guy two years ago came in here with a chocolate-covered vitamin. We did a lot of research on it and found out it was just a candy. No deal.” Dr. M. F. Grapko, acting director of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study, is wary of generalizing about the effects on children of a barrage of television commercials. “The ad agencies overrate their function,” he says. “A great deal of advertising simply familiarizes the product. We feel more at home with a familiar product, as with familiar friends. This is especially true of children.” But, if familiarity breeds content, kids are getting pretty sophisticated about television advertising. “The chances of a child dismissing a commercial increase as the commercial people continue to exaggerate or distort. For instance, discontinuity is attention-getting at first, but eventually something like an elephant without a trunk is merely incongruous.”
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Dr. Grapko says the worst commercials use aggression and other ancillary gimmicks that exploit the childparent relationship. Some commercials are contrived to make the adult seem stupid; others undermine communication. “The parent tries to use logic and finds it doesn't fit in with the emotional hook that has occurred.” He says the most effective commercials “become a game, a subject of thought and conversation later."
What if, sometime around 1984, commercials became extremely effective and the world turned into a great big chocolate - flavored corn puff? “Children arc very flexible,” says Dr. Grapko. “They are not easily intimidated. If they were, many of our rearing policies would be damaging. They bounce back. Their emotions are short-term. They cry and then they laugh and we can't believe they’re sincere. But they are.” Besides, parents can still protect their offspring through discipline. “Our two girls are eight and 12,” says Dr. Grapko. “We limit their television viewing to the weekend. We permit them a maximum of one hour, and we provide some choice. It’s usually Friday night, though. Saturday morning is just too precious a time for a kid to be sitting in front of the TV.”
Most kids spend as much time as they possibly can before die tube - 24 hours a week, on average. Three would-be hard-core watchers are Barbara, Robin and David Hannah (11, six and five years old. respectively) of Toronto, children of Dr. anil Mrs. W. J. Hannah and the grandchildren of Prime Minister and Mrs. Lester Pearson. Mrs. Hannah (née Patricia Pearson) says, "They don’t watch too
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much because I police it rather carefully. The little ones watch cartoons, and they were crazy about Tarzan until I put my foot down. It's a terrible program — full of violence. They watch Batman and Walt Disney. David associates himself with Batman and he starts flinging himself around after seeing the show. What's more,
he wanted all the Batman equipment.” Another former Tarzan fan is Caitlin Lawrence (age 4'/2), granddaughter of Governor General Roland Michener. "It frightened her and she began to have nightmares afterward,” says her mother, Wendy Lawrence. Caitlin likes Batman and all the cartoons that she can watch. And she
asks her mother to buy Cap’n Crunch.
Pierre Berton has four subteeners: Peter, 12, Paul, nine. Peggy Anne, six. and Perri, who is three. Perri, loyal to the core, watches her father most evenings on Hamilton’s CHCHTV and greets him with, "Here comes Pierre Berton.” The rest of the kids watch everything, except soap opera. Peggy Anne recently said. "Oh. Dolly, you have broken my heart," and Janet Berton cut out the soaps. She says, “I figure that, ordinarily speaking, anything on TV isn't going to hurt them, that it's already been censored to a certain extent.”
Bob Blackburn, a Toronto TV columnist, has two girls under 12, neither of whom is allowed to watch westerns or any of the evening shows. Both girls like cartoons and any shows with animals. Elizabeth — she's seven — has decided that she can't stand commercials. But Roxanne, five, loves
them all and recites slogans and sings jingles to her mother when they are shopping. Pam Blackburn has come
up with a viable way to prevent squabbles over the TV dial: when
there’s a dispute about what her
daughters want to watch, she switches off the set.
The lure of television has not kept children away from other media. No indeed. Juvenile hooks, for instance, are booming. “The children’s-book field is the most profitable and exciting in the industry,” says Hugh Kane, executive vice-president and general manager, McClelland and Stewart. "Sales of children's hooks are an everincreasing percentage of the whole.” Rock ’n’ roll record sales are also jumping among subteeners. "The whole crazy pop-music business has moved down from the teenagers to the eight-to-12 set,” says F. T. Wilmot, Columbia Records’ vice-prcsident of sales. “These kids have got money to burn.”
Irwin Specialties Ltd., which calls itself Canada’s largest toy manufacturer (so does Reliable Toy Co. Ltd.), hopes that they'll burn some of it on a new portable tape recorder fitted out with story and pop-music cartridges. The junior model w'ill cost $23. "It should sell.” says vice-president Mac Irw'in. “The cheapest kiddie record player goes for $19.95 and it has no tone and no volume control." Irw'in describes the Canadian kiddie consumer as “a pretty sophisticated little guy.” To reach him. Irwin Specialties uses an IBM 360 computer programmed to select the best TV spots in 52 markets across Canada — more than 500 commercials a day for such hot items as Captain Action (“Zap! Can become any one of II favorite Super Heroes!”), the Iliya Kuryakin Gun Set and Wham-0 Zillion Bubbles (“Remember the Hula-Hoop!!! Well. Wham-0 has done it again with Zillion Bubbles”), a successor to the bubble pipe. Retail toy sales in Canada will reach anything from $80 million to $ 180million this year, depending on whom you ask among the 1 17 toy companies in Canada, most of which make toys from U.S. molds under license. There’s never been an all-Canadian Wham-0 success story in the toy business.
Disney: the craze-maker
The late Walt Disney was the great craze-maker. Two Disney TV shows begat Crockett, and when Crockett went down it was at the sword of Zorro, another of Disney's resurrected heroes. Canadian kids bought 72,000 chalk-tipped plastic swords in 1956-57 and slashed the terrible Z symbol on school blackboards coast to coast. Mickey Mouse peaked in 1957-58 during the original run of the Mickey Mouse Club (“M-I-C — See ya real soon! — K-F.-Y — Why? Because we like you!”). The mouse had nine lives on network TV and is still in syndication. More than 10,000 plastic Mousegetars were sold in Canada last year. Disney movies generated new crazes. Mary Poppins aprons arc still de rigueur among little girls who like to bake little cakes, and the first of a projected series of Winnie the Pooh films has made Pooh plush toys and clothes today's bear necessities. At Christmas the Disney organization will launch a movie based on Kipling's Jungle Books, at which time young Won’t-go-to-bedley can be counted on to commence crying for a new line of plush bears, apes, wolves and vultures, story books, records, comics, cutouts, puzzles, jungle games, squeeze toys, ceramics . . .
Still, the upcoming jungle craze probably won't catch Crockett. That’s a funny thing — among people in the trade, the 1955 exploitation of the Crockett legend is already legend. In New York, Mel Helitzer gets a very nostalgic note in his voice — as if he were talking about vaudeville or something — when he recalls “the days when a stray cat had to worry about cars, dogs and coonskin-cap manufacturers.” And in Toronto, Clem Saila, Disney’s merchandising representative in Canada, who is said to
have a mind like a steel trap, gets a soft look as he thinks back to that wild frontier of the moppet market and says solemnly. "Crockett was bigger even than Mickey Mouse.” Saila believes that the Crockett craze was so big that it collapsed under its own weight, so big that it undermined later crazes by inducing great expectations. "Batman was very big two years ago,” he says. "Now retailers are stuck with all sorts of Batman merchandise.” And Crockett
could have been even bigger. “It went down partly because of the smaller companies who had no business being in it but for a buck they would. Quality control went out the window.” They started making caps out of anything that moved and. finally, nylon, wool and cardboard. The cardboard caps retailed for 29 cents. It was a skin game. Greedy fools had rushed in and killed the coon that laid the golden egg.
That sort of stuff couldn’t happen
again. “Crockett caught us by surprise." says Saila. “Now we keep tight control — we've got the Pooh campaign all tied up. I hope Pooh goes on forever. The Disney organization will release chunks of the story and keep making sequels.” Saila gets a soft look again. "I guess Crockett was the biggest thing that ever happened in merchandising. It broke in the heat of summer, you know, and it was hot, hot. but they were all out there in those coonskins." ★