As marketing to children becomes more pervasive and employs the latest advances in neuroscience and psychology, it is important to examine the potentially harmful influence of such selling strategies. Establishing a link between marketing that targets children and the growing number of children afflicted with obesity, diabetes, depression, and other diseases will help policymakers devise effective strategies for market reform. This paper will explore how big advertisement companies transform kids into consumers and explain why marketing to children may represent a significant social problem. It will also provide an evaluation of existing marketing regulations and make an argument for the total ban of marketing to children younger than 12 years old. In the first part of the paper, the beginning of this new marketing era will be explored, followed by a critical reflection on the issue. In the next part of the paper, the results of marketing industry deregulation will be presented. In the pages that follow, it will be argued that advertisement campaigns targeting children create a significant social problem. The final part of the paper will present strategies for improving the existing situation.
Beginning of the Child Marketing Era
With the emergence of television in virtually every household in the United States, advertisement industry leaders decided to devise ways to use the new medium to deliver their products to larger and larger audiences (Calvert, 2008). When televisions first appeared, only nine percent of Americans had television sets in their homes, but after only 10 years, that number increased tenfold (as cited in Alison, 2007). In the beginning of this new TV marketing era, campaigns aimed at child audiences were restricted. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attempted to ban all advertisements targeting children under 8 years of age (Consuming Kids, 2008). However, under pressure from lobbying groups representing the toy and food industries, the FTC decided that it would no longer regulate marketing to children (Consuming Kids, 2008). In the early 1980s, following the deregulation of children’s television under the Reagan administration, millions of potential new consumers became suddenly available to marketing firms (Consuming Kids, 2008).
Results of Deregulation
The foundation for the operation of the marketing industry was virtually non-existent regulation and oversight of predatory advertising practices specifically targeted towards children. Senior Associate Dean of the University of Georgia Alexander Alison (2007) claims that before deregulation, “children’s shows were designed to sell TV sets by enhancing television’s appeal to the entire family” (p. 136). The absence of child marketing regulations made possible the creation of new shows that served as vehicles for the promotion of toys, essentially transforming cartoons into lengthy commercials (Consuming Kids, 2008). Commercial motivation played a key role in influencing companies to turn the most popular cartoon characters into best-selling toys (Consuming Kids, 2008). The number of advertisements presented to children has more than doubled since the 1970s; today, kids watch almost 40,000 commercials each year (Cristea, Apostol, & Dosescu, 2014).
Social Problem of Marketing to Children
There is a direct link between marketing that targets children and social and public health concerns such as childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, diabetes, and other illnesses. The marketing of products to children is a multibillion dollar industry that has a long-term impact on children’s health and development (Consuming Kids, 2008). Due to children’s increased exposure to television and other forms of media, marketing messages can dramatically shape the way the young generation regards companies and their products. According to Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts, 8- to 10-year-old kids spend on average 7.5 hours per day consuming various media (as cited in Mitchell, 2014). The average amount of time spent in front of a screen for children aged 11 to 14 jumps to 11.5 hours (Mitchell, 2014). Industry critics claim that such technologies exert enormous control over children’s behavior and contribute to the rise of eating-related diseases (Mitchell, 2014).
They maintain that the childhood obesity epidemic is partially caused by kids being constantly bombarded by commercials featuring foods that are low in nutritive value and high in fat (Mitchell, 2014). A psychology professor at Georgetown University further argues that children are especially susceptible to paid advertising messages since they do not yet have sufficient cognitive capacities to recognize the pernicious influence of television (Calvert, 2008). In a study conducted by Thomas Robertson and John Rossiter, only half of the research participants aged 8 to 10 years old were able to see the persuasive intent of advertisements (Calvert, 2008). Exploiting this vulnerability, 70 percent of the most popular websites for kids use attention-grabbing techniques including vivid colors, cartoon characters, and animation to market high-calorie foods, thereby contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic (Calvert, 2008).
Some companies not only pursue product placement and sponsorship but also use children themselves as marketers (Powell, 2016). In an attempt to turn children into advertisers of consumer goods, the marketing industry discourages them from thinking critically and instead promotes the naturalization and normalization of consumerism. A good example of the pernicious effect of corporate product promotion in a pedagogical setting is the 5+ A Day program. Its aim was to encourage kids “to create their own advertising and marketing campaigns to promote fresh fruit and vegetables to their friends and families,” thereby raising “awareness, critical thinking and action” (as cited in Powell, 2016). In reality, however, children were used as marketers and promoters for the 5+ A Day corporate message (Powell, 2016). Modern technologies not only shape children’s perceptions of popular brands, but they also entirely alter their notions of wholesome products. Contributing to various health problems related to consumption, marketing companies also instill materialistic values in kids, causing “narcissistic wounding” and convincing children that they are “inferior if they do not have an endless array of new products” (as cited in Clay, 2009).
The current regulation of advertising to children is governed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) via numerous forms of codes and legislation. According to research conducted in 2009 by the ASA itself, the organization has achieved a significant level of public awareness and compliance of various industries (The Impact of the Commercial World, 2009). However, the absence of independent monitoring of the existing regulatory regime calls into question the veracity of those claims.
The 2007 introduction of a new set of restrictions on the advertising of foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar—known as HFSS foods—on television became the subject of one of the most heated debates over regulation in the food and marketing industries (The Impact of the Commercial World, 2009). Various groups representing interests in the food industry called for a reassessment of existing regulations, with hopes of changing the legal framework in their favor (The Impact of the Commercial World, 2009). These groups argued that the enacted regulations might have negative consequences such as a reduction in funding for children’s educational content (The Impact of the Commercial World, 2009). Nonetheless, the strict regulation of both statutory and non-statutory systems remained in place.
In light of the rise of intrusive children-oriented marketing that leads to deteriorating health and other social problems, the ASA must implement further restrictions on both the food and advertising industries. Other governmental bodies such as the FTC should also establish new codes and legislation that would regulate the broadcasting of commercials aimed at younger audiences. A recent survey found that 86 percent of parents believe that the government should impose stricter regulations on the way HFSS foods are being marketed to kids (The Impact of the Commercial World, 2009). Psychologist Rebecca Clay also calls for a greater restriction on promotional activities that use the latest advances in psychology for children-oriented marketing. She claims that “the whole enterprise of advertising is about creating insecure people that believe they need to buy things to be happy” and suggests a ban on commercials aimed at children younger than 12 years old (Clay, 2009).
The pervasive practice of marketing to children has become the subject of numerous studies in recent decades. The heated debates between proponents and opponents of the strictest regulations of the advertisement industry highlighted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) were followed by a new set of restrictions on the broadcasting industry. In light of the growing number of children afflicted with diabetes, obesity, and other diseases related to marketing campaigns aimed at child audiences, it stands to reason that the government should establish new codes and legislation to regulate the broadcasting of commercials to children under 12 years old.
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