Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Tweens and Age Compression: Where are the Ethics in Marketing?

In this article, the author talks about age compression and how children who are 7 years old are now interested in clothes, make-up and hairstyles in a way that used to be reserved for 17 year olds. In this article by Euromonitor, downward trends in toys and games are examined. While in the first article the author, Matthew Johnson, examines age compression, the second article only attempts to discuss it in terms of marketing. So, they share the fact that Action Man is now aimed at 2 year olds instead of 5 year olds and that the Hair and Nail Bar at Hamley’s department store is popular with 7 and 8 year olds. This second article points out one of the biggest issues that I have with large corporations and marketers right now: Where are their ethics? There seems to be no examination of the concept of a product being appropriate for the target market. Instead, it’s all about the question of “will it sale?”  This is reminiscent of big tobacco companies who knew from their own and outside research that their product was dangerous, and yet did not want to respond because it would hurt their sales.

I know that marketers and corporations are in business to make money. But, I believe that there are some serious ethical questions that arise in the use of manipulative marketing campaigns geared toward a child consumer. Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s we see a trend of marketers targeting the “tween” consumer. This differentiation between children under 8 years and 8-12 year olds also began moving products and programming downward, with “tweens” being marketed products such as make-up and trendy clothing more appropriate for teenagers. The use of embedded marketing programs in the schools, neuromarketing, and product placements in popular television and movies undermines the tweens ability to understand the difference between entertainment and the product being marketed. Marketers and producers of such sexualized products as the Abercrombie “push-up” bikini top and thong panties, Bratz Babies, and onesies that say, “I’m a boob man” claim that they are just providing children with what they want. However, if you have ever shopped in a big box retailer, you will know that there are often not many non-sexualized options available. Once my daughters turned 7 (yes you read that right, 7 years old), I had to start really being careful about what they wore. It wasn’t as easy as just going to Target to get a cute t-shirt and shorts as it had been when they were smaller. Now I had to make sure that the shorts weren’t bottom baring, the shirt wasn’t mid-riff baring, and there were no inappropriate messages on them. In a study that came out this month, it was reported that an analysis of popular online children’s retailers showed that almost 30% of children’s clothes have sexualized characteristics. The highest proportion of sexualized clothing came from stores aimed at tweens (Goodin, Van Denburg, Murnen & Smolak, 2011).

It seems that self-regulation does not work for these companies. That is why several grass-roots efforts have formed to promote ethical marketing to children. I highly recommend that you check out some of these organizations that provide parents and children with support, information, and resources. One that I like is Parents for Ethical Marketing , which was founded by Lisa Ray after she became disillusioned with the products and programming being marketed to her own young children. A heavy hitter in this area is the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. This organization not only provides information, but also regularly launches effective campaigns against unfair marketing practices. The CCFC gives parents, children, and other activists many opportunities to get involved and speak out against unfair or inappropriate marketing to children. The blog, Marketing, Media and Childhood run by Erin McNeal provides parents with guidance and information about positive products as well as negative campaigns of which they might want to be aware. And Shaping Youth provides insights into marketing strategies from long time marketing executive turned activist Amy Jussel. All of these organizations will help tweens, teens, and caring adults as they wade through the overwhelming flood of marketing aimed at children. To become an empowered and active consumer, we have to move from the position of accepting the messages that marketers give us and really learn to question them. When we learn to be critical consumers of both media and marketing, the power remains in our hands. If you know of other consumer activists groups that others may want to be aware of, please send them my way.


Goodin, S.M., Van Denburg, A., Murnen, S.K., & Smolak, L. (2011). “Putting on” Sexiness: A content analysis of the presence of sexualizing characteristics in girls’ clothing. Sex Roles.

4 comments on “Tweens and Age Compression: Where are the Ethics in Marketing?

  1. Pingback: Grounded Parents | [TTT] Dora and Friends: Into the Shiny New Abyss

  2. Jennifer
    May 27, 2013

    Yes, where are the ethics in Marketing? The clothing sold at stores for young girls is getting shorter and more skimpy and called flirty and flashy. When really it is for 8 yr old to 15 year old children. It makes them look trashy and cheap. It is harder every year to find decent shorts for my daughter. She often goes in jeans well into the summer because of the lack of decent shorts offered in the stores and catalogs. We don’t want our daughter looking flashy or flirty to people. She would be attracting the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people. When people say well she asked for it because of the way she was dressed well your companies don’t offer much in the way of decent clothing for young girls. It is disgusting and you should be ashamed of yourselves for even saying you want young girls to look flashy or flirty.

  3. Kyle Potter
    February 5, 2013

    Dr. Shewmaker,

    I think you may be assigning blame where it is easy to find a common enemy. Perhaps instead, age compression is the result of a faster more information efficient world? Think of the toys and games industry. Twenty years ago, video games for played mostly by older teens, twenty-something year olds and younger thirty-somethings. Toys were played with by everyone younger than the older teens. However, in this day and age, with the advent of television, the internet, and the general advancement of technology, children as young as 2-3 years old are playing video games. I theorize that this is occurring because of the simplification of all of that technology. In the late 80s and early 90s, computers and video game consoles required extensive technical knowledge in order to properly run and operate them. Now, all a two year old needs to do is press the “Home” button on their parent’s iPad.

    Anyways, that’s just a thought of mine. Please consider it.



  4. Pingback: Toward The Stars: New Online Marketplace of Goods for Girls to Soar - Shaping Youth

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