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.
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.
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.”
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 . 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.)
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Added some more about food industry’s attempt at self regulation as well as some notes about taxing junk food
January 8, 2008
Updated 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.