Parents worried about how their children are influenced by the 30,000 television ads beamed at them every year haven't seen anything yet.
A report issued yesterday by Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, predicted that more subtle forms of advertising will bombard children in the 1990s as marketers try new techniques to win the loyalty of children with an increasing amount of money to spend.
The report, called "Selling America's Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the '90s," criticizes companies and advertising agencies for exploiting one of the country's most lucrative and unsuspecting markets -- children too young to be skeptical but old enough to have allowances.
According to the report, the typical American child might wake in the morning on Ninja Turtle sheets and then head to school where countless product endorsements have been woven into the curriculum. After-school diversions might include flipping through coupon books that come with joining a children's club, taking in a movie that advertisers have paid to be included in or doing a "puzzle" in a children's magazine that spells out the name of a product.
"The amount of sneakiness in advertising has grown in the last decade," said Charlotte Baecher, director of education services for Consumers Union. "Before it was the Saturday morning commercial approach. Now it's every moment of the waking hours with commercial messages disguised as something else."
The report identified at least five ways other than television that marketers use to reach children, a group that represents about $8 billion in spending power among 4- to 12-year-olds alone.
One of the most fertile grounds that marketers tapped into in the 1980s was schools, according to the report.
In the case of Whittle Communications, which launched its Channel One daily news program for children last year, showing two minutes of commercials daily buys a participating school television sets for every classroom, two videocassette recorders and a satellite dish.
David Jarrard, a spokesman for Whittle Communications in Knoxville, said, "Parents, teachers, school boards and 4,500 schools believe" in their product.
But Consumers Union called Channel One "just the tip of the iceberg." There are classroom magazines, book covers, corporate-sponsored teaching materials containing promotional materials as well as product samples and coupons.
The question the report implicitly raises is whether students are being taught or bought.
Outside the classroom, the growing use of product licensing accounted for $64 billion worth of sales last year in everything from lunch boxes to toothpaste that promote characters and toys popular with children.
Celebrity endorsements have been around for decades, the report said, but never have they pushed so intensely status products such as sneakers that sell for upwards of $100, a strain on many family budgets. Nike, for example, was judged by the report to show more of its commercials on MTV than on sports shows during a certain period of time.
But companies such as Nickelodeon, which produces children's programming for cable, defends its new children's club and magazine as filling a void for youngsters and encouraging them to read. Martin VonRuden, Nickelodeon's director of publicity, also said the company strives to keep limits on how much space it devotes to advertising.
However, in promotions to advertisers, Nick promises "home delivery of an entire generation" saying young consumers of today will be "the brand loyal customers of tomorrow."