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.
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
$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.
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.
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:
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).
And advertising to children isn’t just for purchasing children’s items; they influence other items:
This has long been understood:
(The other key point in the quote above is that markets here are not meeting needs, but creating needs.)
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.
In the European Union, by 2001, revenues to television networks and producers have reached between $620 and $930 million16. 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
17 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.
Manipulating children’s views of the world
As detailed further on this site’s section on Media and Advertising19, 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
Ulla Carlsson, Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age20, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.13)
Market forces and relations
Pressures and lobbies
Public opinion and criticism
Norms and ethics
After going into these in a bit more depth, Carlsson concludes that no one measure is necessarily effective on its own,
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:
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:
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,
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 adolescents25.
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:
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'27 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:
Since writing the above, a number of food companies have said they will volunteer to cut ads directed towards children29, 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)30 — 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
31 (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 1632. However, campaigners feel the ban is flawed33 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:
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,
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 fat36, 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?)
The education system in the USA, for example, has turned into a hugely profitable business37 estimated to be worth around $650 billion. From commercial-filled Channel One38 which many students must watch, sponsored and selective educational material39, to commercialized school field trips40 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 children41 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.
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, 200343), 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 branding44 and future consumers.
This has also been an example of controversial school commercialization45 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 children46, the BBC reports examples of companies in the classroom47, such as a sweet company’s products being used in science experiments, and documentaries being funded in part by commercial agendas.
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 effects48.
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.
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:
It is especially hard for parents if they themselves grew up with aspects of that consumerist culture:
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.
However, companies have far more power and influence generally:
Schor also takes exception to what seems to be companies’ attempts to limit accountability by shifting extra burdens and responsibilities to parents:
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?
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 depends55 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:
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 ownership57 section.
Schor is concerned about the implications of all this:
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 Siegmund59; Kyoto arcade, by Ethan Hein60; McDonald’s Happy Meal by Christina Kennedy61
0 articles on “Children as Consumers” and 2 related issues:
Added some more about food industry’s attempt at self regulation as well as some notes about taxing junk food
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)