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Protecting Our Kids From Commercialism

One of the central premises of marketing is that buying things will make us happy. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that the opposite is true, that the pressure to overspend and overconsume actually makes people less happy. And when the pressure to become materialistic affects children, the results are worse.

A study of materialistic values among children by psychology professor Tim Kasser found that materialistic children are less happy, have lower self-esteem and report more symptoms of anxiety and less generosity. The study also found that more materialistic children report engaging in fewer positive environmental behaviors such as reusing paper and using less water while showering.

Another study, reported by sociology professor and author Juliet Schor, found that for children, “High consumer involvement is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints. Psychologically healthy children will be made worse off if they become more enmeshed in the culture of getting and spending. Children with emotional problems will be helped if they disengage from the worlds that corporations are constructing for them.”

Other researchers have suggested that marketing is a factor in the childhood obesity epidemic and encourages eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence and family stress.

Unfortunately, marketing to children is big business, worth billions of dollars a year. And it’s growing. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the amount spent on marketing to children doubled between 1992 and 1997. And the target age is getting younger as ever younger children influence purchasing decisions and parents want to give their children an edge over their peers.

Children see advertisements on television, on the Internet, at the movies, on school buses, and in school classrooms. Although direct advertising to children in not allowed in some countries, kids are still exposed to stealth marketing. Almost every major media program for children has a line of licensed merchandise used to sell fast food, breakfast cereals, snacks and candy. Many toys, such as Coca-Cola Barbie and McDonald’s Play-Doh are actually advertisements for food.

The thing about effective marketing is that it is insidious and can affect even the  very young. A study published in 2010 in the journal Psychology & Marketing reported that three-year-olds recognize product brands and what they symbolize. Researcher Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing in sport management at the University of Michigan, found that kids between the ages of three and five show an “emerging ability” to use ads to judge which products will be the most “fun” and make them popular, even though they are unable to read. “Not only do they understand what the brand is, they understand that this is something they can use in their day-to-day lives.” says Cornwell.

The researchers showed 38 children logos for 50 brands like Coca-Cola, Looney Toons and Band-Aid and asked, “Have you seen this before?” and “What types of things do they make?” as well as other questions about the products’ value. The average recognition rate was 39 per cent, and the most commonly recognized brand was McDonald’s (93 per cent), followed closely by toys such as Lego (75 per cent) and soda products. Fast food was described by the three to five-year-olds as “fun, exciting and tasty.” Cola brands were fun because “the bubbles are fun” and “lots of people like them.”

The researchers also showed another 42 children a board featuring brand logos, including McDonald’s, and asked them to pick out images associated with the company – a French fry box, “drive thru” sign and the character Hamburglar. Many of the children were able to match the logos with products.

Cornwell and her co-authors want lawmakers to take a closer look at fast food branding aimed at young children, and to consider regulating it.

The Maryland-based organization New American Dream says that advertising directed at children is estimated at over $15 billion annually in the U.S.

The Ottawa-based Media Awareness Network describes the tools marketers use to target kids. On the group’s website, one marketer is quoted as saying, "We're relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than going straight to the mom." The site also includes tools for parents, daycare workers and teachers who want to help kids avoid or withstand the effect of corporate advertising.

A number of professional and public health organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, support restrictions on marketing to children. And a number of organizations and coalitions – including CCFC – have formed to protect children from exploitative marketing. CCFC is a coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, and concerned parents wanting to counter the harmful effects of marketing to children.

One of CCFC’s actions was a letter writing campaign that began before Christmas in 2008 when it was alerted by parents to the quiet integration of advertising on Webkinz World – a wildly popular social networking site for kids who’ve bought Webkinz stuffed animals. The site has promoted itself as commercial-free and the “Parents Area” of the site does not mention that it includes advertising. CCFC has also registered complaints to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requesting changes to what it calls “false and deceptive” marketing of Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos.

Parents can also do a great deal to protect their kids from overt commercialism. Most experts stress the importance of parents engaging with their children’s media and be ready to discuss the images and events they see there. Make sure your kids understand that they can be manipulated by advertisements to want things they don't need or didn't even want before they saw the ad. Here are some other things to do, as suggested by the Media Awareness Network:

  • Watch television, surf the web and play video games with your children. This will allow you to discuss the ads and other content with them – how it makes them feel, what the intent of an ad is, what’s fantasy and what’s reality, etc.

  • Make a game out of spotting the tricks of the advertising trade in commercials and magazine ads.

  • Help kids analyze content. Some questions to discuss include: Who created this message and why? Who profits from it? What techniques are used to attract and hold attention? What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in this message? What is omitted and why?

  • Help your children learn that using technology is collaborative and social, and not an isolating solitary activity.

  • Talk with young girls about the female body images they see in magazines and on TV, and give them better role models.

  • Set an example in your own life through your media consumption and purchasing habits.

  • Create a family media diary to log how much of different types of media you are exposing yourselves to. Then discuss whether that is a good thing or not so you can create guidelines together...for every member of the family.

  • Get outside and play with your kids on a regular basis.

Wendy Priesnitz is a journalist with over 40 years experience, the parent of two grown daughters, the founder and editor of Natural Child Magazine, and the author of 13 books.


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