Doin’ it for the kids? Why the corporate takeover of childhood is more myth than reality

A seminar held in Auckland in early July on the mental health and well-being of young people covered a range of issues, including online safety, child beauty pageants, violent video games and marketing to children. 

Almost inevitably, it was the last topic that got the press coverage. The quotes below appeared in two separate articles in the Herald on 4 July (here and here) in relation to the event. “Sixty percent of parents of Kiwi preschoolers are concerned at the amount of TV advertising targeting their children, a study has found.” And: “Trademarked characters are now strategically placed on a baby girl’s clothing so that when she dribbles, she gets to know these characters and sees them as a natural part of her world … Without her parents realising it, thanks to the ‘drool factor’ this baby girl has joined the consumer treadmill, where enough is never enough and where her self-esteem comes from what she has, not who she is.” 

The reality is that the study in the first quote interviewed about 80 families. This is hardly a statistically meaningful sample. The second quote is largely the opinion of a single individual. So I get very frustrated by this type of sound-bite journalism (or press-release-masquerading-as-journalism) and the accompanying emotive and unfounded comment about the evils of advertising, marketing, brands and more generally of simply being a consumer.

However, it is fair to say there’s been lots of noise lately over the ethics of marketing to children and as with most potentially contentious issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And the middle is where I believe the industry (advertisers and agencies) firmly sit. This is not the Wild West and there is not open slather on advertising to children. In fact the opposite applies and advertisers are governed by codes that they adhere to very closely. More on that later. 

But firstly let’s not forget our reality: we all live in an open democracy where we are exposed to advertising messages constantly. Whether you believe this is a good thing or a bad one is perhaps a moot point—it simply ‘is’.

So what of the “evils of advertising and marketing”? From an overall viewpoint, scientific evidence does not support the view that advertising or marketing to children is inherently manipulative because they are unable to understand its persuasive intent, or that advertising is a cause of young people’s smoking, drinking, obesity or consumerism. It is clear that advertising does have persuasive effects on children and young adults but this affects decisions at the brand level. Additionally, there is considerable research evidence about the cognitive capacities of young children that suggests they possess the ability to understand what advertising is about i.e. persuasive intent. 

Let’s also remember that brands are a fact of life and we shouldn’t attempt to hide them from children. I would argue a more effective strategy than advertising or marketing restriction/intervention is to improve children’s media literacy and also to ensure parents exercise greater control over what children are exposed to and educate them to become responsible and informed consumers.

Having said this, advertisers need to gain the trust of children and their parents through effective and appropriate advertising. So the key to making marketing to children less controversial is for advertisers and parents to assume mutual responsibility for its content and exposure.

This brings me to my final point. The industry does take its responsibility very seriously and that’s why advertising to children in New Zealand is covered by two specific ASA Codes of Practice, the Code for Advertising to Children and the Children’s Code for Advertising Food. 

Since the beginning of 2011 there have been a combined total of ten complaints to the ASA under these two codes and only a single complaint has been upheld by the complaints board. 

Given the rigour with which the board administers the codes (and quite rightly so) this is a clear indication firstly that advertisers take their obligations to children seriously indeed and secondly, that the issue of children’s advertising is not considered by most New Zealanders to be the evil that a small minority appear to think it is.

Ultimately, marketing to children is a reality, but we recognise it is definitely a balancing act, and one that both parents and marketers alike must consider.

  • Paul Head is the chief executive of CAANZ. 
  • This article originally appeared in the September/October edition of NZ Marketing. 

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