Advertising to kids – what is it and what can we do?

Posted by Dr John Jewell

In homes across the nation television is increasingly used as a "babysitter”

On the 14th May, the Daily Mail reported that adverts aimed at under-12s could be banned under new laws to prevent the commercialisation of childhood. Labour policy chief, John Cruddas, stated that ‘the commercialisation of childhood creates a status seeking consumer culture in which children judge one another by what they own.’

It should be of no surprise to any of us that advertising is an integral part of our culture. A ubiquitous, often unconscious factor of modern life, it is arguably the most important media of the advanced world. Capitalism itself survives because of advertising, as we are encouraged to spend and replace rather than to repair and reuse. The effects of this consumer culture and our love of ‘stuff’ has had a profound effect on family life in this country and John Cruddas has a point. Britain is now, according to a recent report by UNICEF, the worst country in the industrialised world to be a child, where parents feel under intense pressure to buy goods for their children.

In homes across the nation television is increasingly used as a "babysitter”
“children’s bedrooms are now less a place to sleep and more a ‘media bedsit’”

In homes across the nation television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms are now less a place to sleep and more a ‘media bedsit’ with a PC, an Xbox and a digital TV.

Into this mix we must add the mobile phone – Childwise charity has stated that in the 5 to 16 age bracket, 70% of children have their own mobile phone and this rises to 97% from the age of 11.

We must accept, then, that our children are subject to a plethora of advertising, marketing and media messages via a variety of different mediums. The questions are; how this being achieved and should we be worried about it?

The fact is that even with this multitude of media products, children are still exposed to a great deal of television, watching on average over two and half hours each day. This means a visual experience of what we can call ‘conventional’ advertising – which does affect behaviour. In 2001 researchers from the University of Hertfordshire explored how advertising affected children by analysing their letters to Father Christmas, monitoring toy commercials and collecting television viewing data. It was found that children who watched the most commercial television requested a greater number of gifts and that those who watched the most also requested the greater number of branded products.  The researchers concluded that children who watch more TV, and especially those who watch alone, may be socialised to become consumers from a very early age.’

And why wouldn’t companies and advertisers want to attract young people? Increasingly, children have disposable incomes and influence over what their parents buy. The idea is to instil brand loyalty. The younger the child the better, as studies have shown that children as young as two learn to recognise symbols such as the Coca Cola logo or the McDonald’s golden arches. Dr Dale Southerton, expert in the commercialisation of childhood at the University of Manchester said in an interview with the Guardian: “The marketing world plays on children’s wants and needs. Children want peer acceptance, and marketing creates competition between children by suggesting they will be more popular if they own the product. The message is: ‘You must have one of these to be popular with your peers.'”

The idea is now is to see children as ‘brand ambassadors’. This occurs when marketers approach children with supposed popularity amongst their peer group and effectively ply them with products and gifts in return for the promotion of that brand to their friends. This can occur face to face or via social networking groups. In July 2011, Weetabix attracted particular criticism for enlisting fifteen children across the UK to wear its logo emblazoned clothing in periods of physical activity. These kids would then be living proof of the energy the cereal provided. To be fair, as a result of public outcry and due to prompting from the Advertising Association, Weetabix has since shelved the scheme. But the intention was there.

In our multi-media world there are a variety of ways for marketers to attract the attention of children and since the introduction of tougher regulation governing what can be advertised on television, operations have gone on-line. And again, why wouldn’t they? According to Childwise, more than 90% of UK children use the internet, with the average child doing so more than five times a week, spending two hours a day online. Access is increasingly in their own room, on their own laptop, and a growing number now use mobile phones or games consoles to go online.

In respect of the internet, companies exploit the potential of the medium expertly. It offers in the first place a far cheaper alternative to conventional modes of advertising, brands can reach a global audience and there are far fewer legal restrictions on content. What it also offers is the opportunity to interact with the consumer and build relationships.

What we have seen over the last few years is companies creating websites and using social network forums to interact with children. In June of this year researchers from the International Association for the Study of Obesity found that there were number of marketers using the internet to promote foods with a high fat, salt and sugar content. Names like Nesquick and Haribo were singled out for criticism: Nesquick has free games on its website and has a Facebook page offering prizes for children. Bearing in mind that peer acceptance and approval is of great importance amongst the young, Haribo was highlighted as the creator of alluring websites asking children to send email messages to their friends about its existence.

So should we be worried about our children’s exposure to ubiquitous advertising? There is no doubt that ‘pester power’ is a significant issue in today’s society. This is a term which refers to the capacity children have for badgering their parents into buying products they ordinarily might not. Marketers are finely attuned to the often fragile relationships that exists between parents and children and can feed off the desire that parents have to please. According to Unicef, materialism is central to British life and parents here are constantly buying goods to counteract their long working hours and guilt that is felt for not spending more ‘quality time’ with their kids.

It is evident that parents are expressing grave concerns about their children’s demand for the newest, most expensive trainers or the most up to date piece of gadgetry. There are fears of an out control consumerism amongst the young fuelled not only by the presence of advertising but by a culture as a whole which encourages individualism and greed.

There are other views, of course. The advertising industry balks at negative phrases such as the ‘commercialisation of childhood’. It argues that part of the joy and wonderment of childhood is the interaction with the commercial world. That world, for them, is one of ‘magic, fun, imagination, discovery, self-expression….. toys and games, telly and films, sweets and ices, computers and comics, holidays and adventures,’ experiences which encapsulate childhood memories.

Perhaps this is a valid point. Perhaps, too, we should accept that curbing the excesses of advertising is naïve and ill-judged given our media saturated environment. We can’t ban freedom of expression can we? Freedom of expression (as evidenced by advertising) cannot be restricted as it is the basis of the industrialised capitalist world. We should not expect companies and business interested in profit to act as cultural gatekeepers and social watchdogs. And what about our role as parents and citizens? Blaming advertising for today’s ills shifts responsibility away from that of parents, guardians and wider society. We have a responsibility to act where we see fit.

In my view, what is indisputable is that the progress to adulthood is hurried along by commercialism and the need to sell products. We live in a world where Disney has promoted ‘High School Musical’ with knickers aimed at seven year olds adorned with phrase, ‘dive in’ on the front. Where Tesco has been criticised for selling padded bras to girls of the same age and where, in all seriousness, high heeled shoes designed specifically for babies went on sale in 2008. The shoes were intended for babies up to six months and ‘came in hot pink, black and leopard print.‘

It appears now that Disney is aiming at the pre birth market. Reports recently from New York told of company employees in maternity units handing out ‘Disney Cuddly Bodysuits’. As the Guardian said, mums were asked to sign up to ‘creating magical moments right from the start’.

In the final analysis I think we can be reasonably sure that advertising to children does have a significant effect on behaviour and purchase patterns. If it didn’t, we can be fairly certain that companies would not invest the millions that they do in development and implementation. But are kids today simply sponges for media messages, sucked into a world of consumption where the ability to spend is valued higher than anything else? Or, as is the likely the case, much more sophisticated and aware of the machinations of the consumer society?

The responsibility on parents and educators is acute. We must help our children navigate a path through growing up which recognises the forces of commercialism as an inevitable part, but not the major part, of childhood. How we manage expectations and teach media literacy is of vital importance. As we hurtle through summer and toward Christmas, with wish lists and increasing demands, that is worth remembering.