Children’s consumption and marketing to children are big business.
Children are the target of marketing for everything from toys and sweets to cosmetics, fast foods and the family car.
Children have their own money to spend, and they influence family spending. For example, in June 2013, AdWeek reported that ‘fully one-third of parents report their kids are “extremely influential” on household purchases big and small’. And with new methods such as ‘advergaming’, it is becoming harder for parents and carers to moderate the impact of marketing to children.
So is this fair? Can children cope with advertising tactics? Are there harms to children?
We know that young children, in particular, are not at the stage of development where they can recognise ads as separate from program content, or recognise their selling intent. This doesn’t generally arrive until 7 or 8 when children can take the perspective of another person and understand that someone will engage in exaggeration or puffery in order to sell them something.
We know that children will choose branded products over unbranded ones- even preferring ‘McDonald’s’ branded carrots to just plain carrots! Many parents certainly have experienced pester power in supermarkets for advertised products. They may not know that older children can be made anxious by ads because they know ads don’t always tell the truth, but are not sure they know when they are. But we all know (don’t we?) that even adults are influenced by ads even though they’re supposedly aware of the tricks of the trade.
Pestering can be painful, annoying; conflicts over wants vs needs can cause unwanted stress, and the development of materialistic attitudes are troubling to many. Children’s professionals point to the impacts of food ads on children’s eating preferences, and to the impacts on self-esteem of ads that push young children to want to be thin, hot and s*xy. ACCM and others lobby about these issues and also against the active promotion of violent M-classified movies to young children, via their toys and accessories.
Some parents seem unconcerned about the impacts, others find them deceptive and annoying. Some are resentful of the pressures placed on them as a result of advertising but find it difficult to counter them, others just give up the struggle. The blockages that keep parents from doing something appear to include their own capture by commercialism, not wanting to impose their values, fear of being different, time pressures, expectations of immediate solutions, parent-child conflict, and a feeling that they are the only one struggling with the problem.
But it shouldn’t just be up to parents: what about big business? It’s important to know how much (or little) concern the marketing industry has about what US commentator Robert McChesney describes as the ‘externalities’ of advertising to children. “Externalities are the social and economic costs of market transactions that do not factor into the decision-making of the product’s buyer or seller…advertising…is a market activity that has significant externalities in the type of materialistic values that it incessantly promotes.” His view is that “the media corporations simply turn children upside down until all the money falls out of their pockets (and their parents!), and then they let go” (McChesney 2002).
Is this a view taken by all big business? Can some businesses be persuaded to take a more careful look at the externalities of selling to children? Are there corporations now that are examining and taking children’s rights as consumers into account?
The role of business in the area of human rights has received growing international attention over recent decades. Is it time to start thinking about the protection of child’s rights in this context – about children as consumers? What does the Convention on the Rights of the Child have to say?
In presenting the Rights of the Child Consumer conference in Sydney on November 20, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Council on Children and the Media and Flinders Law School will provide a forum for the exploration of related issues. They aim to start a national conversation and reflection on questions such as:
* Do existing consumer laws and codes of practice adequately protect children?
* How can we help to ensure children are informed and empowered as consumers?
* What are some examples of business good practice in addressing the needs of the child consumer?
* What are the benefits to business of becoming champions of children’s rights?
More information about this conference can be found at http://childrenandmedia.org.au/events/accm-conference
Parents, of course, do have an ongoing role in guarding and guiding their children through the marketing maze. With young children, who are sitting ducks for ads, it’s probably best to keep them out of the firing line as much as possible (DVDs and the ABC might be a good way to go). With older children, co-watching and talking about ads can help develop a measure of discrimination. See below for resources.
Encouraging a “green” lifestyle that connects with nature and is not reliant on products for enjoyment and entertainment, is something all children can benefit from.
Barbara Biggins, Hon CEO, Australian Council on Children and the Media
McChesney, Robert (2002) “Children, globalisation and media policy” p23-32 in Von Feilitzen, Cecilia and Carlsson, Ula (eds) (2002) Children, young people and media globalisation: UNESCO Yearbook