The Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA) is a relatively new American company that offers the services of its 40,000 "agents"-girls aged six to eighteen-to corporate customers that want to create a buzz for their products. GIA recruits these girls from around the country by inviting them to become an "official GIA agent" of a "very elite group." The girls are given exclusive offers for products, events, and free online fashion consultation with Agent Kiki, a supposed "big sis" who in fact is the GIA staff providing answers to the girls' email questions. The hallmark of GIA is its "Slumber Party in a Box," in which a GIA girl invites up to eleven friends for an overnight party at which she passes out free products-toys, cosmetics, films, and the like-while taking notes for GIA on her friends' reactions. She does not tell them that the event is sponsored. In fact, GIA instructs the girls to "be slick and find out some sly scoop on your friends," such as what they think is currently fashionable.
There's so much wrong with this picture that it's hard to know where to start: large corporations teaching girls to manipulate their friends for profit, parents going along with it, the girls being used as consultants for a pittance (they get to keep product samples but don't get paid), GIA lying to its young agents about Agent Kiki, the company recruiting girls by playing to their need to be recognized as special when in fact the girls are being used and deceived.
Yet GIA is in certain respects only a symptom, a recent entry into the race to the ethical bottom that is modern marketing to children. The deluge of advertising aimed at young people over the last twenty years has caused children and teenagers to become cynical about marketing, forcing marketers to constantly come up with new manipulations and deceptions to reach their audience. The marketers call this cynicism a form of "sophistication" as opposed to what it really is: children shutting down emotionally to protect themselves from the commercial world. But with the clever assistance of companies like GIA, the industry is staying one step ahead of the game, and each year children are spending more than they ever have before.
With the rise of economic globalization, the commercialization of childhood has become a worldwide phenomenon. The institutions and treaties that drive globalization-such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and NAFTA-all require participating nations to open their borders to multinational corporations and to put these powerful entities on equal footing with their domestic industries. The result is that these huge companies bring their sophisticated marketing campaigns, including those aimed at children, to every corner of the earth.
For example, from 1992-2001, India had one children's TV channel, the Cartoon Channel, owned by Turner International. Since last year at least eight more have been or will shortly be launched, most of them owned by multinational corporations such as Nickelodeon, Disney, Sony, and Turner. As of mid-2004, India had 337 million youngsters fourteen or under, even more than China's 289 million, representing a huge untapped market.
A recent report by the British-based marketing company Euromonitor, entitled "Marketing to Teenagers," gives a sense of the growing global market. The document is extremely detailed, breaking down teenage spending by geographical region, major countries, types of products, and a host of other variables. From it we learn that in 2002 teenage expenditures, and parents' expenditures on teenagers, together amounted to over 220 billion dollars worldwide. Not surprisingly, the United States accounted for the largest market share (39 percent), followed by Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, although Norway, Sweden, and Denmark had the highest spending per teenager. The most popular products were computer games/consoles, mobile phones, "grazing" items (i. …