What is the basic controversy about advertising for children (and commercialization of childhood)?
(In order to limit the negative aspects, should the government regulate it, or is this responsibility more with others (e.g. families, media, schools, etc).)
Advertising targeted against kids is a concept that invokes ethical issues. The major criticism against this practice is that it abuses the vulnerability of children for commercial gain. The ‘kid market’ as it is called is a multi-billion dollar industry today. As capitalism becomes entrenched as the uncontested economic model, all aspects of life are being commoditized and commercialized. Children are taught from a very young age that in order to be happy one has to consume products and services. Even self-worth is tied into the drive for consumerism, leading children to develop the belief that they are worth what they possess. Moreover, “whilst this child-targeted marketing used to concentrate on sweets and toys, it now includes clothes, shoes, a range of fast foods, sports equipment, computer products and toiletries as well as adult products such as cars and credit cards.” (Beder 1998) This is an alarming state of affairs with impending dangerous consequences. Numerous parties are held responsible for the causes and consequences of child marketing. These include parents,
With each passing decade since the beginning of the twentieth century, advertisers and businesses have increasingly intruded on the behavior of children. Manipulating the psychology of the impressionable minds of children elicits moral issues. But the mandate of business is such that the profit motive always trumps social responsibility. There is a whole industry that has developed over addressing and commercially profiting from the ‘kid market’. The terminology ridden child marketing theories it has given rise to raise troubling questions. To begin with marketers specializing in it treat human beings as units of consumption, stripping all sanctity and respect that they deserve. More worryingly, the members of the child market are fairly helpless and dependent individuals who will take many more years for physically and mentally maturing. With their faculties not yet fully formed to critically think and discern the claims of advertising, children are easy targets for psychological manipulation. It is this softness that child-oriented Public Relations industry seeks to take advantage of. Several negative consequences of this practice are identified, some of which pertain to health. For example, “encouraging vulnerable children to consume great amounts of fatty, sugary and salty food is unethical because it would create obese, unhealthy youngsters, with bad eating habits that will last for a lifetime.” (Moolekary 2011) It is a ruthless market-strategy that is a marker of capitalist culture. It is revolting the very least and is deserving of contempt. However, “soulless advertisers and rapacious marketers alone cannot account for the explosion of the kids’ 4-12 market, which has just about tripled since 1990, now raking in around $30 billion annually” (Dan 2001)
Though corporations are the easy targets for turning kids into “blank-faced, videogame-playing, violence-saturated, sugar-mongering, overweight, docile citizens of the future”, a greater share of the blame should be placed on the government. (Dan 2001) This criticism is not lacking merit, for the government has a more direct responsibility to protecting its citizens compared to a business’ imperative to look after shareholders. The parenting style adopted by parents account for child behavior at home, but governments can play a more active role in the kind of cultural exposure children get at schools and public spaces. Both schools and public places have now become prime media for propagating consumer culture. Corporations sponsor play areas or learning facilities in schools in exchange for spreading brand awareness. Beneath apparently philanthropic or socially responsible actions of corporations lay motives of monetization. But there is no reason why this cannot be otherwise. And this is where government and its agencies can intervene. Posters and facilities in school can be made advertising free, which is consistent with the ethos of proper education. Government can also play a role in regulating popular media that is accessible to children. Today, two major such mediums are television and the Internet. An active regulation of children’s programs in these media will help protect children from manipulation by advertisers.
The government can do only so much regulation without breaching freedom of speech provisions in the Constitution. And it is an absurd hope to expect businesses to curb their marketing instincts. Hence the major responsibility for protection of children from advertising lies with parents. Evidence so far suggests that parents are by large indifferent to the malefic effects of children targeted advertising. It is perhaps a reflection of their own consumerist behavior that most do not recognize the child abuse taking place under their guardianship. We have to remember that parents of today were the children of the previous generation. It was in the 1970s and ‘80s that the idea of marketing goods directly to children was taking root. It is this childhood conditioning toward implicit acceptance of consumerist culture that limit contemporary parents’ perspective. Hence they are unable to see the harmful effects of children’s advertisement. However, there is no reason why this cannot change. Indeed, parental responsibility is imperative if children are to grow up into well rounded individuals instead of consumption addicts.