Flap Over Kid Ads May Kill Upfront

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Assaults on children’s advertising are generating serious concern among advertisers that the current kids upfront market might well be the last.
Jon Mandel, the vocal co-CEO and chief global buying officer for MediaCom-one of the biggest buyers in the $750 million kids advertising market-last week told TelevisionWeek that moves in Washington that threaten to curtail or eliminate advertising to children were taking precedence with his clients over making media plans and haggling over costs per thousand.
“The issue of is Nick going to sell three dollars more than last year is really not what we and our clients are focusing on right now,” Mr. Mandel said just days after children’s TV leader Nickelodeon presented its plans for the 2004-05 season. “There are much bigger issues going on that are absolutely frightening. I mean this might be the last upfront for kids. It might be the end of kids.”
Interest groups have begun hitting Washington, claiming that children’s television-and the products advertised during kids shows-promote obesity.
Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified to the Senate earlier this month that kids spent four hours a day watching the tube and that contributes to making them fat. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged Congress that only good foods should be allowed to advertise on TV to children and that a government agency should come up with list of good and bad foods.
No Ads for Under-8 Crowd
At the same time, the American Psychological Association released a report calling for a ban on all advertising aimed at children 8 and under because those children fail to understand the role of advertising.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the focus on advertising, and in particular children’s advertising, has not been this intense since the 1970s,” said Daniel Jaffe, executive VP of the American Association of National Advertisers. In the ’70s, the Federal Trade Commission considered bans on ads selling sugary foods to children, but the agency was reeled in by Congress.
The issue has “come back with a vengeance now, and there’s a great deal of pressure, and groups like the American Psychological Association are saying there should be no advertising for kids under 8,” Mr. Jaffe said.
“That issue would probably have the impact of wiping out children’s programming on free TV and ad-supported cable,” he said. “It’s very hard to draw those lines where programs are seen by 12-year-olds, and how do you make sure the 8-year-olds don’t see them?”
MediaCom’s Mr. Mandel said he thinks “the stuff that is going on in Washington has thrown the market into a bit of a discombobulation, because I think there are people that are going to be pulling out and I think there are people that are going to be redoing advertising.”
In Mr. Mandel’s opinion the industry is underestimating the problem. “It is a nightmare, and I think that among the advertisers, agencies and the broadcasters, those that haven’t woken up to it ought to wake up to it,” he said. He noted that there are ad restrictions in Europe and said it may not matter that studies show that banning kids advertising has no effect. “We’re in an election year, man,” he observed.
Mr. Jaffe of the ANA noted that the industry is already taking steps. For example, the Ad Council is working with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on a public service ad campaign suggesting steps people can take to protect their health.
“Industry takes this responsibility seriously in how it advertises, and the marketplace drives people,” Mr. Jaffe said.” When people start saying Gee, this is a serious problem, and the public begins to become seriously concerned about the whole issue of obesity, the marketplace responds. And the marketplace is responding. There has been quite a lot and an accelerating amount of new products coming into the marketplace specifically focused on providing consumers choice.”
During a conference call after their upfront presentation, Nickelodeon executives said marketers were working to address the obesity issue in particular.
“Almost every partner we have has come forward in the most enthusiastic way to get out in front of this issue for kids with us,” said Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon Television.
Nickelodeon’s Senior VP for Ad Sales Jim Perry said he didn’t think the obesity issue would hurt this year’s upfront. “I have not seen any negative effect at all so far,” he said.
“In fact, if there is an effect on ad spending by these companies, we really believe that what will happen is it will actually increase, because a lot of these companies are talking about creating new good-for-you products that they’re going to need to market and advertise to this demographic,” Mr. Perry said.
As for this year’s kids upfront, Mr. Mandel indicated that unlike in the old days, there is no concentrated period for deal-making.
“Upfront is a whole long process,” Mr. Mandel said. “We did some deals months ago and we’ll do some deals months from now.”
Nickelodeon introduced nine new shows during its presentation last week, including shows featuring Britney Spears’ sister and Julia Roberts’ niece. Nick also said it will air 125 new episodes of returning series during the season. Nick’s new series are “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide,” an untitled Jamie Spears project, “Unfabulous,” “The Power Strikers” (working title), “Avatar,” “Go, Diego, Go,” “The Backyardigans,” “Lazy Town,” and “Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends.”
Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB announced their upfront schedules last month.
Mr. Mandel minimized the impact that announcement would have on budget decisions. More significant was Nickelodeon’s plan, starting May 28, to add commercials to its The N nighttime network aimed at viewers 12 to 17.
Nickelodeon expects The N to be in more than 41 million homes by the fourth quarter and plans to sell six minutes of ad time per hour. Launched in 2002, The N appears from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. (ET) and shares a channel with Noggin, the digital network for preschoolers. Noggin will remain commercial-free.
Mr. Perry said there has been a lot of interest in sponsoring Noggin, but no deals have been completed yet. “We are very close to signing on some big charter sponsors,” he said, led by the movie companies looking to reach this group, which buys a lot of tickets at their local multiplexes. Other key categories will include fashion, apparel, retail, beverages and wireless.