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There's been lots of hubbub lately over the ethics of marketing to children. Last month there was a New York Times Magazine cover story, and the past year saw two new books on the matter-Consuming Kids by Susan Linn and Born to Buy by Juliet B. Schor. The gist of all this stuff: Kids' ads have grown more ruthless and pervasive, posing grave danger to defenseless little children. But is this perception accurate? Are the defenseless little children really in peril? The moment seemed ripe for an Ad Report Card investigation.
Rather than talk to a child-raising expert, a child psychologist, or an actual child-I don't have one of my own, and the ones I see on the street seem sort of dopey and not all that quotable-I decided I'd head straight for the source: the ads themselves. I woke up at 7:30 one Saturday morning, poured myself a giant cup of sugary cola, and watched cartoons till my eyes melted. (I did nod off once or twice. 7:30 is wicked early! How did I pull this off as a tyke? I guess I was drinking much less then. â€¦) I also endured a few weekday afternoon blocks of Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network-the better to emulate the lonely, TV-centric life of the latchkey kid.
Some things haven't changed since I was little. For one, the toys are the same: remote control cars, dolls that wet themselves, elaborate sets peopled with tiny action figures (pirate ships, castles, etc.). Even the brands are familiar: Connect Four, My Little Pony, Lego, Barbie, Care Bears. I was pleased to see they still make Socker Boppers, which are big, inflatable mittens that you punch your friends in the head with.
A few toys did feel new. For instance, there's this thing called Tokyo Catz. I'm not quite sure what it is, but it seems to involve a bunch of slutty cats who tart themselves up like dirty cat whores. Fun game!
As for the ads themselves, they weren't radically different either. The templates haven't evolved much, though the pace is faster and the computer graphics have improved. In the ads for the elaborate pirate ships, the kids still use figurines as props in careful, earnest narratives. (In real life, I recall growing immediately bored with this sort of toy. My friends and I would quickly resort to throwing the figurines at each other. Then we'd dare ourselves to eat whole jars of mustard.)
The ads have the same troubling sociological implications, too. Parents are rarely a presence at all (when they do show up, they're objects of ridicule). Ads for boy stuff all take place in back yards, while ads for girl stuff all take place in pink bedrooms. And predictably, whenever a spot shows a bunch of multicultural kids, it's almost always the white boys who act as protagonists and spokesmen.
But none of this surprised me. It certainly didn't seem like the sky was falling. When I phoned Susan Linn (author of the alarmist Consuming Kids) to chat about what I'd seen, she was extremely gracious as I called her book naÃ¯ve and doubted its prophecy of doom (I think I actually used the words "the sky is falling" at one point). My basic theme was: Hey, look at me, I watched buttloads of television when I was a kid and I turned out just fine. Her basic retort was: Those ads may well have done you harm (she put this gently, which I appreciated), and besides, kids today face far more insidious stuff. (Money quote: "It's like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb.")
By the time we were done, she'd won me over â€¦ a little. Not on her point that things are worse now (I don't think they are, for the most part), but rather on her point that television may have done me more harm than I realize. I think she's right that as kids, our personalities (and frontal cortexes) are not fully formed yet, so the ads we get assaulted with may indeed have a real effect-heightening our insecurities and our acquisitiveness. I also think it's a mistake to trust in free markets when it comes to children. Now let's not get crazy-I'm nowhere near calling for a ban on all preadolescent marketing (as Linn advocates, and as some foreign governments have done). But it might be time to step back and ponder some guidelines. As Linn points out, preschoolers can't even differentiate between the programming and the commercials. Kids under 8 don't understand the idea that ads have persuasive intent.
Besides, a few of the Saturday morning spots really did raise my hackles. One ad-for the Conair Quick Bead-shows a preteen girl looking in the mirror and not liking what she sees. "Before you go out, you might want to work on your hair," says the voice-over. Perhaps worse was a spot for Chef Boyardee, in which a mom and daughter shop at the supermarket. Mom says no when the girl asks for Chef Boyardee. But the can, under its own power, somehow rolls out to the parking lot, follows their car down the road to their house, and rolls across the living room floor until it bumps the girl's leg. This seems pretty clearly designed to undermine mom's authority. No means no, little girl!
But again, this sort of evil-doing existed in my day, too. The one thing I saw that's profoundly different for modern kids-and perhaps the thing we should be most concerned about-is that the majority of the ads during kids' shows are not for toys (or food, or hair beads) at all. They are for media products. New movie releases (Lemony Snicket is advertised endlessly). DVDs (Princess Diaries 2, ditto). Video games. Video game systems. A faux PDA called "Friendchips" that lets little girls share secret digital messages. And, most astonishingly, Mattel's "Juice Box": a personal media player that plays MP3s and short videos (such as cartoons), and is targeted at 9- to 12-year-olds.
In the end, the real Saturday morning revelation for me was that-based on the balance of these ads-kids would much rather be entertained than play with a bunch of toys. We're raising a generation of media addicts. Scopophiliacs. Inert eyeballers of movies, DVDs, and whatever's playing on the Juice Box. Most of this stuff requires little effort, initiative, or imagination.
I bet kids today still get bored, though, and end up just throwing DVDs at each other. Remember, kids, the mustard jar's always there for you.
Kids still exposed to bad food ads
Children are still watching TV ads for food high in fat, salt and sugar despite measures designed to prevent them doing so, says consumer watchdog Which?
The Guardian, Friday 19 September 2008
Hundreds of thousands of children are watching TV adverts for food high in fat, salt and sugar despite measures designed to prevent them doing so, the consumer watchdog Which? says today.
In a spot check on children's viewing, it found that just four of the 20 programmes with the largest under-16 audiences were covered by rules from broadcasting regulator Ofcom. This was because the rules are based on the proportion of child viewers for each programme, not actual numbers, meaning that series such as The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants are covered but shows like Beat the Star and Emmerdale are not, despite being watched by far more children, according to Which?
The Ofcom rules, which are under review, apply to the main TV channels, with commercial children's channels having to comply by January 1 next year. Programmes of particular appeal to children are defined as those watched by 20% more children than the proportion of four- to 16-year-olds that make up the general viewing public. This means, says Which?, that even if many children watch a show, restrictions on advertising foods high in fat,salt and sugar do not apply.
Here's More Evidence
TV Ads Bad for Kids*
I make no bones about it: I hate TV and magazine food commercials. And because they are bright, fun and creative, I hate them even more. And I really hate how food advertisers glom onto every book, movie and TV character to sell their junk. But most of all, I hate them because they suck kids into the worst possible eating habits.
A perfect illustration of this comes from one of my favorite web logs, Half Changed World. In a recent post, she writes how her 4-year-old child just "knew" he would like pop tarts simply because Mr. Incredible was on the box.
Here's part of the exchange:
"I'd like those." (Boy points to photograph of a pop-tart ad.)
"Do you know what they are?"
"No. What are they?"
"Why do you think you'd like them?"
"I just do."
"If I put a sticker of Mr. Incredible on these" - point at the bottle of children's vitamins that I've been trying to convince him to eat - " would you eat them?"
"So why do you think you'd like those? Just because they have Mr. Incredible on them doesn't mean they're good."
"I would like them."
The irony of this exchange was that the young boy actually saw a reproduction of the advertisement for a Washington Post story. Apparently, there is an industry agency called the Children's Advertising Review Unit that monitors 1,000 television and 250 magazine ads each month, reports the Post.
CARU, as the monitoring group is called, is actually a part of the Better Business Bureau, which is no friend of the consumer. I learned that the hard way when someone during my college days recommended I call them over a dispute I had with a typewriter repair company. BBB was so helpful, I still spew expletives when I think of that experience.
So CARU, which receives its $650,000 from the folk it is supposed to police, is something akin to the farmer flinging open the henhouse doors while asking a fox to guard them. By the way, the monitoring group was formed in 1974 after the Federal Trade Commission threatened to regulate the industry as sweetened cereal and vitamin ads started to dominate television.
I went to CARU's website and tried to access one of its reports, but here's the message that popped up:
To view the contents of this (sic) documents you must have a subscription to this website. If you have a subscription enter your email address and password below to continue. For information about obtaining a subscription contact. â€¦
Wow, a watchdog that is openly transparent; there's a surprise. They did provide a sample report which in combination with their index is somewhat revealing: many reports are generated when another company doesn't like a competitor's ad. But most CARU complaints are generated by its staff, reports The Post.
Out of more than just curiosity, I applied for a subscription. I'm interested in knowing if it's for free or not.* Also, there is a report on Atkins Nutritionals - not related to the kids ads - I'd love to see.
In the meantime, even when CARU finds commercials that are out of line, they can only ask businesses to change or pull them, reports The Post. Surprisingly, they usually do, but CARU cannot force intransigent advertisers to comply.
Still, how much faith do you have in this fox watching out for your kids? In the meantime, I'm posting CARU's seven basic principles on the jump. While reading them, ask yourself this question: Do advertisers honor said guidelines? I think not.
CARU's Seven Basic Principles
Advertisers should always take into account the level of knowledge, sophistication and maturity of the audience to which their message is primarily directed. Younger children have a limited capacity for evaluating the credibility of information they receive. They also may lack the ability to understand the nature of the personal information they disclose on the Internet. Advertisers, therefore, have a special responsibility to protect children from their own susceptibilities.
Realizing that children are imaginative and that make-believe play constitutes an important part of the growing up process, advertisers should exercise care not to exploit unfairly the imaginative quality of children. Unreasonable expectations of product quality or performance should not be stimulated either directly or indirectly by advertising.
Products and content which are inappropriate for children should not be advertised or promoted directly to children.
Recognizing that advertising may play an important part in educating the child, advertisers should communicate information in a truthful and accurate manner and in language understandable to young children with full recognition that the child may learn practices from advertising which can affect his or her health and well-being.
Advertisers are urged to capitalize on the potential of advertising to influence behavior by developing advertising that, wherever possible, addresses itself to positive and beneficial social behavior, such as friendship, kindness, honesty, justice, generosity and respect for others.
Care should be taken to incorporate minority and other groups in advertisements in order to present positive and pro-social roles and role models wherever possible. Social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice should be avoided.
Although many influences affect a child's personal and social development, it remains the prime responsibility of the parents to provide guidance for children. Advertisers should contribute to this parent-child relationship in a constructive manner.
*Update: Nonprofits can get access to CARU's database for $500 a year, but it's $6,000 a year for other organizations. Better Business Bureaus members pay the discounted rate of $3,600 aÂ year. Otherwise, reports cost $250 a pop. That's too steep for this modest blogger.
Advertisers vs. Kids:
"It isn't enough to just advertise on television.... You've got to reach kids throughout their day-in school, as they're shopping in the mall ... or at the movies. You've got to become part of the fabric of their lives." -Carol Herman, Senior Vice President, Grey Advertising
Think you've got enough worries with advertisers trying to reach into every nook and cranny of your children's and students' lives? Then hold on to your remotes: The latest news in intrusive advertising is that ad agencies are using psychologists to learn how kids think, what they fear, what they like-so they can create more effective ads.
Well, if advertisers can play psychologist, then you and your children can fight back by playing private investigator. So get out your P.I. hat and get ready to investigate some ads with your kids!
1. If your kids or students buy a particular toy, ask them to describe whether the toy measures up to the claims they saw in advertising.
2. Ask kids to bring in an advertisement from a magazine. Ask them: Is this a good or a bad ad? Why? What kind of people is the ad trying to sell to? How can you tell? Do you think the product advertised here is better than other, similar products?
3. Try a taste test between a national and a generic brand of cereal. Ask: Can you tell the difference? Which one do you like better? Kids can play P.I. by finding out whether the brand name and generic cereals are manufactured and packaged in the same place. If they are manufactured in the same place, why is the brand name cereal more expensive?
4. All kids have probably seen anti-smoking ads from tobacco company Philip Morris. Ask: Are the ads effective? Why or why not? Do you think Philip Morris is trying create effective anti-smoking ads?
5. Chevron, an oil company, runs ads on how it helps protect wildlife. Ask: Why does Chevron run these ads? How much money does the company spend on the ads? How much does it spend to protect wildlife? Kids could don their investigative hats to find out.
6. Ask kids to count the number of ads they see or hear in one day-including billboards, TV ads, radio commercials, banner ads, magazine and newspaper ads, etc. Are they surprised at the number they came up with? Why or why not?
7. Ask: Is a shirt with a Nike swoosh or Tommy Hilfiger's logo better than one without? Do you think these shirts are made differently? Kids can play sleuth to find out where the shirts are manufactured. Are the generic and brand name shirts manufactured by the same company?
Advertising to children: Is it ethical?
Some psychologists cry foul as peers help advertisers target young consumers
Ever since he first started practicing, Berkeley, Calif., psychologist Allen D. Kanner, PhD, has been asking his younger clients what they wanted to do when they grew up. The answer used to be "nurse," "astronaut" or some other occupation with intrinsic appeal.
Today the answer is more likely to be "make money." For Kanner, one explanation for that shift can be found in advertising.
"Advertising is a massive, multi-million dollar project that's having an enormous impact on child development," says Kanner, who is also an associate faculty member at a clinical psychology training program called the Wright Institute. "The sheer volume of advertising is growing rapidly and invading new areas of childhood, like our schools."
According to Kanner, the result is not only an epidemic of materialistic values among children, but also something he calls "narcissistic wounding" of children. Thanks to advertising, he says, children have become convinced that they're inferior if they don't have an endless array of new products.
Now Kanner and several colleagues are up-in-arms about psychologists and others who are using psychological knowledge to help marketers target children more effectively. They're outraged that psychologists and others are revealing such tidbits as why 3- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that transform themselves into something else and why 8- to 12-year-olds love to collect things. Last fall, Kanner and a group of 59 other psychologists and psychiatrists sent a controversial letter protesting
psychologists' involvement to APA.
In response, at its June meeting, APA's Board of Directors acted on a recommendation from the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and approved the creation of a task force to study the issue. The task force will examine the research on advertising's impact on children and their families and develop a research agenda. The group will look at the role psychologists play in what some consider the exploitation of children and consider how psychology can help minimize advertising's harmful effects and maximize its positive effects.
The group will also explore implications for public policy. Task force members will be chosen in consultation with Div. 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services) and other relevant divisions.
The letter protesting psychologists' involvement in children's advertising was written by Commercial Alert, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization. The letter calls marketing to children a violation of APA's mission of mitigating human suffering, improving the condition of both individuals and society, and helping the public develop informed judgments.
Urging APA to challenge what it calls an "abuse of psychological knowledge," the letter asks APA to:
Issue a formal, public statement denouncing the use of psychological principles in marketing to children.
Amend APA's Ethics Code to limit psychologists' use of their knowledge and skills to observe, study, mislead or exploit children for commercial purposes.
Launch an ongoing campaign to investigate the use of psychological research in marketing to children, publish an evaluation of the ethics of such use, and promote strategies to protect children against commercial exploitation by psychologists and others using psychological principles.
"The information psychologists are giving to advertisers is being used to increase profits rather than help children," says Kanner, who helped collect signatures for the letter. "The whole enterprise of advertising is about creating insecure people who believe they need to buy things to be happy. I don't think most psychologists would believe that's a good thing. There's an inherent conflict of interest."
Advertisers' efforts seem to work. According to marketing expert James U. McNeal, PhD, author of "The Kids Market: Myths and Realities" (Paramount Market Publishing, 1999), children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year. Teen-agers spend $100 billion. Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents.
The effect this rampant consumerism has on children is still unknown, says Kanner. In an informal literature review, he found many studies about how to make effective ads but not a single study addressing ads' impact on children. Instead, he points to research done by Tim Kasser, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. In a series of studies, Kasser has found that people who strongly value wealth and related traits tend to have higher levels of distress and lower levels of well-being, worse relationships and less connection to their communities.
"Psychologists who help advertisers are essentially helping them manipulate children to believe in the capitalistic message, when all the evidence shows that believing in that message is bad for people," says Kasser. "That's unethical."
Driving out psychologists
Psychologists who help companies reach children don't agree. Take Whiton S. Paine, PhD, an assistant professor of business studies at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. As principal of a Philadelphia consulting firm called Kid2Kid, Paine helps Fortune 500 companies market to children.
Paine has no problem with launching a dialogue about psychologists' ethical responsibilities or creating standards similar to ones used in Canada and Europe to protect children from commercial exploitation. Such activities will actually help his business, he says, by giving him leverage when clients want to do something that would inadvertently harm children. What Paine does have a problem with is driving psychologists out of the business.
"If you remove ethical psychologists from the decision-making process in an ad's creation, who's left?" he asks. "People who have a lot less sensitivity to the unique vulnerabilities of children."
Others who have read the proposal point out that psychological principles are hardly confidential.
"We can't stop alcohol or tobacco companies from using the basic research findings and theories found in textbooks and academic journals," says Curtis P. Haugtvedt, PhD, immediate past president of Div. 23 (Consumer Psychology) and an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University in Columbus. "The same issue exists for all sciences: the information is available in public libraries."
The problem with trying to regulate the use of psychological principles is that "people acting in ways psychologists find objectionable probably aren't members of APA anyway," says Haugtvedt, who received a copy of the Commercial Alert letter. He believes that having general guidelines as to appropriate uses and areas of concern would be beneficial to all parties.
Daniel S. Acuff, PhD, for example, draws on the child development courses he took during his graduate schooling in education to advise such clients as Disney, Hasbro and Kraft. His book "What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids" (Free Press, 1997) draws on child development research to show product developers and marketers how to reach children more effectively.
To Acuff, the letter to APA is not only an "unconstitutional" attempt to limit how professionals make their living but also a misguided overgeneralization.
Since Acuff and his partner started their business in 1979, they have had a policy guiding their choice of projects. As a result, they turn down assignments dealing with violent video games, action figures armed with weapons and other products they believe are bad for children. Their work focuses instead on products that they consider either good for children or neutral, such as snacks and sugary foods parents can use as special treats. The letter to APA fails to acknowledge that psychological principles can be used for good as well as bad, he says.
"I don't agree with black-and-white thinking," says Acuff, president of Youth Market Systems Consulting in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "Psychology in itself is neither good nor bad. It's just a tool like anything else."
Clay, Rebecca A. "Advertising to Children: Is It Ethical?" American Psychological Association (APA). American Physchology Association, Sept. 2000. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep00/advertising.aspx>.
Herman, Carol. "BadAds.org: For Teachers, Parents & Kids." Www.badads.com. June 2006. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://www.badads.org/teachers.shtml>.
Meikle, James. "Kids Still Exposed to Bad Food Ads | Life and Style | The Guardian." Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. 19 Sept. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/sep/19/foodanddrink.advertising>.
Stevenson, Seth. "Are Commercials Bad for Kids? See Spot Run." Slate Magazine. 04 Dec. 2004. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://www.slate.com/id/2111242/>.
Way, By The. "Here's More Evidence TV Ads Bad for Kids*." DadTalk.com. DadTalk, 06 Mar. 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://dadtalk.typepad.com/dadtalk/2005/03/heres_more_evid.html>.