By Martin Lindstrom
Kogan Page pound;25
It sounds like the sort of orchestrated child abuse scenario the police occasionally uncover after receiving a tip-off and impounding a few computers. Except that it's much bigger, and nobody will be appearing in court.
Consider the facts. A group of adults - many of them churchgoers and respected figures in the business community - conspire over several years to influence the behaviour of children to comply with their wishes.
Frequently using the internet, and sometimes disguising themselves as juveniles to gain acceptance, these self-seeking individuals target ever younger age-groups, amassing dossiers of information about their victims'
preferences and weakness, which they exchange among themselves.
Armed with this information, they use a battery of techniques ranging from the most sophisticated psychological manipulation to such seedy ploys as handing round toys and sweets to persuade their victims to behave in ways that may be harmful to their physical, mental or emotional health.
If this were a case of sexual exploitation, there's no doubt that the perpetrators, once exposed, would be rounded up and dealt with. But we are talking here about commercial exploitation, about persuading children to buy products, in person or through their parents. And there's no law against that.
This means not only that such practices can go unchecked, but that those involved can talk openly about techniques they use. From time to time, they even write books on the subject: books the uninitiated might find nauseating, fascinating and enlightening in equal measure. Such a book is this.
Martin Lindstrom is described as "one of the world's leading branding gurus" (funny how business has been able to adopt and subvert the terminology of the world's least materialistic religions). In the past decade, he has advised the likes of Mars, Pepsi, Lego and Microsoft. He lives in Denmark, but travels the world carrying out research and lecturing marketing and business people about how best to sell their products.
He based this book on Project Brandchild, a year-long study of tweens (a marketing term for children aged between eight and 14), their attitudes in general and their "relationship" to brands in particular. That the study involved children in 11 countries and a team of 500 people at the research agency Millward Brown is an indication of how much cash is at stake.
With those resources at its disposal, it's hardly surprising that Millward Brown unearthed a wealth of detail about how children's attitudes are changing. It's an irritating fact of life that nobody knows us better than the marketers, who have spent years studying our hopes and fears, slotting us into categories and plotting our lives.
Tweens, says Lindstrom, were born with a mouse in one hand and a remote in the other. They take instant communication for granted and demand instant results (which is why Lego sets now contain fewer, bigger pieces).
Their exposure to divorce, soap opera and, in the United States, as many as 8,000 brands every day, means they are more sceptical (so more of a challenge) than any preceding generation. Yet, just like the rest of us, they can be categorised for marketing purposes (Lindstrom refers to "Edges", "Persuaders", "Followers" and "Reflexives"), and their motivations taken to pieces and examined bit by bit.
Brands, he says, "have become symbols for an identity, offering the opportunity to be trendy, cool, rich, outrageous, rebellious or just plain stylish". Which means, of course, that there's a lot more money to be made by companies that get it right.
Hearing the guru analyse the complex ways in which the popularity of a brand grows or dies within a group of children, then describe ways in which the various processes - peer pressure, for instance - can be subverted, is a bit like watching a postmortem. It's compelling, but every so often you realise it's real people who are being manipulated - in this case, our children.
But Lindstrom has a canny way of turning the tables. Just when you've decided that the marketing people are indeed little better than child molesters, making huge profits by inducing their naive victims to buy junk food, collecting cards or overpriced spinning tops, he will repeat that these tweenies, far from being naive, are in fact the shrewdest, choosiest, most ruthless and fickle generation of customers ever to stalk the planet.
Apparently they see straight through most advertising, shrugging off the deluge of information coming at them through every medium, and making or breaking ill-prepared companies or unworthy brands with a flick of their Pokemon quiffs. They are truly a force to be reckoned with, so have mercy on the poor global corporations and don't mind if they employ a few dirty tricks now and again.
And they do, too. Lindstrom reveals how firms have set up thousands of phoney tweeny chatrooms on the internet, packing them with employees disguised as children who just happen to pepper their chat with frequent references to particular brands. This is not illegal, of course, and until it is, the best we can hope for is books like this that unintentionally give the game away.
Did you know, for instance, that pressure from brand-conscious tweens is now the deciding factor in an increasing number of major family purchases, and that hotels, car companies and airlines are deliberately using them to get at their parents? Forewarned is forearmed.