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HOLIDAY RETAILING : Targeting Tots : Toy Sellers Intensify Their Ad Blitz

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s a twist to holiday marketing: a toy retailer encouraging kids to come to its stores and actually play with the toys. Oh, yes, and maybe buy a few.

All 550 Target stores nationwide spilled piles of toys out of their boxes and onto the floor one recent Sunday. Not just any toys, mind you, but specific toys that the retailer--along with toy manufacturing giants Mattel and Hasbro--wanted to push for the coming holiday season.

“We didn’t try to disguise the fact that we were also selling the toys,” said Bob Thacker, vice president of marketing. Indeed, the Minneapolis-based retail chain saw toy sales for the day register double-digit increases over the same day last year.

For years, youth marketers relied almost exclusively on Saturday morning cartoons to target children with their holiday marketing blitzes. But no more. With Hanukkah just two weeks away and Christmas only a month off, the toy giants are airing TV spots aimed at children every day of the week.

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Retailers who used to rely on shopping mall Santas are now reaching out to kids with glitzy promotions in the stores. Marketers are targeting children with flashy catalogues tucked in mailboxes or newspapers. Some have developed animated Christmas TV shows specifically to sell toys, including “Nick and Noel,” a Toys R Us show to which the giant retailer links sales of toys, videos and books. It is scheduled to air today.

This year, a growing number of marketers are giving coupons to children as a way to coax parents to put the right gifts under the tree. Earlier this month, Toys R Us distributed coupon-filled toy catalogues in Sunday papers to 52 million U.S. households.

Children’s magazines such as Disney Adventures and Sports Illustrated for Kids are attracting marketers--many for the first time--to run holiday print ads. The December issue of Nickelodeon magazine features a “holiday gift guide” that promotes a dizzying array of goodies.

In its recent promotion, Target even invited troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts into some stores so kids would see their peers playing with the toys.

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Not everyone approves of all this holiday frenzy to target children. “Marketing during the holidays is the most fevered expression of a culture that systematically exploits children,” said Alex Molnar, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “The advertising repeatedly tells kids that the road to happiness is through acquisition.”

More than any other time of the year, the holiday season is when toy makers, toy sellers and other youth marketers try to coax children to either buy the merchandise themselves or at least nag their parents to. Industry executives estimate 50% of all 1993 toy sales will take place during this period.

This is put into motion by a barrage of toy advertising that is nearly quadruple the amount most children will see during the rest of the year. (The toy ads mostly replace ads for other kid-oriented products such as cereal and fast food.)

Most of the advertising is aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 12.

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“The rule of thumb is, if you have a toy that can make a kid really excited, you can start going after that child when they’re about 3 years old,” said Deyna Vesey, co-president of the New York specialty ad firm Kidvertiser.

Unlike parents, however, who are enticed year-round with ads for a variety of products from beer to deodorant, the ads that target children at Christmas are almost all for toys, said Peggy Charren, founder of the consumer group Action for Children’s Television. “The message in almost every ad is that if you’re a kid who doesn’t have this video game or that doll, then you won’t be able to talk to your peer group.”

Top toy marketers and retailers strongly disagree with that assessment. They say their marketing tactics are actually helpful--or at least time-saving--for children and parents.

Take the 72-page Toys R Us catalogue. “It’s something that kids and parents look forward to,” said Michael Goldstein, vice chairman of Toys R Us. The catalogues give children and parents a chance to “sit down together and decide what to buy.”

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But marketing experts point out that the real effectiveness of these catalogues is that children know precisely how they work.

“Kids feel they can use them as leverage with their parents,” said Bob Horne, a senior vice president at the New York youth marketing consulting firm Kid Think Inc. “How can a mother say no when her kid is pointing to the Mortal Kombat video game with one hand, then pointing to the $5-off coupon with the other?”

Every major toy retailer will soon print toy catalogues with discount coupons, Horne predicted.

“Kids are consumers. Most of them get allowances--and they get guidelines from their parents,” said Richard Sallis, president of La Mirada-based Playmates Toys. “Ultimately, no matter how good the ads are, you need a good toy. Negative schoolyard chatter will kill off any toy.”

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Every day for weeks, Playmates has been airing TV ads--aimed at 3- to 8-year-olds--pushing its Ninja Action Turtle and Star Trek plastic figures. The object: to reach kids any time they watch TV.

But why so many TV ads for kids before Christmas? “Kids don’t read,” explained Sallis.

Older children, however, do read. And children are increasingly interested in kid-friendly magazines. So several youth advertisers that never before considered running print ads at Christmas time are doing so this year.

Russell Athletic, which makes NFL-licensed athletic wear, has placed a full-page ad in the December issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids. “This Christmas, Surprise Your Parents,” says the headline to the ad. “Ask for Clothes.”

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“The object is to generate brand awareness,” said Wesley Haynes, vice president of marketing at Russell Corp.


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