Remember the doo-dads and toys we found inside cereal boxes when we were kids? That was Kelloggs’ way of getting us to tug on Mom’s skirt and cry, “Mommy! I want Frosted Flakes!”
“Comparing those marketing techniques to today’s marketing aimed at our kids is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatry instructor Susan Linn, a leader of the national Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
What’s different now? Marketing to children is more widespread. For example, many schools–strapped for cash in a difficult school-funding environment–now earn money by posting ads in classrooms and cafeterias.
Marketing is far more sophisticated, too. Child psychology researchers help advertisers develop better ways of motivating kids to nag us parents to buy them things. In the United States alone, companies spend more than $13 billion annually advertising to our kids–who influence hundreds of billions in purchases each year.
Is marketing to kids harmful? Many parents tell me, “That’s just the way things are anymore. It’s harmless. After all, my kids and I aren’t affected all that much by advertising.”
Think again. My friend Dr. Jean Kilbourne, author of Can’t Buy My Love: The Addictive Power of Advertising writes, “A recent study found that more children between 6 and 17 recognized the Budweiser lizards than recognized Barbie. More important, research shows that alcohol advertising creates an unconscious presumption in favor of drinking.” Does animated beer advertising have any effect? U.S. high school students drink more than a billion cans of beer annually. And, girls are closing binge drinking’s historical gender gap with boys.
“Marketing has a real effect on children,” says Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, director of the Media Center at Harvard’s Judge Baker Children’s Center, “but parents, researchers, and policy-makers pay little attention to its consequences. It’s really well past time for that to change.”
The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood coalition is trying to help bring about that change. I’m encouraged to see it includes parents and nonprofits and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as other organizations and businesses nationwide.
We parents must understand the big stake we have in how ubiquitous marketing affects our kids. Our daughters get bombarded daily with marketing messages insisting that they must buy certain stuff to fit in, look “right,” and get boys to notice them. This barrage does our sons no favors, either; it reinforces the notion that boys should prize girls’ looks more than their hearts and heads–hardly a recipe for healthy relationships. Too much of the marketing aimed at kids boils down to commercial exploitation that values our daughters and sons as consumers rather than as children.
During a national symposium, The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood proposed these tough standards for communities and children’s marketers:
- Make schools commercial-free zones.
- Fund research into the psychosocial and health consequences of marketing to children.
- Implement the same federal standards for using children in market research as those required for using children in academic research.
- Have the Federal Trade Commission investigate corporate marketing practices aimed at children.
- Reinstate Federal Communications Commission regulations that prohibit linking children’s TV shows to product promotion.
- Implement uniform age-specification standards across all media and “spin-off” products, including toys.
- Eliminate marketing to children under 8.
At first blush, these may sound like unreasonably lofty or radical goals. Not so. For example, Sweden actually outlawed marketing to children years ago. Sweden’s economy went unaffected–corporations succeeded in marketing kids’ products to the people who should be most responsible for purchasing those products–parents.
I encourage you to learn more about the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. We shouldn’t let our kids be put up for sale.