Monday, March 03, 2008

Advertising to Children in a Consumer Society

(A software glitch resulted in most of my subscribers not receiving this post last week, so I'm publishing it again. A comment and response are on the original post, dated February 26th, so I'm leaving that post up, too, rather than deleting it. For those of you who are receiving this for the second time, please accept my apologies.)

Even the most sophisticated adults can have their opinions swayed by a clever advertising campaign -- any clever advertising campaign. Ads promoting green products appeal to our desire to help protect our environment. Ads touting luxury goods convince us of the positive impact they'll have on everything from our careers to our sex lives. Ads lure us to shops (or websites) to buy everything from killer shoes to the coolest techno gadgetry to the latest designer furnishings, all of which, according to the ads, surely will improve our status in the eyes of others. The marketers' entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to convince us that whatever they're selling, we'd better hurry up and start buying because we're incomplete or inadequate or simply behind the times if we don't. And those marketers are very, very good at what they do.

So, if an otherwise seemingly rational adult male can be persuaded to spend two months' salary purchasing a diamond engagement ring (an arbitrary amount that the diamond industry decided was "appropriate"), and an apparently sensible woman can be coaxed into changing her wardrobe in order to conform to what's "in style" every season, how does a child react to advertising? No defense mechanisms have been put into place in a child's brain (and look how vulnerable we adults are, even psychologically armed to the hilt with our supposed maturity), so the impact advertisers have is enormous. Multiply this power to influence with the ubiquity and frequency of ads that kids are exposed to, and we have what politicians might call "a situation." I'd call it a disaster.

In a Wall Street Journal article last year about fashion bullying, reporter Vanessa O'Connell explains:

"Guidance counselors and psychologists say fashion bullying is reaching a new level of intensity as more designers launch collections targeted at kids. As a result, an increasing number of school and community programs focused on girl-on-girl bullying are addressing peer pressure and the sizable role clothing plays in girls' identity."

Pressure to conform is nothing new, but O'Connell states, "Teens and adolescents are expected to wear not just any designer brands but the 'right' ones."

I don't believe that an eleven-year-old girl should feel that she must wear the "right" designer just to get through her day at school. It's too much pressure, too soon, and at too great an expense for many families.

Concern about advertising pressure isn't new either. Katherine Knorr wrote an article in the International Herald Tribune back in 1999, shortly after designer Calvin Klein created his disturbing underwear ads featuring children. Knorr comments:

"Clothes catalogues sell skintight two-piece outfits (bra and pedal pushers) advertising the boys band '2 Be 3' (the Chippendales for the pre-teen set) to 10-year-olds. The boys in the band are bare-chested. The little girl models strike alluring poses. . . . The marketing of clothes — some of them pretty raunchy — to children and pre-teens raises all sorts of issues about what clothes 'mean,' and about the influence of the vast network of popular culture salesmanship and the sickening cult of celebrity. It is ironic that, as fashion enters the third millennium, clothes for grown-up women have become positively genteel, with the twin set seeming ubiquitous and even the bad Brits toned down. It seems the real fashion victims now are Lolita's age."

Nine years later, the twin set may not be de rigeur for the average woman, but selling provocative clothing to kids has become an even bigger business.

James U. McNeal wrote an article for the Center for Media Literacy called, "From Savers to Spenders: How Children Became a Consumer Market," excerpted from a book he had published in 1987. He came to a conservative and rather polite conclusion:

". . . something needs to be done to improve the marketing-child consumer connection. A strong relationship is a good thing for marketers - it means sales and profits now, and even greater sales and profits in the future. It is a good thing for children - it provides enormous input to their consumer socialization process as well as current satisfaction from products and their purchase of them. But no one should forget that children, particularly those under eight, are vulnerable to commercial abuses. Marketers have been shown to be abusive to children far too many times for their good will to be assumed." [Italics mine.]

Bringing us back to more recent material, The American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in December of 2006 called "Children, Adolescents and Advertising" which concluded:

"Advertising is a pervasive influence on children and adolescents. Young people view more than 40 000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use. Media education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents."

Here's an excerpt from a market research company report on advertising to kids in China:

"As China develops into one of the world’s largest economies, and its consumer market grows in world significance, so the Chinese consumer of tomorrow has become the focus of huge amounts of product and brand marketing expenditure. If the children of today can be made loyal to a brand now, what potential for sales in the future, in a country where the economy continues to grow at over 9% a year? China’s children are bombarded with media messages from all angles, all the time - from billboards, posters, TV at home, TV in taxis, cinemas, magazines, food packaging, lunch boxes, clothing, text messages, websites, store shelves, radios, etc. All of this is having an effect, and some of it detrimental. Childhood obesity rates are soaring, and rates of depression and mental health problems are also increasing. . . This is also the generation of the One Child Policy - the 'little emperors', doted upon by two parents and up to four grandparents, plus various aunts and uncles. Only children, in a society of only children, will learn to, and be expected to behave differently, more pressure to succeed will be placed upon them, and all of this is affecting how these children see themselves within their society, and how this affects their behaviour as people, and as consumers."

There's a wealth of information available in print and online that discusses, debates and attempts to explain the process of advertising to kids and the results we're all living with today. If this is an issue that interests or perhaps infuriates you, here are just a few links worth exploring:

The Center for Media Literacy website has a substantial and interesting list of articles in its Parents, Kids and Media section. Topics range from Economic Lessons for Young Viewers to Altered States: How Television Changes Childhood.

Global Issues has a full section called Children as Consumers with many links on the topic.

Get a Canadian perspective on the problem at About Kids Health.

Get an Australian perspective at Natural News.

Although there's much more available to read, you might want to conclude by reviewing the Special Report: Marketing to Children from Direct, a magazine that gives the marketer's point of view and makes clear the significance of kids as consumers. The report's opening line:

"What do you call someone who makes post-purchase decisions? Answer: A parent."

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


The Family Matters Organizer said...

My eleven year old is stressing about an upcoming field trip in which they need to bring home lunches. The stress? I don't(and won't)buy bottled water. I guess there's pressure to drink the 'right' brand of water. And what will she look like if she comes with a drinkbox?!

So sad...

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Sad, indeed, that bottled water could be a status issue for a child! What a difficult situation. I suppose this is one of those "learning opportunities" that can be so frustrating for both kids and adults.

Thanks for commenting.