Jonathan Rowe and Gary Ruskin claim that our culture of consumption is undermining parenting.
Paul Kurnit is the president of KidShop, an advertising firm that specialises in marketing to children, and he has plans for our kids.
‘Kid business has become big business,’ Kurnit says. To make it even bigger, he preaches what he calls ‘surround marketing’ – saturation advertising that captures kids at every possible moment.
‘You’ve got to reach kids throughout the day – in school, as they’re shopping at the mall, or at the movies,’ says Carol Herman, a senior vice president at Grey Advertising. ‘You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.’
This is what parents today are up against – corporate advertisers who seek to entwine themselves with children’s lives. By most measures, they are succeeding. Each week, the typical American child takes in some 38 hours (yes, a full work week) of commercial media, with its endless ads and come-ons. And that’s not counting the ads that commandeer their attention from billboards and the Internet, the omnipresent brand logos, and the advertising that increasingly fills the schools.
This pathology is spreading rapidly. The manufacturers of junk food target children in just about every corner of the planet. For example, Coca-Cola bought worldwide exclusive marketing rights for the movie ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ for US$150 million. McDonald’s has used ‘Winnie the Pooh’, ‘101 Dalmatians’, ‘Nemo’ and the ‘Beanie Babies’, among others, to sell its high-calorie Happy Meals. Even Unicef has joined the global junk food brigade, as a partner in ‘McDonald’s World Children’s Day’. With the ubiquitous marketing for junk food, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity rates are rising – along with family conflicts over what kids will eat.
At the same time, movies have become seductive come-ons for the tobacco industry. Kids are mimics, and ad agencies know this. They know that kids who see smoking in movies are far more likely to smoke themselves. A recent study in the British medical journal Lancet found that about half of adolescents who started smoking did so because of smoking in the movies. The human toll of such marketing to teens is enormous. According to a World Health Organisation survey, about 250 million children alive today suffer from tobacco-related diseases.
The lives of Europe’s children are so saturated in advertising that when Sweden assumed the Presidency of the European Union in 2001, it proposed banning televised marketing to children. EU advertising agencies and business lobbies managed to defeat the proposal, but that it even came up is telling.
The merchandise pushers have invaded the commons of childhood, the free open spaces of imagination and play, and turned it into a free-fire zone of commercial importuning. In some quarters, this appalling situation is seen as success. ‘There have never been more ways to support marketing towards kids,’ enthuses Kidscreen, a publication for ad firms and corporations that target kids. (That there’s a market for such a publication is revealing.)
Corporate advertisers have contrived to wedge themselves into the space between parents and their children. They enlist the best psychologists and market researchers money can buy to lure kids to products and values many of us don’t approve of and even abhor. Parents find themselves in a grim daily battle to keep these forces at bay.
Not that long ago, parents actually had control over the front doors of their homes. Sure, a kid might hide a racy magazine under the mattress, but little came into the house without the parents’ okay. Even outside the home and school, for adults to approach kids with the thought of influencing them was considered an antisocial act, and offenders could be put in jail.
The invention of electronic media changed all that. The history of the last century, in fact, could be written as the story of how marketers contrived to bypass parents and speak directly to impressionable children. The front door became a permeable membrane, admitting the advertising industry to its promised land. Children are ‘natural and enthusiastic buyers’ a child psychologist wrote in the 1938 book, ‘Reaching Juvenile Markets’. For advertisers, he went on, there was a ‘tremendous sales potential’.
Psychologists, who are supposed to help children, were now employed to help ensnare them. No longer were such adults considered predators; because they wore suits, sat in offices, and operated at a distance through the media, they were respectable executives and even ‘pioneers’. In the 1930s, the medium was radio; sponsors of children’s shows included nutritious cereals and breakfast drinks – products that parents actually might want their kids to have – and the ads themselves seem almost tame by today’s standards. The young ear is not as impressionable as the eye, and advertisers were still concerned that Mom or Dad might be listening.
Then came television and the beginning of the modern era in the assault on kids. Television is inferior to radio as a story-telling medium; radio engages the imagination, while television numbs it. But as an advertising medium, television is unsurpassed. Children want what they see and, with television, advertisers could offer an endless parade of things to want. After Welch’s grape juice became a sponsor of the ‘Howdy Doody’ show in the 1950s, sales of grape juice to families with young children increased almost five-fold.
Increasingly, advertisers had the children to themselves. Few parents sat through the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ or the Saturday morning cartoon shows. Even shows for general audiences held untapped possibilities. Since kids are the most impressionable audience in the house, why not enlist them as sales agents in regard to everything the family bought? ‘Eager minds can be moulded to want your products!’ enthused a firm that produced ‘education’ materials for schools. ‘Sell these children on your brand name, and they will insist that their parents buy no other.’
Corporations literally were alienating the loyalty of children away from their parents and toward themselves. Television figures became surrogate parents who pushed consumption at every turn. The matronly host of one popular children’s show actually popped vitamins and urged her preschool viewers to tell their mothers to go to the drug store and pick the bottles with the pretty red pills.
Some parents did resist. In the 1950s there often were a few kids in the neighbourhood who weren’t allowed to watch TV. But most parents then, as now, were reluctant to deny their kids what their friends had. Moreover, parents themselves were caught up in the commercial euphoria of the post-war years, when a new car or television seemed a just reward for the hardships of the Depression and a world war.
Soon the commercial saturation of childhood became the new norm, and people hardly noticed any more. An entire industry arose to mould young minds to crave products, and to cast parents into the subordinate role as financiers for these fabricated wants. It is not comforting to know that there are marketing consultants advising corporations on how to harness the ‘nag factor’ to increase sales. Nagging, they contend, spurs about a third of family trips to fast-food restaurants, and of purchases of videos and clothing.
And what about the naggees in this arrangement? Parents become little more than deep pockets to be siphoned by kids whose role is to influence purchases. They encounter this scenario at every turn: They take the kids to a sports event and are barraged by ads. They buy a video for them and find that it is choc-a-bloc with ‘product placements’– brand-name products that are built into the story.
Parents feel the heavy breathing of the marketers even on their littlest ones. ‘The Teletubbies’, for example, is an animated TV show aimed at toddlers as young as one year. The producers portray it as educational. But the Teletubbies have also been called a ‘major big bucks opportunity’. The show has done promotions with Burger King and McDonalds. If that’s education, it’s not the kind most parents have in mind.
For kids the role of consumer ‘superstars’ – as they have been called – has meant an epidemic of marketing-related diseases. Kids are fatter than ever, and rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes are soaring. Teenage girls have become obsessed with their bodies, due largely to the images of physical perfection that barrage them in fashion magazines and ads. More than half of all US high school girls say they were on diets during the previous month. Likewise, eating disorders are now the third leading chronic illness among adolescent girls.
Drinking is a problem, too. A study found that the more a beer company spends on advertising, the more likely seventh to twelfth-graders are to know about that beer – and to drink it. Perhaps not coincidentally, alcohol is a factor in the four main causes of death among young people ages 10 to 24: car crashes, other accidents, homicide, and suicide.
The merchants of death are adept at using marketing to undermine the good influence of parents. Tobacco marketing is especially successful at counteracting parents who encourage their children not to smoke. Each day, another 3,000 children start to smoke; roughly a third of them will have their lives shortened due to smoking-related illnesses.
Added to all this is the production of misery and dissension in the home. Our children are being coached and prodded in the arts of petulance and nagging, by those whose sole purpose is to turn them into conduits for their parents’ money.
Business Week, no enemy of corporate America, perhaps put it best: ‘Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important, today’s marketing-driven culture is instilling in [children] a sense that little exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is something you buy at a shopping mall.’
Jonathan Rowe is director of the Tomales Bay Institute, which fights for the preservation of public property and spaces. More information: www.earthisland.org/tbi.
Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org), whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere and prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Ode’s request the authors reworked this article, which was previously published in Mothering (January/February 2003) – an American magazine that celebrates ‘the experience of parenting’ with personal stories and investigative journalism in the areas of childrearing and health. For subscription information: PO Box 1690, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504, United States, email@example.com, www.mothering.com.