The harmful effects of advertising to children
Advertising aimed at children is nothing new-remember “Trix are for kids”? But in today’s society, the under-thirteen age group is being seduced into consumer culture in increasingly harmful yet subtle ways. Marketers easily influence children’s values by stressing the importance of brand name awareness, which in turn promotes status craze. The theory of conspicuous consumption and the subsequent rise of consumerism can be applied to understand the influence advertising has on young people, and in particular, the creation of “the nag factor”.
The advertiser, like a parent or teacher, can influence the entire process by which a child learns to establish consumption-related values and aspirations. Like an unseen presence, advertising is always there, invisibly guiding the child in these critical, formative years. Spending billions of dollars a year on products, children are becoming not only the world’s greatest consumers but also the world’s most targeted individuals for marketing purposes. Marketing to children is an insidious form of advertising as it creates false needs and encourages the culture of consumerism.
Kid Consumers Children represent a valuable demographic to marketers because “they have their own purchasing power, they influence their parents’ buying decisions and they are the adult consumers of the future” (Media Awareness Network [MAN] “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004). On average, kids between six and fourteen years of age are exposed to an astonishing 40,000 advertisements per year (Strasburger, 2001). Industry spending on advertising to children has increased from $100 million in 1990 to over $2 billion in 2000 (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004).
This is money well spent in the eyes of the company owners. Each year, Canadian children aged six to eight spend $100 million of their own money, while nine to fourteen year olds spend $1. 7 billion. Along with that, those age groups influence almost $15 billion in family purchases each year, from food and toothpaste to cars and cellphones (Reich, 2003). What is wrong with advertisers trying to influence how children spend their money and their parent’s money?
Firstly, children are cognitively and psychologically defenceless against advertising. Advertisers use numerous tricks to target children such as flattery, confusion, co-optation (adopting cultural symbols), psychological and sociological research, and children’s lack of knowledge about the corporate world (Moore, 2004: 42). Studies have proven that children between six and eight years are “developmentally unable to understand the intent of advertisements” and usually accept marketing claims as being true (Strasburger, 2001).
Most children believe that adults do not lie, making them more likely to believe that advertisements always tell the truth. Since the purpose of effective advertising is to make people feel like they really “need” a product, objects are usually shown with stimulating music and visuals that exaggerates the appeal. Children are often manipulated and misled as they do not know that the products shown in commercials may be glamourized on the television compared to quality of the real thing (Moore, 2004: 44).
Marketers also take advantage of parents who are “willing to buy more for their kids because trends such as smaller family size and dual incomes mean that families have more disposable income” (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004). Also, “guilt can play a role in spending decisions as time-stressed parents substitute material goods for time spent with their kids” (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004). Consumerism adopts the idea that money can be substituted for quality time. However, parents today are stressed for time, creating a shift towards fast foods.
The ads are harmful to a child’s health as they blatantly suggest that a child would be happier if he consumes those foods, which are usually full of calories, sugar and fat. Half of all the ads kids see are for food, especially sugared cereal and high-calorie snacks while ads for healthy food make up on 4% of those shown (MAN, “Special Issues for Young Children”, 2004). Studies have proven that ads increase children’s requests for “junk food” and for trips to fast food restaurants, and “changes their fundamental views of healthy nutrition” (MAN, “Special Issues for Young Children”, 2004).
Fast food restaurants have become more aggressive with their marketing, offering incentives such as playgrounds, contests, clubs, games and free toys to kids. Having said this, it is no surprise that obesity among children has become a national epidemic. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, almost one in four children between the ages of seven and twelve are obese (MAN, “Special Issues for Young Children”, 2004). There are concerns that “our consumer saturated culture may be breeding feelings of narcissism, entitlement and dissatisfaction in today’s kids” (Steyer, 2002: 101).
Not only has advertising encouraged materialistic values among children, but children have become convinced that “they’re inferior if they do not have an endless array of new products” (Clay, 2000). People should not be identified by their purchasing power or their consumer habits, but that is how children see themselves reflected in the media-simply as consumers (Clay, 2000). Advertisers do this by building brand name loyalty. Studies have shown that brand loyalties can be established as early as age two, and by the time children enter the school system, most can recognize hundreds of brand logos (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004).
Companies are cashing in on this; trying to “own the child younger and younger so habits are then formed” and a spot in their memory bank are secured for years to come (Moore, 2004: 52). Schools have also become a playground for corporate agendas and consumer messages. Budget cuts are forcing school boards to allow corporations access to students in exchange for money, computers and school supplies (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004). Ads can be seen on school buses, in gymnasiums, on book covers, on athletic team’s uniforms, on cafeteria tray liners and in bathroom stalls (Strasburger, 2001).
Corporations realize the power of the school environment as it “delivers a captive youth audience and implies the endorsement of teachers and the educational system” (MAN, “How Marketers Target Kids”, 2004). Overall, children are bombarded with billboards, posters, commercials, flyers, radio broadcasts, internet games and other forms of marketing each day at school, at home with their family, with friends, using the computer, finishing up homework or by simply walking down the street.
They are being inundated with corporate messages and slogans by the minute which promote consumerism and materialistic behaviour. Conspicuous Consumption Thorstein Veblen’s major contribution to modern conflict theory lies in the fact that he was “one of the few early American sociologists to analyze the roots of power and conflict in a broad historical context” (Wallace and Wolf, 1999: 75). He analyzed society in terms of conflicting interests between different social and economic groups (Wallace and Wolf, 1999: 75).
He was also interested in the parts of human nature that underlie social behaviour. In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to refer to the practice of acquiring goods beyond what one needs for survival (Kline, 1993: 5). He referred to the acquisition of goods for “purposes of show and status, a practice that was, at the time, affordable only by the wealthy, those whom he called the leisure class” (Kline, 1993: 5).
Veblen argued that as society becomes wealthy, it becomes wasteful and people use their wealth to acquire status symbols in order to impress others. According to Veblen these “status symbols had to be both expensive and useless” in order to be acceptable to the leisure class (Kline, 1993: 5). A large part of people’s behaviour, Veblen argued, especially styles of consumption and leisure, can be explained by the desire for the high esteem of others (Wallace and Wolf, 1999: 76).
In the century since it was written, Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption has expanded to include many more people than those in the leisure class. Many adults and children are conspicuous consumers without even realizing it, going far beyond what is needed for sustenance (Kline, 1993: 6). People have unknowingly redefined the term “luxury” so that they consider what may be defined as luxuries to be necessities.
In a society that promotes six-bedroom houses for four-person families, designer clothing, fully-loaded SUVs, 50-inch plasma screens, PlayStations, iPods, DVD players, and microwaves, people are going far beyond what they need for sustenance an including what we “need” for convenience and comfort – yet we consider these things to be necessities (Kline, 1993: 6). The new definition of “need” demonstrates that many adults and children have become members of the “leisure class” without being members of the most affluent and privileged group of society (Kline, 1993: 6).
Consumerism The link between Veblen’s theory of consumption and the rise of childhood consumerism is evident. Consumerism is the tendency to define oneself by the purchases of goods and services. Kid’s consumer culture “takes an intimate thing-the realization and expression of self-and fuses it with a distant system-the production of goods, services and media in an impersonal market” (Cook, 2001). Since advertising creates and sustains an ideology of consumption, it is a social force that must be analyzed for impact and influence.
Consumerism encourages a cult of individualism by focusing on the needs-real or artificial-of the consumer and, in doing so, diverts attention from larger societal concerns. For instance, physical fitness levels are declining as child obesity rates soar. “Boys are sacrificing social skills and school scores in pursuit of manual dexterity with the latest PlayStation, and girls are struggling with the contrast between the fashion industry’s definition of beauty and their reflections in the mirror” (Graydon, 2003).
Children’s culture has become virtually indistinguishable from consumer culture over the course of the last century (Cook, 2001). The cultural marketplace is now an important place 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” (Cook, 2001). Advertisers are fully aware of this and infuse their pitches with messages that prey upon the emotional weaknesses and insecurities of children (Ruskin, 1999).
In Ruskin’s article, he interviews Nancy Shalek who is the president of an advertising company. She admits that: Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re emotionally vulnerable (1999). Advertising encourages children to overvalue the material world. It sells the belief that appiness lies in possessing and consuming material goods. Since advertising has to constantly push new products, it eventually sells the notion that consumption is unlimited and that in order to ‘stay happy’ they must keep buying, replacing one product or brand with a newer, stronger, better one to attain greater satisfaction and acceptance from peers (Steyer, 2002: 100). Since children are not yet decision-makers and are still without the means to buy most of the products advertised, they resort to requesting or demanding that their parents buy these things for them.
Case Study: The Nag Factor “The Nag Factor” is sometimes referred to as “pester power” or “the nudge factor” but essentially, the aim of most advertisers is the same-get kids to incessantly nag their parents (Schlosser, 2002: 43). James McNeal writes in his book Kids Market that children aged five to twelve “make around fifteen requests in a typical visit to a shopping setting with parents, around five requests a day at home, and on a vacation approximately ten requests a day-in all, around three thousand product/service requests per year” (Steyer, 2002: 105).
He classifies nagging tactics into seven major categories. A pleading nag is one with repetitions of words like “please, please” or “mom, mom, mom”. A persistent nag involves constant requests with “I’ll ask one more time”. Forceful nags are very aggressive and could include subtle threats. Demonstrative nags are characterized by tantrums in public places, tears, or refusal to leave the store. Sugar-coated nags promise love in return for the product. Threatening nags involve blackmail, vows of eternal hatred or running away if the item is not purchased.
Pity nags claim the child will be devastated or teased if the item is not purchased (Schlosser, 2002: 44). Dan Cook (2001), writes: Observe a child and parent in a department store. That high-pitched whining you’ll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of a single kid bent on getting a box of Froot 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 olled into a single “Mommy, pleeeease! ” A nationally representative telephone study of 750 American youth ages 12-17, commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream and conducted in May, 2002 by Widmeyer Communications offered insight about how young people felt about “the nag factor”, consumerism, and advertising. (The questions that were asked during the telephone survey were not available on the website nor was there any indication as to where to find the questions, however the margin of error for the poll was included at +/- 3. 5%).
According to this survey, 81% of the kids who ask their parents for money or permission to buy a product, 4 in 10 say they know in advance that their parents will disapprove of the purchase before they even ask. Nearly 6 in 10 keep nagging – on average nine times – in hopes that their parents will give in (Center for a New American Dream [CNAD], 2002). This “keep asking strategy” is paying huge dividends for kids and marketers alike: 55% of the young people surveyed said that they are usually successful in getting their parents to give in (CNAD, 2002).
Three to seven year olds, especially, tend to “want it all” according to youth marketing expert Dan Acuff; “they love to accumulate stuff-and thanks to the fact that their critical/logical/rational mind is not fully developed, they’re easy targets for consumer messages” (Steyer, 2002: 106). Parents are also easy targets for marketers-especially in double-income families where the parents feel guilty about not spending enough quality time with their kids and spend extra money on them instead. “Parents are so busy and away so much, that it is easy to give in to the ‘I want’ syndrome.
All of this adds up to a cultural environment that seems far too often to be about stuff” (Steyer, 2002: 106). Psychologist Mike Cohen says that consumerist society has created “generations of kids who are very materially oriented. They feel entitled to these things. Even more, they actually feel troubled and anxious if they don’t have them” (Steyer, 2002:106). In the CNAD poll, researchers found that 53% of the young people surveyed buy things in an attempt to improve their self-esteem. Twelve and thirteen year-olds are particularly vulnerable.
Almost 62% say that buying certain products makes them feel better about themselves. While advertisers spend billions to make youth feel good about consumption, kids feel a great deal of pressure to spend in order to fit in. Nearly a third of those surveyed (32%) admit feeling pressure to buy certain products, such as clothes, shoes and CDs because their friends have them (CNAD, 2002). The social significance of these concerns is that advertising reinforces excessive consumption is fostering a consumerist society.
Advertising Regulations and Strategies for Change In Canada, there are rules that advertisers must follow when advertising to children. Except in Quebec, where all advertising to children under 13 is prohibited (Advertising Standards Canada [ASC], 2004). Advertisements in broadcast media, directed at children less than 12 years of age, must follow a set of guidelines called the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children as stated by Advertising Standards Canada.
Some of the rules state that advertisers are not allowed to: exaggerate; promote products that the average child cannot assemble; sell products that are not intended for children; recommend that one “must” buy the product or that parents “should” buy it for the child; use well-known kid’s entertainers to endorse a product; or suggest that using a certain product will make a child “better” than another child (ASC, 2004). The code does not pertain to ads broadcast on U. S. hannels or advertisements on the Internet. This leaves many advertisements free from compliance with the Canadian Code even though it is Canadian children that are on the other side of that television or computer screen. The Canadian standards may appear to be stringent and many agree that “the principle is there but not the will nor the understanding of current advertising techniques… there has been a blending of popular culture and advertising. We have completely succumbed” (Reich, 2003).
Evidently, more needs to be done to prevent harmful effects of advertising. Of course, not all advertising is harmful. Some advertisements do promote healthy living and activity such as the ads for Milk. However, the promotion of healthy, commercial-free messages are few and far between. There are steps being taken to combat the detrimental effects of advertising and consumerism. Media education programs are being introduced in elementary and middle schools across the country (Reich, 2003).
One such program is called Mediacs where they stress to children that they have a choice – to buy or not to buy – and understand that “advertising is about turning many of our wants into perceived needs” (Reich, 2003). The current concerns about childhood obesity, low self-esteem, and materialistic culture – all influenced by advertising – should be translated into a different kind of “nag factor” – by adults, on politicians (Graydon, 2003). Parents also play a large part in helping their children become media-aware.
Parents should talk to their kids about consumerism and encourage them to challenge advertisers’ claims about their products. They should spend more time with children, not money for consumer goods. Children should be educated about global consumption, and how the world’s resources are distributed very unevenly among the world’s population. Above all, children should be taught that happiness, health and self esteem cannot be purchased at a store. Summary It is clear to see that advertising can and does affect children in harmful ways.
They learn from what they watch on television, in movies, in video games, and in music videos. However, they are unable to comprehend the insidious tactics employed by marketers. They are sought after by advertisers because of their influence over their parents’ money, their willingness to spend their own, and their nai?? vete about consumer culture. In today’s society, children are walking around with images of beautiful homes, designer clothes, electronic gadgets, unlimited toys and fun foods in their minds.
However, many of the ideals, dreams and aspirations linked to the sale and advertising of products, contradict the social definition of need as was once understood. When so much of the world is still without electricity or clean drinking water, how important is it to have a DVD player in a minivan so that kids can be entertained on the road? Conclusion and Further Discussion Like Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, much of society is being transformed into the leisure class, where the main idea is to consume and be seen consuming.
Ultimately, it is only through education and support from family, teachers and the government, that children will be protected from unhealthy media influences. For further research, both child and family variables could be examined. For example, one could analyze how gender and socioeconomic status affect the relation between advertising exposure, consumerism, and parent-child conflict. The responsibility of governments and the accountability of the media industry itself should also be examined.