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t is a midsummer day, about one o’clock, at the midtown Manhattan power-lunch landmark Oceana. The dining room conveys the quiet, streamlined elegance of a stateroom on a luxury liner, the ideal backdrop for the muted, intent conversations that typically take place here. It is not unusual to spend upward of one hundred dollars per person for lunch at Oceana, but the typical guest does not pay out of her own pocket for meals here. This is a place where executives capitalize on their corporate tabs to lay the unofficial foundations for deals that will be inked in boardrooms later. On this particular day, a man who is one of the premier kids’ marketers in the United States is perusing the restaurant’s tasting menu. An executive who has been in the field for more than twenty years and done business with Mattel, Hasbro, and Procter & Gamble, he clearly finds this a comfortable milieu; indeed, it is one of his favorite lunch haunts. For the purposes of my conversation with him, he does not want his name divulged. If the details of what he is about to discuss were attributed to him in print, he chuckles, he “would most likely end up being forced to testify about them in a Senate subcommittee.” His tone is calculatedly offhand, but he is serious about the inflammatory nature of the issue on the table. He is here to discuss how marketers target ba-

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bies and toddlers as customers. It is, he admits, very controversial to market to such a young group, and most marketers and advertising agencies will tell you they don’t do it. But don’t believe them, he says: they do. The executive tells me that the moment a baby can see clearly, she becomes a consumer. What he calls the “mini-me” phenomenon encourages children to be brand sensitive at an early age. Today’s infants are crawling and toddling billboards for America’s big brand names, he says, citing the successful business strategies of the Gap and Nike to expand their adult apparel lines to hip clothing for babies and toddlers. Furthermore, he says, all developmental milestones of early life are punctuated by brand names. Babies don’t travel in plain old strollers; they ride in Maclarens, Graycos, or high-end Bugaboos. Their car seats have Eddie Bauer labels. Their nipples are Nuks, their bottles are Playtex or Avent. Their diapers are Huggies with Disney’s Winnie the Pooh or Pampers with Sesame Street characters. He maintains that as soon as a baby or toddler points to McDonald’s Golden Arches, the “brand request” is born: words aren’t required. Even supermarket managers are becoming aware of toddlers’ influence as consumers. At many chains, products for toddlers are placed at their eye level; the child simply grabs the box and hands it to mom, who drops it into the shopping cart. The kids’ marketing consultant points out that today’s babies and toddlers spend more time in preschool or daycare than they ever have in the past, either because their upper-middle-class parents worry about “socializing” an only child or because both have jobs. The result, from a marketer’s point of view, is that even a toddler is developing a public persona. Peer pressure, a prime medium for marketing to children, starts earlier than ever. But if the executive were forced to name the single most powerful force in targeting toddlers as a market? Easy, he says: television. Sesame Street may have started the revolution in what he calls “toddler TV,” but that show is scrambling to keep its place now. In fact, toddler television has made it possible to calibrate market segments to one-year intervals. It’s Teletubbies for one-year-olds, Blue’s

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Clues for twos, Barney for threes. If you talk about marketing to babies or toddlers, you are “seen as evil,” he says, but so-called educational television for little children wears what he calls an “acceptability halo.” A marketer who establishes “educational credit” can get away with anything.

The Birth of a Baby Culture In the majority of American households with children between the ages of zero and three years old, popping in a baby video or flicking on the TV set to a preschool program is as mundane a routine as tooth brushing or bath time. It is not so much a parenting decision as a national reflex. Such videos and TV programs are marketed as educational for babies and toddlers, and it is generally accepted that on some level they are educational. Noggin, a cable channel for preschoolers, touts its tag line: “It’s Like Preschool on TV.” There’s little reason to question that claim. The channel was started as a joint venture of Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop, both trustworthy institutions. Many preschoolers have mastered mousing skills by their second birthday, and the Web sites of their favorite shows have games and activities for toddlers. The term “preschooler” is understood by many sources, including the Nielsen ratings, to refer to two- to five-year-olds; some include eighteenmonth-olds in that category. Elitists may find it tacky, but few Americans — and not just parents of very young children — register it as unusual that at chain bookstores, discount behemoths such as Wal-Mart, and libraries, many of the most popular books for infants and toddlers are based on licensed television characters or snack foods, such as General Mills’ Cheerios or Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish. Few eyebrows are raised when daycare chains and even pre-K programs adopt curricula based on TV characters, with their licensed cartoon likenesses emblazoned on posters, books, videos, take-home handouts, coloring books, and other materials marketed as educational. Many of these programs are produced in collaboration

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with Scholastic, a company whose reputation is synonymous with education. There is little reason to question the claims by makers of baby toys and equipment that their products “stimulate” babies’ cognitive abilities with blinking lights or classical music. The packaging explains why such features are educational, and parents are sure that they read or saw something that an expert said about them. In any case, most people buy these products because that’s what is on the market. The world of infants and toddlers did not look like this even fifteen years ago. Babies and toddlers were generally used by the media only as stars in daytime television commercials. (Enter the wobbly tot, lurching around the house as a frazzled mother follows with a roll of paper towels and a happy, defeated smile for her irresistible little monster.) Mothers were the target consumers. Very young children were simply considered too young to grasp basic advertising pitches; moreover, the industry generally viewed pushing products on little children as unethical. But much has changed in a very short time. Until very recently, for example, “preschooler” referred to four- and five-year-olds; those younger than three were considered babies or toddlers. Today the “zeroto-three” market has become the first segment in “cradle-to-grave” marketing, representing more than $20 billion a year. Selling to this age group is a rapidly growing industry manned by a battalion of specialized and sophisticated advertising firms; child psychology researchers, often funded by companies interested in building a consumer base of very young children; and cross-marketing campaigns that deliberately intertwine educational messages with subtle commercial ploys. As the zero-to-three market has grown, so has a popular culture revolving around babies and toddlers. It includes formal classes and school (gymnastics, music, art, academics), the use of machines previously reserved for adults and older kids (computers, VCRs, TV, DVRs, cell phones, digital cameras), and rigorous schedules to ensure that every moment offers an opportunity to “learn.” The emergence of the zero-to-three market has, both directly and indirectly, compelled the toy, food, and apparel industries, as well as every

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major media conglomerate, to reconfigure their long-term marketing strategies. Brand recognition starts much earlier than one might think. Marketing studies show that children can discern brands as early as eighteen months; by twenty-four months they ask for products by brand name. In fact, a study conducted in 2000 found that brands wield as much influence on two-year-olds as they used to on children of five and up. Nearly two-thirds of the mothers interviewed for the study reported that their children asked for specific brands before the age of three, while one-third said their kids were aware of brands at age two or earlier. Brands that kids knew best included Cheerios, Disney, McDonald’s, Pop-Tarts, Coke, and Barbie. The phenomenon of cradle-to-grave marketing can, in some ways, be seen as the ultimate, inevitable step in the phenomenon that kids’ marketers have long referred to as KGOY: Kids Getting Older Younger. Since the 1980s, marketers have been refining ways of mining the ’tween market: children between the ages of six and eleven. This age group has always been brand-conscious, but as one longtime marketer put it, “It’s dribbled down” to even younger children. But how has this happened, and why?

No Special Talents In the late 1990s, a New York Times Magazine feature article titled “TestTube Moms” marveled at what had become “a neurotic national pastime”: “raising a scientifically correct child.” If any one event triggered this neurosis, it was the Clintons’ 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, later famously referred to as the “brain conference.” With the goal of impressing on both Congress and the public the importance of funding early-child-care programs, the conference called on neurobiologists and experts in the field of early childhood development to explain how the brain grows during the first three years of life. Presenters emphasized that the brain develops more rapidly, and makes more significant connections, in these

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years than it ever will again. A massive public relations campaign bolstered by celebrities, most notably Rob Reiner, echoed the importance of the years from zero to three, and the campaign was publicized by all the major press outlets. Within a month of the conference, the Baby Einstein Company was founded by Julie Aigner-Clark, a stay-at-home mother of a toddler. Aigner-Clark launched an educational video series for babies with $18,000 of her own savings, seed money for a business that she, having paid attention to timing and cultural trends, had good reason to believe would take off. Aigner-Clark saw that Baby Boomers were having their first children later and were applying the well-known yuppie drive to baby-rearing. Products that promised to stimulate early literacy — such as giant earphones designed to straddle pregnant bellies — had been hot for a few years. Generation-X women were now starting to have babies, too, and were bringing some of their technology know-how to lap time, spawning a new category of software for babies called lapware. Also, they had grown up watching Sesame Street and were comfortable using television as a babysitter. The Mozart Effect, though ultimately debunked, was more or less accepted as fact in the popular culture. Of course, Aigner-Clark knew about the brain conference. She also noted that for this generation of new mothers, taking a shower or making a grilled cheese sandwich had become a high-stakes proposition. The new mom felt it was not an option to leave her baby in his cradle while she bathed or prepared a meal; the baby required stimulation, entertainment, or soothing. Aigner-Clark tapped a real gold vein with the title of her company. Although she would later insist that she “honestly had no idea what a great marketing name it was,” Baby Einstein is widely regarded as one of the most ingenious product names in marketing history. It was inspired, Aigner-Clark says, by a remark attributed to Albert Einstein: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Highlighting babies’ natural passionate curiosity, the company’s publicity materials and public statements insist that its products are not genius-makers but

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are grounded solely in the principle that “every moment of every day in these early years is an opportunity for discovery.” But it is clear that the reason the company name has worked so well is that Einstein is famous for his genius as a scientist, not for his emotional temperament. Similarly, the other historical namesakes in the Baby Einstein pantheon — Babies Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Galileo, da Vinci, and Newton — are creative geniuses. The obvious genius of the company name is the power of its suggestion: parents implicitly understand the insinuation that their babies can be made smarter or more creative by watching these videos. It is not surprising that Aigner-Clark had a hit on her hands. She could have walked away after a year or so with a profit of well over six figures and the satisfaction of achieving the postfeminist All by making a bundle from a fulfilling, home-based business. But her timing was more than good. In just five years, she sold the Baby Einstein Company to the Walt Disney Company for an estimated $25 million. AignerClark nailed the zeitgeist completely. Some people in kids’ marketing suggest that Aigner-Clark played the wholesome milkmaid for effect. She knew she had a cash cow, and she milked it dry. If this is true, her act is almost scandalously good. But she does not seem like a steamroller executive, nor is she unsophisticated — she’s smart and savvy. Moreover, she seems genuinely nice (though she works at home, she frets that she sees even less of her children than if she worked outside because she is compulsively drawn to her office). There is nothing out of the ordinary in this. In fact, her whole comportment seems utterly ordinary — which, in a sense, makes it still stranger. One has the impression, in talking with her, that she feels like Luke Skywalker after the fluky, fateful pull of the trigger that detonated the Death Star’s central nerve: How did I do it? Did I do it, or was the Force with me? A hint of supernatural awe crept into the title of a speech Aigner-Clark gave at a marketing conference in a recent year: “Can Lightning Strike Twice? The Personal Quest to Find a Sequel to Baby Einstein.” The title was poignant. It suggests that she credits fate for the

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success of her product rather than herself. She had, without a doubt, deliberately walked out into the field on a rainy day, but she hadn’t known that the weather patterns that afternoon would make it the rainy day. Furthermore, finding a sequel to Baby Einstein misses the point. Its impact has been so profound that it is hard to discern where the product ends and the culture of early childhood in America now begins.

Allegiance to a Brand Baby Einstein and the raft of imitators it spawned helped transform the culture by addressing a seemingly simple issue. As People magazine wrote in 2000, in a piece marveling at the self-made millionaire mom, “It’s one of life’s great mysteries: How did parents of toddlers eat dinner in peace before videos? Julie Aigner-Clark, thirty-three, founder of the Baby Einstein Company, can’t answer that — but she has helped moms and dads feel less guilty about their VCR habit.” It is remarkable to think of it today, but Aigner-Clark was the first person to broker the merger of what now seem like two relatively obvious ideas: that a video or TV program can be a good baby toy and that a well-designed toy might boost a baby’s brain power. In a decade, this convergence has, perhaps permanently, transformed the everyday experiences of all but the most insulated American children between the ages of zero and three. This merger has caused a major shift in the child-rearing style and core beliefs of the majority of American parents, cutting across social and economic boundaries. It is not just that more babies and toddlers watch TV, videos, and DVDs, though they certainly do. It is estimated that nearly 30 percent of American homes in which young children live own a Baby Einstein video. According to Disney market research, Baby Einstein has 82 percent brand awareness. Three out of four pregnant women say they are “likely to buy Baby Einstein products.” In a groundbreaking 2003 study of the media habits of America’s children under six, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that more than half of the parents surveyed believed that educational TV and baby videos

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such as those produced by Baby Einstein were “very important” to their babies’ intellectual development. President George W. Bush underscored this widely held conviction in his 2007 State of the Union address, commending Aigner-Clark for “represent[ing] the great enterprising spirit of America.” Perhaps because of the belief that a video can raise their babies’ IQ, or can at least be “educational,” more than a quarter of American children under the age of two have a television in their room, in spite of an appeal by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under two not watch television at all. On a typical day, 61 percent of children six months to twenty-three months watch television; by age three, 88 percent do. The median time that children from zero to three spend watching some form of media on the screen is slightly under two hours — about as much time as they spend playing outside and about three times as much time as they spend being read to. What might be called the baby genius phenomenon — the widely held notion that infants and toddlers can be made smarter via exposure to the right products and programs — has spread throughout the toy industry. Today, to be competitive in the baby and toddler business, a toymaker’s products must encourage “learning,” or at least claim that they do. The fastest-growing segment of the $3.2 billion infant and preschool toy business is represented by “educational” products, which are advertised as stimulating babies’ and toddlers’ cognitive abilities. Indeed, the demand for such playthings has completely transformed the toy industry. It has helped catapult dot-com-era start-ups such as LeapFrog into the major leagues and drastically shifted the business strategies of longtime players such as Mattel’s Fisher-Price and Hasbro’s PlaySkool. Wholesale buyers, who follow no educational guidelines in their decisions, are governed only by how they believe customers will respond to packaging claims. It is now standard for anyone marketing to very young children and their families to make certain that his product — and brand — wears what the kids’ marketing executive called an educational “halo.” As he said at Oceana, if you can get educational credit, you can pretty much get away with anything.

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The end game is getting a customer. Just two years after Baby Einstein’s launch, network and cable television began to produce shows for toddlers because they saw a chance to hook kids to their channels early on. Asked why so many cable channels were diving into the preschool market, Nick Jr.’s top executive, Brown Johnson, said, “It’s about building allegiance to a brand.”

KGOY This book looks at the development of what has become the youngest segment in American youth culture. This is not a culture, clearly, that babies and toddlers invented, but rather one constructed by parents, child-care providers, television, and marketers. The effects of this culture on young children are surprising, sometimes shocking, and profound — though academic and marketing researchers alike are only beginning to understand just how deeply the effects run, or even precisely what they are. They are rarely what they seem. To some extent, this is an examination of what marketers call “age compression” or KGOY. Although the nuances are slightly different — the first implies that adults apply the force, the second shrugs that kids getting older younger is an inevitable consequence of living in our times — they both refer to the fact that today’s grade-school children are dealt with the way teenagers were ten or more years ago, and so on down the age scale. Both phenomena, which date back at least to the 1920s in the United States, have been consciously manufactured and maintained by marketers. Since the beginnings of what is generally considered the American youth culture — that point where the media and children’s public lives intersect — KGOY has been a source of parental alarm as well as a business opportunity. Parents have always rebelled against the commercialization of their children initially, but over time they, the children, and, ultimately, American society, internalize the new standard of KGOY as the social norm. Anyone on its periphery is considered quaint, odd, or rigid. KGOY is the ever-changing heart of American youth culture.

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