Children as Consumers

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, November 21, 2010

The market for children’s products and food is enormous. Parents on the one hand have a hard time raising children the way they want to, while on the other hand, kids are being increasingly influenced by commercialism that often goes against what parents are trying to do.

Even in industrialized societies, where governments and campaigners fight for better child advertising standards and regulations, or improved food quality, industry fights back preferring self-regulation (which rarely happens, or is intentionally weak), and arguing that it is individual choices and parents that are the issue.

Advertising to children is big business

Consider the following:

  1. Children are a captive audience: The average American child watches an estimate between 25,000 to 40,000 television commercials per year. In the UK, it is about 10,000
  2. $15-17 billion is spent by companies advertising to children in the US. Over $4 billion was spent in 2009 by the fast food industry alone.
  3. The marketing seems to be worth it. For example,
    • Teens in the US spend around $160 billion a year
    • Children (up to 11) spend around $18 billion a year
    • “Tweens” (8-12 year olds) “heavily influence” more than $30 billion in other spending by parents, and “80 percent of all global brands now deploy a ‘tween strategy.’”
    • Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over $130-670 billion a year.

Sources

  1. Captive audience sources:
  2. Amount spent advertising to children:
    • Susan Linn, Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, New Press (May 2004) says $15 billion and a lot of other sources cite her
    • CBS writes in Resources: Marketing To Kids, May 17, 2007 that it is now $17 billion. CBS also adds that this is up from $100 million in 1983, and more than double the amount in 1992.
    • Above APA report notes that it was about $12 billion in 2000
    • The fast food industry’s advertising spending in the US comes from Fast Food FACTS campaign organization
  3. The marketing pays off sources:

It has proven difficult to find detailed, and recent, statistics for other areas around the world, outside the US. However, one promising source for different regions is The International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media from Nordicom, Goteborg University, Sweden (also financed by the government of Sweden and UNESCO).

So what? Isn’t that good for business? As we will introduce here, while this might be good for business, there are also important economic, social, health and environmental and other costs to be considered.

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Encouraging and increasing childhood consumerism

As mentioned in the previous section looking at the rise in consumption, larger houses were an example of the things promoted to increase consumption. So too was the encouragement to provide more toys and other items for children:

The [U.S.] federal government played a major role in defining childhood. In 1929, Herbert Hoover sponsored a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. The conference report, The Home and the Child, concluded that children were independent beings with particular concerns of their own.… The report advised parents to give their children their own [furniture, toys, playrooms etc]. “Generally a sleeping room for each person is desirable”, it noted.… Take them shopping for their own “things and let them pick them out for themselves.”

Through such experiences personality develops… [These] experiences have the advantage of also creating in the child a sense of personal as well as family pride in ownership, and eventually teaching him that his personality can be expressed through things. (White House, 1931, [Emphasis added by Robbins]; See also Leach 1993:371-372)

Thus in the space of some 30 years, the role of children in American life changed dramatically; they became, and remain, pillars of the consumer economy, with economic power rivaling that of adults.

Richard Robbins, Global Problem and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp.24-25

Children wield enormous purchasing power, both directly and indirectly (indirectly in the sense that they are able to persuade and influence parents on what to buy).

Observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched whining you’ll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of thousands of hours of market research, of an immense coordination of people, ideas and resources, of decades of social and economic change all rolled into a single, “Mommy, pleeease!”

“If it’s within [kids’] reach, they will touch it, and if they touch it, there’s at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and buy it,” writes retail anthropologist, Paco Underhill. The ideal placement of popular books and videos, he continues, should be on the lower shelves “so the little ones can grab Barney or Teletubbies unimpeded by Mom or Dad, who possibly take a dim view of hypercommercialized critters.”

Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now, LiP Magazine, August 20, 2001

And advertising to children isn’t just for purchasing children’s items; they influence other items:

The minivan was created, for example, because children demanded more room. Then they decided the three-door behemoth was uncool, helping give rise to the SUV. “Every auto manufacturer has a strategy to target children,” [James McNeal, a market researcher who specializes in the children’s market] adds.

Kim Campbell and Kent Davis-Packard, How ads get kids to say I want it!, Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2000

This has long been understood:

The renowned behaviorist was also vice president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and a spokesman for the idea, then novel, that marketing is not just about peddling products that people need; it's also about creating a society of consumers ever eager for more. Famous for claiming that any child, conditioned early enough, could be turned into anything—“a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even into beggar-man and thief”—he left a key vocation out. If shopper had been on his list, it would have been a prescient boast.

Ann Hulbert, Tweens 'R' Us, New York Times, November 28, 2004

(The other key point in the quote above is that markets here are not meeting needs, but creating needs.)

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Heavy advertising targeted at children

Marketers see children as a future — as well as current — market and hence brand loyalty at a young age helps in the quest of continued sales later.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has said that children between the ages of two and seventeen watch an annual average of 15,000 to 18,000 hours of television, compared with 12,000 hours spent per year in school. Children are also major targets for TV advertising, whose impact is greater than usual because there is an apparent lessening of influence by parents and others in the older generation.… According to the [Committee on Communications of the American Academy of Pediatrics], children under the age of two should not watch television at all because at that age, brain development depends heavily on real human interactions.

Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p. xxxvi

In the European Union, by 2001, revenues to television networks and producers have reached between $620 and $930 million PDF formatted document. Revenues since have increased further.

Advertising to children considered harmful

Sweden, since 1991 has banned all advertising during children’s prime time due to findings that children under 10 are incapable of telling the difference between a commercial and a program, and cannot understand the purpose of a commercial until the age of 12. (See previous link for more details.)

In the US, research from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by today’s youth obesity epidemic. For these reasons, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) is recommending that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted.

The research on children’s commercial recall and product preferences confirms that advertising does typically get young consumers to buy their products.… Findings show that children recall content from the ads to which they’ve been exposed and preference for a product has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and strengthened with repeated exposures.

Furthermore, … these product preferences can affect children’s product purchase requests, which can put pressure on parents’ purchasing decisions and instigate parent-child conflicts when parents deny their children’s requests….

… there are concerns regarding certain commercial campaigns primarily targeting adults that pose risks for child-viewers. “For example, beer ads are commonly shown during sports events and seen by millions of children, creating both brand familiarity and more positive attitudes toward drinking in children as young as 9-10 years of age. Another area of sensitive advertising content involves commercials for violent media products such as motion pictures and video games. Such ads contribute to a violent media culture which increases the likelihood of youngsters’ aggressive behavior and desensitizes children to real-world violence,” said Dr. Kunkel [senior author of the task force’s scientific report].

Television Advertising Leads to Unhealthy Habits in Children, American Pyschological Association (APA), February 23, 2004

Manipulating children’s views of the world

As detailed further on this site’s section on Media and Advertising, manipulation of imagery, fake news and more are so prevalent that young people in particular are vulnerable to a lot of influences from all angles.

With such constant bombardment of images of what beauty, perfection etc are all supposed to be, it is no wonder that many related health issues are increasing in younger children, from anxiety and stress to bulimia and anorexia.

Bans, regulation, self-regulation, media-literacy

Advertising is in all areas of children’s lives, from television commercials, to ad placement within programs (and video games), to toys, the Internet, mobile telephones, and more.

The concerns of the impacts on children has led to many trying to control advertising in some way.

Writing in a publication from the Nordic Information Centre for Media and Communication Research (Nordicom), Ulla Carlsson summarizes some of the options and approaches:

Types of media governance
FormalInformal

Ulla Carlsson, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.13)

External

Law

Regulation

Market forces and relations

Pressures and lobbies

Public opinion and criticism

Internal

Management

Financial control

Self-regulation

Professionalism

Organizational culture

Norms and ethics

After going into these in a bit more depth, Carlsson concludes that no one measure is necessarily effective on its own,

… the approaches to protecting minors from harm and offense in media content largely boil down to three kinds: law and regulation, self-regulation and co-regulation of the media. No one instrument of regulation is sufficient; today and in the future some form of effective interaction between all three kinds of media regulation—that is, between government, the media and civil society—will be required to reach satisfactory results. All the relevant stakeholders—within government, the media sector and civil society—need to develop effective means by which to collaborate.

Ulla Carlsson, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (pp.14-15)

Banning ads and the fear or unintended consequences?

Sweden, since 1991 has banned all advertising during children’s prime time due to those concerns mentioned above regarding advertising to children being harmful.

The European Union is now considering issues related to advertising targeted at children and whether there should be a Europe-wide ban or regulation.

Since April 2007, the has UK banned junk food advertising during television programs aimed at children aged 7 to 9. As of January 1, 2008, that ban has been extended to all children under 16.

Some argue that this industry provides jobs for people so banning advertising would be ill-advised.

Others question the effectiveness of outright bans in advertising. For example, a ban would mean lost revenues of media outlets, as many pour a large amount of advertising revenues back into programming.

The Responsible Advertising and Children Programme (RACP) is an industry organization representing advertisers, agencies and media worldwide. They argue that education and self-regulation is the way to go (as most companies in most sectors tend to argue), and also warn of job losses if there are outright bans:

We believe that educating children to understand the purpose and context of marketing communications helps them to develop the skills to critically interpret commercial communications in the context of their daily lives. This is crucial in preparing them for interaction with the reality of a media-filled world.

… advertising finances children’s programming on free-to-air television…. 94% of the net revenues coming from advertising aimed at children are reinvested in children's programmes. In the digital economy, there is no alternative method to ensure investment in original children's programming and in the acquisition of programme rights.

… Not only does marketing communications help to guarantee quality children’s programming, it also aids competition in the wider economy, creates jobs and enhances consumer’s choices of goods and services. In return, advertisers are active and enthusiastic supporters of strong self-regulation ensuring that we meet the expectations of parents, regulators, and society at large.

Education and self-regulation deliver effective and responsible marketing communications.

Advertising and Children, The Responsible Advertising and Children Programme, 18th March 2007

With less programming for children, they may end up watching more adult content, as Juliet Schor notes, also writing in the Nordicom publication mentioned earlier. However, she seems to disagree with the view above, that “there is no alternative” to advertising for financing children’s programming:

Bans also raise the possibility of negative unintended consequences. For example, if a ban on advertising to children were to be enacted, it would reduce the financing available for children’s programming. If the quantity and quality of their programming declined, children would be likely to watch more adult media. This, in turn, would expose them to other types of inappropriate advertising and content. At the very least, government regulations on advertising need to be coupled with adequate financing mechanisms for quality children’s programming.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.113)

Schor also notes that one exception to the above concerns would be in schools, where the additional concerns with bans (legal, logistical, pragmatic) are not as difficult in a controlled environment such as school.

In addition, a study for the European Commission finds that,

restrictive national regulatory measures do not necessarily have a direct negative impact on advertising investment for children’s products.

This being the case, the different situations that exist in the European Union countries do not appear to favour the adoption of uniform regulatory measures via a Directive. National provisions or self-regulatory measure codes appear to be more adequate.

The impact of control measures on television advertising—Comparative international study, A Study for the European Commission, July 2005

A paper in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, notes that media education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents.

Schor also makes the interesting point that while education may be important (also one of the things suggested above by the RACP), it doesn’t always work when needed:

Industry practitioners point to [a study showing children] mistrust [advertising] as proof that children cannot be influenced. But the available research finds that the presence of skepticism does not affect desire for the advertised product, even for nine and ten year olds. Despite expressing doubts about ads, kids remain vulnerable to their persuasive powers. Furthermore, although media literacy has been encouraged as a solution to some of the problems raised by children’s inability to watch ads critically, at least some research finds that it does not affect children while they are actually watching ads. In one study of nine and ten year olds, exposure to a media literacy film did not subsequently affect their thoughts while they viewed advertisements, because they did not retrieve the consumer knowledge they learned from the film.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.107)

In food advertising, for example, Schor notes that “Decades of studies show that food marketing to children is effective” (p.108. See also Pediatric Studies Link TV Advertising with 'Global Fattening' from the W. P. Carey School of Business, University of Arizona, March 29, 2006).

In addition, “food advertising is contributing to major changes in eating habits,” leading to concerns of obesity epidemics in the US and elsewhere. “Over the long term, food marketing is likely to prove to be the most harmful commercial influence on children, because it will affect so much a large fraction of children, with such serious consequences for their health and well-being.” (p.109).

Can Industry be trusted to Self-regulate?

Schor also find claims of self-regulation by food companies to be dubious and is quoted again:

The food corporations have also tried to control the discourse by making some concessions, and through skillful use of public relations concerning those concessions. For example, Kraft recently got wide coverage for an announcement that was interpreted as a commitment to stop advertising a subset of its most unhealthy products to children, although the actual change will likely be less significant than was widely interpreted… McDonald’s garnered widespread positive attention for an announcement that it was abandoning the use of trans-fats, a shift it has failed to carry out. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a group originally funded by Philip Morris, which also receives funding from restaurant chains, soft drink companies and other food corporations, has engaged in substantial public relations, advertising, research and lobbying activity in order to discredit food industry critics.… In January 2005, industry formed the Alliance for American Advertising (AAA), a new organization whose purpose is to protect companies’ rights to advertise to children. The Alliance includes Kellogg, General Mills and Kraft, and has openly questioned the link between advertising and obesity, a reprise of tobacco strategy. The formation of the AAA should be interpreted as a sign that the critics are making progress—however, the current political environment is hardly favorable.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.102)

Since writing the above, a number of food companies have said they will volunteer to cut ads directed towards children, as reported by the International Herald Tribune (December 11, 2007). The companies, Coca-Cola, Groupe Danone, Burger King, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Ferrero and Unilever, “agreed not to advertise food and beverages on television programs, Web sites or in print media where children under age 12 could be considered a target audience, except for products that met specific nutrition criteria.”

While such an announcement seems welcome, given Schor’s concerns above, some skepticism may be wise. With public awareness of such issues in Europe increasing in recent years, companies may have a harder time avoiding such responsibilities, self-imposed or not, so maybe critics of advertising have that to hold on to as hope that this is indeed a positive move.

3 years on from the above announcement, The Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score (FACTS) — an organization developed by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to scientifically measure food marketing to youth — found that some of the pledges to reduce advertising to children had actually reversed.

In a detailed study, it found that the fast food industry continues to “relentlessly” market to youth. For example,

  • The average preschooler (2-5) sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children (6-11) see three-and-a-half; and teens see almost five.
  • Children’s exposure to fast food TV ads is increasing, even for ads from companies who have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children.
  • Children see more than just ads intended for kids. More than 60% of fast food ads viewed by children (2-11) were for foods other than kids’ meals.

Some $4.2 billion was spent in 2009, a fifth of which was by McDonald’s alone. TV accounted for the bulk of the advertising (86%) though Internet marketing was increasing. (See p.51 of their main report, Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth PDF formatted document (November 2010), for the details)

The organization suggested changing the industry-defined definition of television programs that require restrictions on the type of advertising aimed at children. Rather than restrictions only applying when the program is created solely for children, it wants a broader standard, such as the total number of children that watch a program. That would extend the reach of child friendly advertising guidelines to such broadly popular shows as American Idol and Glee. (See p.14 of the report)

As of January 1, 2008, the UK has extended the April 2007 ban of junk food ads aimed at 7 to 9 year olds to ban junk food ads for all children under 16. However, campaigners feel the ban is flawed as it only applies to children’s programming, not say family shows. They want the ban extended to all programs before the “watershed” (9pm).

In addition, the concerns raised above by Schor and others about less ad revenue and thus reduced quality programming are all surfacing here. A BBC news television broadcast reporting on this also noted that some broadcasters are considering advertising from other sectors, even car manufacturers. If this occurs, then this will be using so-called “nag factor” marketing, where such advertising aims to get children to nag their parents to buy a product/service (discussed more below).

A Channel 4 broadcast in the UK (January 8, 2008) also noted that some companies, rather then directly advertising to children, are sponsoring children’s programs so that their branding is still prevalent and increasing advertising on the Internet.

In that same broadcast, the reporter interviewed the Chief Executive of the Advertising Association, Baroness Buscombe who said that this type of advertising “is responsible, and its fun! its entertaining!” It is hard to tell what is more surprising, that she said it was fun and entertaining, or that the reporter didn’t challenge her as to what that had to do with advertisers trying to skirt around the ban and still target children.

Another type of approach that has been taken to address some of these concerns are counter-ads. These have been reasonably successful in campaigning against tobacco use by children, for example. But it has not been as successful on wider issues as Schor once again is quoted:

To date, this strategy has been stymied by the fact that truly powerful anti-ad messaging is difficult to get on the airwaves and almost impossible to sustain. The Truth campaign was ended quickly. The networks have repeatedly refused to show Adbusters anti-consumerist ads, in part on grounds that they will offend their advertisers. Surprisingly, there are no First Amendment rights for groups that want to promote an anti-consumerist message. Media outlets are corporate entities that depend on other corporate entities to earn profits, and they have historically resisted messages that jeopardize that relationship.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.114)

Taxing junk food?

Some studies suggest that economic instruments (such as price rises or taxation) of unhealthy foods might have an effect, but it is not guaranteed. For example,

This review found no direct scientific evidence of a causal relationship between policy-related economic instruments and food consumption, including foods high in saturated fats. Indirect evidence suggests that such a causal relationship is plausible, though it remains to be demonstrated by rigorous studies in community settings.

C. Goodman, A. Anise, What is known about the effectiveness of economic instruments to reduce consumption of foods high in saturated fats and other energy-dense foods for preventing and treating obesity?, Health Evidence Network, World Health Organisation, July 2006

What is not clear from such studies is does it measure the impact of habituation? That is, once you open Pandora’s box, is it harder to close? Does this mean that different measures could apply to different age groups? E.g. if price rises or some kind of regulation on advertising to older children and adults has limited effect, does that necessarily apply to younger children? And if younger children have less advertising targeted at them in early ages, will such regulation be needed as they grow older or would cultural norms just result in less of it, naturally?

The food industry will of course be against measures such as taxing junk food, instead preferring things like exercise and individual responsibility instead (though an individual — often poor on time — versus professional marketing usually suggests an imbalance in available information and decision-making).

In mid-November, 2010, the BBC’s Panorama explored this notion of “taxing the fat”, saying that Britain is the fattest nation in Europe, and wondered whether it was time to consider such a tax as it may help the National Health Service afford the various costs associated with this problem.

The documentary also went to Denmark — the first country in the world to implement such a tax — to see how it was working there, and to the US, where it explained how a proposal to tax sugary drinks like Coca Cola has met with fierce opposition.

It found that there were signs of young people losing weight in the already heavily taxed Denmark, although older adults were still gaining weight.

The documentary also implied that the current UK Health Secretary wasn’t keen on the idea and that his view was in line with the fast food industry, as targets and other measures may be lowered, as well as funding for current health campaigns for more active lives.

Exercise and individual responsibility has been the food industry’s preferred alternative to regulation (it avoids extra costs on the industry, which industry representatives claim would cost jobs and competitiveness, and while it transfers extra burden and cost onto consumers, they are often ready to sell more in relation to that as described further below).

However, the documentary also noted that more and more studies are showing that while both diet and exercise are crucial to healthy lives, the balance isn’t necessarily 50-50. Instead, diet appears to have a much larger bearing on people’s health and obesity. In addition, the numerous amounts of calories now available in fast foods are so high that the levels of exercise needed to burn the excess off is immense. Many people wouldn’t have that time.

One potential use of the tax would be to subsidize healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables. But, a potential problem with taxing junk food is that many fruits and other healthy ingredients are often used in unhealthy foods such as sweets and sugary drinks, and even cosmetics and other products such as shampoos. So how can you ensure the tax proceeds are used appropriately?)

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Corporatization of Education

The education system in the USA, for example, has turned into a hugely profitable business estimated to be worth around $650 billion. From commercial-filled Channel One which many students must watch, sponsored and selective educational material, to commercialized school field trips the school system is bombarded by commercialism.

As well as children being targeted via the education system in the USA, as mentioned above, there is increasing concern at ad campaigns that are increasingly targeting children to be consumers and overly conscious about materialistic things, perhaps even at the expense of human qualities. One of the main reasons for such a fascination in children in this way is because of the potential purchasing power that children have.

“In my practice I see kids becoming incredibly consumerist,” said Kanner, who is based at the Wright Institute, a graduate psychology school in Berkeley, Calif. “The most stark example is when I ask them what they want to do when they grow up. They all say they want to make money. When they talk about their friends, they talk about the clothes they wear, the designer labels they wear, not the person’s human qualities.”

“In the 1960s, children aged 2 to 14 directly influenced about $5 billion in parental purchases,” McNeal [professor of marketing at Texas A&M University] wrote [in an April 1998 article in American Demographics]. “In the mid-1970s, the figure was $20 billion, and it rose to $50 billion by 1984. By 1990, kids’ direct influence had reached $132 billion, and in 1997, it may have peaked at around $188 billion. Estimates show that children’s aggregate spending roughly doubled during each decade of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and has tripled so far in the 1990s.”

Miriam H. Zoll, Psychologists Challenge Ethics Of Marketing To Children, American News Service, April 5, 2000

And possibly as an example of a more bizarre sounding use of resources to get children to become more active, in Britain, a chocolate company was promoting sports equipment in return for vouchers and coupons from chocolate bars. The more you ate, the more sports equipment you would get, presumably to burn off the excesses eaten! The UK’s Food Commission called this “absurd and contradictory” and pointed out that if children consumed all the promotional chocolate bars they would eat nearly two million kilos of fat and more than 36 billion calories.

The BBC, reporting on this (April 29, 2003), commented the following, amongst other things:

  • One set of posts and nets for volleyball would require tokens from 5,440 bars of chocolate
  • This would require spending £2,000 (about $3,500) on chocolate and wolfing their way through 1.25 million calories, some 2 million kilos of fat.
  • A basketball would be 170 bars of chocolate, which, if it were to be burned off, a 10-year-old child would need to play for 90 hours.

While the confectionary companies suggested that children were going to eat these anyway, others raised concerns that this is promoting more unhealthy eating. The chairman of the UK government’s obesity task force, Professor Phil James, said: “This is a classic example of how the food and soft drink industry are failing to take on board that they are major contributors to obesity problems throughout the world. They always try to divert attention to physical activity.”

What is more, as most British media outlets also highlighted, then Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn, endorsed it.

But this is not the only example. For years, other companies have linked their foods to such schemes for educational or sports equipment for schools. What they get for selling this is branding and future consumers.

This has also been an example of controversial school commercialization which was unanimously condemned at a large teachers union conference in England around the same time.

And towards the end of 2007, as the UK Government launches an inquiry into the possible harmful effects of advertising on children, the BBC reports examples of companies in the classroom, such as a sweet company’s products being used in science experiments, and documentaries being funded in part by commercial agendas.

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A small example of effects of child consumerism

Candy and sweets are often put on stands in shops at the eye level of children. While it would be healthier to have foods, like fruits and vegetables in those places, the bright colors and packaging used to sell sweets are more likely to attract children’s attention.

The dictum of consumerism and corporate capitalism dictates that social good comes through subtle greed and meeting demands of people. Yet, putting candy at the eye level of children creates a demand that otherwise may not have been there, or not have been there in as much intensity. Likewise, highly caffeinated soft drinks that are being consumed more and more, have negative health effects.

In a later section, we will see a deeper pattern of waste of which this is a part. That is, the sugar and related industries, such as confectionaries, soda drinks etc, expend many resources (natural resources, labor, capital etc) on something that is so costly to society (which requires spending even more resources to deal with those costs). Yet, within our current system, all these expenditures are counted towards GDPs! Hence, this waste is not recognized as it is built into our system!

And the influential impact on children provides a longer lasting effect that can continue these cycles.

What is most troubling is that children’s culture has become virtually indistinguishable from consumer culture over the course of the last century. The cultural marketplace is now a key arena for the formation of the sense of self and of peer relationships, so much so that parents often are stuck between giving into a kid’s purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the playground.

Children consumers grow up to be more than just adult consumers. They become mothers and fathers, administrative assistants and bus drivers, nurses and realtors, online magazine editors and assistant professors—in short, they become us who, in turn, make more of them.

Childhood makes capitalism hum over the long haul.

Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now, LiP Magazine, August 20, 2001

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Parental versus Corporate Influence.

To some extent, the criticisms leveled at parents for not being responsible for their children is well-placed. There are many children who appear not to be adversely affected by all these things, so perhaps their parents have instilled good values in them. Yet, at the same time, parents are contending with many commercial entities which all have professional psychologists, sales and marketing experts as well as corporate lawyers and lobbyists to help continue such trends.

Parents also have a hard time providing guidance and influence on their children when there are so many conflicting influences from outside:

Kids not only want things, but have acquired the socially sanctioned right to want—a right which parents are loath to violate. Layered onto direct child enticement and the supposed autonomy of the child-consumer are the day-to-day circumstances of overworked parents: a daily barrage of requests, tricky financial negotiations, and that nagging, unspoken desire to build the life/style they have learned to want during their childhoods.

Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now, LiP Magazine, August 20, 2001

It is especially hard for parents if they themselves grew up with aspects of that consumerist culture:

The children’s market works because it lives off of deeply-held beliefs about self-expression and freedom of choice—originally applied to the political sphere, and now almost inseparable from the culture of consumption. Children’s commercial culture has quite successfully usurped kids’ boundless creativity and personal agency, selling these back to them—and us—as “empowerment,” a term that appeases parents while shielding marketers.

Linking one’s sense of self to the choices offered by the marketplace confuses personal autonomy with consumer behavior. But, try telling that to a kid who only sees you standing in the way of the Chuck-E-Cheese-ified version of fun and happiness. Kids are keen to the adult-child power imbalance and to adult hypocrisy, especially when they are told to hold their desires in check by a parent who is blind to her or his own materialistic impulses.

Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now, LiP Magazine, August 20, 2001

Juliet Schor, cited earlier, also takes issue with the approach that many companies take when faced with criticism for their advertising: to imply that it is parents responsibility to oversee what their children do and see.

In response to the critics, industry has been vigilant about fending off government regulation and control. In cases where industry accepts the need to ‘protect’ children (e.g., alcohol, violence and other adult content), it has turned to ‘self-regulation’ and voluntary ratings schemes. Typically, these rely on parental oversight. (This is consistent with an over-arching industry position, which is that the responsibility for protecting children lies mainly with parents, not corporations or the government.)

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.111)

However, companies have far more power and influence generally:

Today, the bulk of advertising to children is done by a small number of multi-billion dollar corporations.

… These corporations not only have enormous economic power, but their political influence has never been greater. They have funneled unprecedented sums of money to political parties and officials.

… The power wielded by these corporations is evident in many ways, from their ability to eliminate competitors to their ability to mobilize state power in their interest.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (pp.114-115)

Schor also takes exception to what seems to be companies’ attempts to limit accountability by shifting extra burdens and responsibilities to parents:

Corporate and state abdication of responsibility is rationalized on the grounds that responsibility for adverse child outcomes (e.g., obesity, psychological disorders) lies with parents. Both the ad agencies and their client companies take this point of view. The corporation’s mandate is to make money, the government’s is to help them do so. While sometimes corporations act in superficially pro-social ways which might seem to indicate responsibility (e.g., funding exercise programs or positive nutritional messages), they are usually quite open about the fact that they are acting to forestall regulatory action, and avoid adverse publicity, rather than because they are willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. However, the industry position relies on an excessively ‘heroic’ view of parents, and their ability to prevail against the corporate giants. Indeed, parents are losing control over their children’s environments in profound ways. This is due to a number of factors, including the concerted attempts of the corporations to wrest that control. At the core of the corporate strategy is the attempt to undermine parental authority, through direct targeting of children, so-called ‘nag factor’ marketing, deliberate anti-parent messages, and infiltration of parent-free environments such as schools.

… Economic pressures, such as the need for households to work many more hours to support themselves have also undermined parental control.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (pp.116-117)

Schor also asks why it is that governments typically acknowledge their own role when parents fail to prevent or engage in violence, neglect, and abuse, yet when it comes to addressing harm induced from commercialism, governments are less visible in their actions. (p.117)

Baroness Buscombe, Chief Executive of the Advertising Association in UK, was mentioned earlier when talking of companies trying to work around the UK ban of junk food advertising during children’s programs. She also voiced the line that Schor finds typical from such associations and related interest, saying that “it is not advertising that is affecting the volume of food they are eating, it is parental responsibility”

So, if advertisers claim it is parental responsibility and advertising has little or no effect on children, then why are they doing it?

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Commercialization of childhood itself

Commercialization of public and religious holidays helps promote sales as well. Christmas time in numerous countries, such as the United States, sees a very high amount of consumerism. The toy industry for example depends on Christmas quite a lot. The promotion of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Father Christmas and an almost benign factory (or workshop) of elves and so forth producing toys for free, was a boost to commercialize Christmas, especially for children.

The recent hype and success of Harry Potter, as well as other children’s characters has led to further sales for toy manufacturers. But as well as perhaps bringing joy and fun to children, as a report from U.S.-based National Labor Committee says, for workers who have to make these toys, these can be “Toys of Misery.” Quoted from that report here at length, is part of the preface:

When you go into a Wal-Mart or a Toys 'R' Us store to purchase Harry Potter or Disney’s Monsters Inc., Mattel’s Barbie, Sesame Street, Hasbro’s Star Wars or Pokemon do you ever think of the young women in China forced to work 16 hours a day, from 8:00 a.m. to 12 midnight, seven days a week, 30 days a month, for months on end, for wages of 17 cents an hour? Workers forced to work overtime, but cheated of their pay? Do you ever imagine women working all day long in 104-degree temperatures, handling toxic glues, paints and solvents, women fainting, nauseous, sick to their stomachs? Women housed 16 to a dorm room and trying to get by on four hours of sleep a night? Workers whose bodies ache, who are exhausted from racing through the same operations 3,000 times a day, day in and day out? Women who are fired when they get sick? Workers who have no rights, and who--if they try to defend their most basic, internationally recognized human and worker rights, will be immediately fired and blacklisted? Workers who are worn out and used up by the time they reach 30 or 35 years of age and are removed to be replaced with another crop of young teenagers?

Unfortunately, this is the real world behind the toys we purchase in the United States. And we do purchase a staggering number of toys each year: 3.6 billion toys in the year 2000 alone—76 million dolls, 349 million plush toys, 125 million action figures, 279 million hot wheels and matchbox cars, 88 million sporting goods items and so on. This is big industry. We spend $29.4 billion a year on toys.

Eighty percent of all the toys we purchase are imports, and 71 percent of those are from China. More than one out of every two toys we purchase in the U.S. is made in China. We purchase hundreds of millions of toys each year that are made in China, but when was the last time we heard from a toy worker in China about their working conditions and lives? Even once? Ever? Isn’t it a little strange that we know so little?

In 2000, U.S. toy companies spent $837 million on advertising. The companies do not want us to know or to think, just to buy.

Toys of Misery; A Report on the Toy Industry in China, National Labor Committee, December 2001

Another example related both to children as well as the more general culture and media, is that of Disney, as mentioned on this web site’s media ownership section.

No one’s really worrying about what it’s [advertising to children] is teaching impressionable youth. Hey, I’m in the business of convincing people to buy things they don’t need.

an advertising executive, in Business Week, August 11, 1997, quoted by Richard Robbins

Schor is concerned about the implications of all this:

The unchecked growth of corporate power, and its fusion with state power, has led to a situation in which children’s interests and well-being cannot be adequately ensured. What children eat, the programming they watch, the toys they play with, the curriculums they learn in schools, perhaps the name of their school gymnasium (or school), and even the books they read … are provided by companies whose commitment to their welfare is minimal or absent.… Public policy to protect children, which for decades has been the basis of society’s response to problems generated in the market, will not be forthcoming. This is the new reality that children’s advocates must confront.

Juliet Schor, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.116. Emphasis is original)

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Some may still argue that there is not anything wrong with businesses trying to make sales and profit. However, the effects of things like mass consumption, the intense advertising, and targeting to children and its impacts over so many aspects of daily lives is of concern.

The effects of constantly buying things while discarding older but often functioning things, also increases demands on the world’s resources for this consumption, resulting in more waste to be managed and even more exploitation other people to labor over this (in some cases, poor children are producing items such as toys that rich children play with), and so on.

From a different perspective altogether, the labor employed by the advertising industry directed towards children could be another example of “wasted labor”, (which therefore wastes capital and resources), and that labor could be used more effectively and efficiently elsewhere. (We will look at this notion of wasted labor a bit further on in this section on consumption and consumerism.)

And all this while many still go hungry and poor because their lands are being used to export away food and other resources for producing products to be consumed elsewhere. It is in this way that the pressure and drive for profits has led to an over-commercialized consumerism, which has wider effects around the world and on the unseen majority peoples of the world, which we look at next.

Image credits: “Variation in body fat”, by Walter Siegmund; “Kyoto arcade”, by Ethan Hein; “McDonald’s Happy Meal” by Christina Kennedy

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Friday, September 07, 2001
  • Last Updated: Sunday, November 21, 2010

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Document Revision History

DateReason
November 21, 2010Added some more about food industry’s attempt at self regulation as well as some notes about taxing junk food
January 8, 2008Updated child consumption statistics and added more information on the challenges of addressing the harmful effects of advertising to children. (Remainder remains untouched since May 14, 2003 — for now)

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.