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The Entertainment/Marketing/Exploitation Relationship: Two Takes

Buzz Potamkin reviews two new books: What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids by Dan S. Acuff and The Business of Children's Entertainment by Norma Odom Pecora.

If you're a regular reader of AWM and/or a ceaseless toiler in the bowels of our beloved industry, and you've taken the time to read this review, then most likely you're already aware that the sine qua non of animation these days is filthy lucre. And most of that comes from, passes through, or is caused by what J. M. Barrie called the cruelest creatures - in other words, kids, those loving little tykes who hold in their hands the future of civilization. While not news to us, this Entertainment/Marketing/Exploitation relationship is viewed as a recently evolved predicament by the wider society - the civilians who wind up paying for it. The result has been a rash of books on what to us seems to be the obvious: the symbiotic bonding of entertaining kids with marketing to them. These books have such catchy titles as Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, by Gary Cross, (Harvard University Press); Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them, by G. Wayne Miller, (Times Books/Random House); What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids, by Dan S. Acuff (with Robert H. Reiner), (Free Press); and The Business of Children's Entertainment, by Norma Odom Pecora, (Guilford). Still awake? What do these books have in common, other than a predilection to use colons in their titles? Well, two of them are by academics, and another is by two Ph.D.s, so I guess we should be proud that we've come to attract such attention. Plus, they all sell for between U.S. $25 and $30, considerably more than most of the toys, etc., that they lovingly explore. I've read two of them (Acuff and Pecora), and it's the differences that make them interesting.

A Down-To-Earth Text What Kids Buy is a fascinating book. Acuff details in a very informative and breezy style his explicit approach to creating for and selling to kids. Anybody who can write this sort of marketing treatise and quote sources as disparate as Piaget, Erikson, Santayana, Keats, James Baldwin, and Stephen Vincent Benet deserves our thanks - and our attention. Unlike most books from "inside the kid biz," this one does not presume the reader is incapable of understanding complex realities, nor does it treat a very serious subject in the "rah-rah" style of so many marketing books. Both Acuff and Reiner (his colleague) have studied the emotional, intellectual and physical growth patterns of children, and their knowledge shows. They take what all too many people judge to be a simple monolithic market (Kids) and break it down into five component parts: birth through 3, 3 through 7, 8 through 12, 13 through 15, and 16 through 19. To anyone who has wondered why certain types of humor, adventure and character seem to "work" for one age but not another, their insight into age and gender delineate the differences in a clear and concise manner, even if the accompanying lists do run mind-numbingly long in a few places. Furthermore, unlike many apologists for the toy business, they acknowledge that all of us do have a societal responsibility to kids; they pull no punches in criticizing properties that do not serve the best interests of kids (disempowering vs. empowering), mainly for glorifying violence.

Here's Another Story... The Business of Children's Entertainment is a different story. I approached reading this book with great expectations: it's "a masterful work" (Prof. Henry Giroux quoted on the dust jacket), and "a sharply focused road map" (David W. Kleeman, also from the dust jacket). I really wanted to like it. Don't you want people to understand your industry, in the same way you understand other industries from afar? I was sadly disappointed. Not surprisingly, this "serious" book takes us to task in a denunciation that is filled with righteous indignation and concern for the exploitation of children. For that, I was prepared. Disdain for our work and criticism of industry methods is old news in academic circles, combining to form an immense monomyth that is nearly impossible to dislodge. So while I was prepared for the content, I was not prepared for the form. This book is a volume of The Guilford Communications Series, and is therefore presumably intended for the text book market. (According to the publisher's web site, the book "[s]erves as a supplementary text in courses on mass media and society, media management, media economics, and in education courses that look at popular culture.") In that case, we got major problems. Anyone in our industry who reads this book will be struck by its off-hand use of mis-information. When I read it, I filled seven pages with notes of incorrect or incomplete facts and assertions, which range from the ridiculous to the sublime, and my notes are far from complete. (One brief example: " the early 1980s, ... cable was available to less than 8% of the television households...." [pg. 161] According to figures from the research mavens at the National Cable Television Museum, by 1981 cable subscribers were at least 20% of all TV households, and cable was available to at least 35%. The difference between 8% and 35% is significant.) And, at a time when many of the major participants in this industry are more than willing to discuss their work with anyone who shows an honest interest, the majority of Pecora's sources (and there is a 15 page list of References) are either the "trades," mass media magazines and newspapers, or advertising hand-outs - not exactly the best sources for factual information in an industry well known for hyperbole. As far as I can tell, there is only one primary source interview, and no cited correspondence with anyone else inside the industry. Nor is there any reference to direct contact with Nielsen Media Research - surely the major source of raw data when it comes to viewing patterns and ratings, and especially important when one considers the impact on the kids numbers (in the late 1980s) of the change in ratings methodology. We should all be concerned that this pastiche will serve as the "standard work" for understanding the Kids business. I can already hear politicians looking for an easy "hit" quoting chapter and verse from Pecora, not to mention media critics, editorial writers, and journalists. Surely we deserve better. What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids, by Dan S. Acuff (with Robert H. Reiner), New York, NY: Free Press, 1997. 206 pages. ISBN: 0684834480 (U.S. $28 hardcover). The Business of Children's Entertainment, by Norma Odom Pecora, Guilford Press, 1997. 190 pages. ISBN:1572302801 (U.S. $30 hardcover). Buzz Potamkin is an award-winning independent producer, best known for The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. Before he escaped L.A. for New York, he had been president of Southern Star Prods and then executive vice president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.