Children as Consumers

Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All

Last Updated Sunday, November 21, 2010

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Even in industrialized societies, where governments and campaigners fight for better child advertising standards and regulations, or improved food quality, industry fights back preferring self-regulation (which rarely happens, or is intentionally weak), and arguing that it is individual choices and parents that are the issue.

Advertising to children is big business

Encouraging and increasing childhood consumerism

Heavy advertising targeted at children

Advertising to children considered harmful

Manipulating childrens views of the world

Bans, regulation, self-regulation, media-literacy

Banning ads and the fear or unintended consequences?

Can Industry be trusted to Self-regulate?

A small example of effects of child consumerism

Parental versus Corporate Influence.

Commercialization of childhood itself

Advertising to children is big business

Children are a captive audience: The average American child watches an estimate between 25,000 to 40,000 television commercials per year. In the UK, it is about 10,000

$15-17 billion is spent by companies advertising to children in the US.

Over $4 billion was spent in 2009 by the fast food industry alone.

The marketing seems to be worth it. For example,

Teens in the US spend around $160 billion a year

Children (up to 11) spend around $18 billion a year

more than $30 billion in other spending by parents, and

80 percent of all global brands now deploy a

Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over $130-670 billion a year.

Childrens Exposure to Television Advertising in 1977 and 2004: Information for the Obesity Debate,

, June 1, 2007. This report says 25,600 commercials were watched in 2004 by children in the US

Television Advertising Leads to Unhealthy Habits in Children; Says APA Task Force, American Pyschological Association (APA), February 23, 2004. Is an example of the widely-cited 40,000 commercials figure

, December 9, 2007. This the UK figure.

Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhoodnotes that these figures do not include product placement

Amount spent advertising to children:

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood

, New Press (May 2004) says $15 billion and a lot of other sources cite her

writes inResources: Marketing To Kids, May 17, 2007 that it is now $17 billion.

also adds that this is up from $100 million in 1983, and more than double the amount in 1992.

report notes that it was about $12 billion in 2000

The fast food industrys advertising spending in the US comes fromFast Food FACTScampaign organization

SeeTRU Projects Teens Will Spend $159 Billion In 2005,

Teen Research Unit, December 15, 2005

The $30bn in other spending is mentioned by Ann Hulbert,Tweens R Us,

The $130-500 billion comes from Kim Campbell and Kent Davis-Packard,How ads get kids to say I want it!,

article says children between 8-12 years alone influence some $150 billion in purchases

$670 billion comes from Juliet B. Schor writing inRegulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age,

Older figures: It was around 188 billion dollars in 1997, up from $132 billion in 1990, $50 billion in 1984 and $20 billion in the mid-70s. From Miriam H. Zoll,Psychologists Challenge Ethics Of Marketing To Children,

It has proven difficult to find detailed, and recent, statistics for other areas around the world, outside the US. However, one promising source for different regions isThe International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Mediafrom Nordicom, Goteborg University, Sweden (also financed by the government of Sweden and UNESCO).

So what? Isnt that good for business? As we will introduce here, while this might be good for business, there are also important economic, social, health and environmental and other costs to be considered.

As mentioned in the previous section looking at the rise in consumption, larger houses were an example of the things promoted to increase consumption. So too was the encouragement to provide more toys and other items for children:

The [U.S.] federal government played a major role in defining childhood. In 1929, Herbert Hoover sponsored a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. The conference report,The Home and the Child, concluded that children were independent beings with particular concerns of their own. The report advised parents to give their children their own [furniture, toys, playrooms etc].Generally a sleeping room for each person is desirable, it noted. Take them shopping for their ownthings and let them pick them out for themselves.

Through such experiences personality develops [These] experiences have the advantage of also creating in the child a sense of personal as well as family pride in ownership, and eventuallyteaching him that his personality can be expressed through things. (White House, 1931, [Emphasis added by Robbins]; See also Leach 1993:371-372)

Thus in the space of some 30 years, the role of children in American life changed dramatically; they became, and remain, pillars of the consumer economy, with economic power rivaling that of adults.

Children wield enormous purchasing power, both directly and indirectly (indirectly in the sense that they are able to persuade and influence parents on what to buy).

Observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched whining youll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of thousands of hours of market research, of an immense coordination of people, ideas and resources, of decades of social and economic change all rolled into a single,Mommy, pleeease!

If its within [kids] reach, they will touch it, and if they touch it, theres at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and buy it,writes retail anthropologist, Paco Underhill. The ideal placement of popular books and videos, he continues, should be on the lower shelvesso the little ones can grab Barney or Teletubbies unimpeded by Mom or Dad, who possibly take a dim view of hypercommercialized critters.

Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology at the University of Illinois,Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now, LiP Magazine, August 20, 2001

And advertising to children isnt just for purchasing childrens items; they influence other items:

The minivan was created, for example, because children demanded more room. Then they decided the three-door behemoth was uncool, helping give rise to the SUV.Every auto manufacturer has a strategy to target children,[James McNeal, a market researcher who specializes in the childrens market] adds.

The renowned behaviorist was also vice president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and a spokesman for the idea, then novel, that marketing is not just about peddling products that people need; its also about creating a society of consumers ever eager for more. Famous for claiming that any child, conditioned early enough, could be turned into anythinga doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even into beggar-man and thiefhe left a key vocation out. If shopper had been on his list, it would have been a prescient boast.

(The other key point in the quote above is that markets here are not meeting needs, butcreatingneeds.)

Marketers see children as a future as well as current market and hence brand loyalty at a young age helps in the quest of continued sales later.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has said that children between the ages of two and seventeen watch an annual average of 15,000 to 18,000 hours of television, compared with 12,000 hours spent per year in school. Children are also major targets for TV advertising, whose impact is greater than usual because there is an apparent lessening of influence by parents and others in the older generation. According to the [Committee on Communications of the American Academy of Pediatrics], children under the age of two should not watch television at all because at that age, brain development depends heavily on real human interactions.

In the European Union, by 2001, revenues to television networks and producers have reached between$620 and $930 million. Revenues since have increased further.

Sweden, since 1991 has banned all advertising during childrens prime time due to findings that children under 10 are incapable of telling the difference between a commercial and a program, and cannot understand the purpose of a commercial until the age of 12. (See previous link for more details.)

In the US, research from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows thatchildren under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messagesand are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by todays youth obesity epidemic. For these reasons, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) is recommending that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted.

The research on childrens commercial recall and product preferences confirms that advertising does typically get young consumers to buy their products. Findings show that children recall content from the ads to which theyve been exposed and preference for a product has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and strengthened with repeated exposures.

Furthermore, these product preferences can affect childrens product purchase requests, which can put pressure on parents purchasing decisions and instigate parent-child conflicts when parents deny their childrens requests.

there are concerns regarding certain commercial campaigns primarily targeting adults that pose risks for child-viewers. For example, beer ads are commonly shown during sports events and seen by millions of children, creating both brand familiarity and more positive attitudes toward drinking in children as young as 9-10 years of age. Another area of sensitive advertising content involves commercials for violent media products such as motion pictures and video games. Such ads contribute to a violent media culture which increases the likelihood of youngsters aggressive behavior and desensitizes children to real-world violence, said Dr. Kunkel [senior author of the task forces scientific report].

Television Advertising Leads to Unhealthy Habits in Children, American Pyschological Association (APA), February 23, 2004

Manipulating childrens views of the world

As detailed further on this sites section onMedia and Advertising, manipulation of imagery, fake news and more are so prevalent that young people in particular are vulnerable to a lot of influences from all angles.

With such constant bombardment of images of what beauty, perfection etc are all supposed to be, it is no wonder that many related health issues are increasing in younger children, from anxiety and stress to bulimia and anorexia.

Advertising is in all areas of childrens lives, from television commercials, to ad placement within programs (and video games), to toys, the Internet, mobile telephones, and more.

The concerns of the impacts on children has led to many trying to control advertising in some way.

Writing in a publication from the Nordic Information Centre for Media and Communication Research (Nordicom), Ulla Carlsson summarizes some of the options and approaches:

Ulla Carlsson,Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (p.13)

After going into these in a bit more depth, Carlsson concludes that no one measure is necessarily effective on its own,

the approaches to protecting minors from harm and offense in media content largely boil down to three kinds: law and regulation, self-regulation and co-regulation of the media. No one instrument of regulation is sufficient; today and in the future some form of effective interaction between all three kinds of media regulationthat is, between government, the media and civil societywill be required to reach satisfactory results. All the relevant stakeholderswithin government, the media sector and civil societyneed to develop effective means by which to collaborate.

Ulla Carlsson,Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment. Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, Nordicom, June 2006 (pp.14-15)

Banning ads and the fear or unintended consequences?

Sweden, since 1991 has banned all advertising during childrens prime time due to those concerns mentioned above regarding advertising to children being harmful.

The European Union is now considering issues related to advertising targeted at children and whether there should be a Europe-wide ban or regulation.

Since April 2007, the has UK banned junk food advertising during television programs aimed at children aged 7 to 9. As of January 1, 2008, that ban has been extended to all children under 16.

Some argue that this industry provides jobs for people so banning advertising would be ill-advised.

Others question the effectiveness of outright bans in advertising. For example, a ban would mean lost revenues of media outlets, as many pour a large amount of advertising revenues back into programming.

The Responsible Advertising and Children Programme (RACP) is an industry organization representing advertisers, agencies and media worldwide. They argue that education and self-regulation is the way to go (as most companies in most sectors tend to argue), and also warn of job losses if there are outright bans:

We believe that educating children to understand the purpose and context of marketing communications helps them to develop the skills to critically interpret commercial communications in the context of their daily lives. This is crucial in preparing them for interaction with the reality of a media-filled world.

advertising finances childrens programming on free-to-air television. 94% of the net revenues coming from advertising aimed at children are reinvested in childrens programmes. In the digital economy, there is no alternative method to ensure investment in original childrens programming and in the acquisition of programme rights.

Not only does marketing communications help to guarantee quality childrens programming, it also aids competition in the wider economy, creates jobs and enhances consumers choices of goods and services. In return, advertisers are active and enthusiastic supporters of strong self-regulation ensuring that we meet the expectations of parents, regulators, and society at large.

Education and self-regulation deliver effective and responsible marketing communications.

With less programming for children, they may end up watching more adult content, as Juliet Schor notes, also writing in the Nordicom publication mentioned earlier. However, she seems to disagree with the view above, thatthere is no alternativeto advertising for financing childrens programming:

Bans also raise the possibility of negative unintended consequences. For example, if a ban on advertising to children were to be enacted, it would reduce the financing available for childrens programming. If the quantity and quality of their programming declined, children would be likely to watch more adult media. This, in turn, would expose them to other types of inappropriate advertising and content. At the very least, government regulations on advertising need to be coupled with adequate financing mechanisms for quality childrens programming.

Schor also notes that one exception to the above concerns would be in schools, where the additional concerns with bans (legal, logistical, pragmatic) are not as difficult in a controlled environment such as school.

In addition, a study for the European Commission finds that,

restrictive national regulatory measures do not necessarily have a direct negative impact on advertising investment for childrens products.

This being the case, the different situations that exist in the European Union countries do not appear to favour the adoption of uniform regulatory measures via a Directive. National provisions or self-regulatory measure codes appear to be more adequate.

A paper inPediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, notes thatmedia education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents.

Schor also makes the interesting point that while education may be important (also one of the things suggested above by the RACP), it doesnt always work when needed:

Industry practitioners point to [a study showing children] mistrust [advertising] as proof that children cannot be influenced. But the available research finds that the presence of skepticism does not affect desire for the advertised product, even for nine and ten year olds. Despite expressing doubts about ads, kids remain vulnerable to their persuasive powers. Furthermore, although media literacy has been encouraged as a solution to some of the problems raised by childrens inability to watch ads critically, at least some research finds that it does not affect children while they are actually watching ads. In one study of nine and ten year olds, exposure to a media literacy film did not subsequently affect their thoughts while they viewed advertisements, because they did not retrieve the consumer knowledge they learned from the film.

In food advertising, for example, Schor notes thatDecades of studies show that food marketing to children is effective(p.108. See alsoPediatric Studies Link TV Advertising with Global Fatteningfrom the W. P. Carey School of Business, University of Arizona, March 29, 2006).

In addition,food advertising is contributing to major changes in eating habits,leading to concerns of obesity epidemics in the US and elsewhere.Over the long term, food marketing is likely to prove to be the most harmful commercial influence on children, because it will affect so much a large fraction of children, with such serious consequences for their health and well-being.(p.109).

Schor also find claims of self-regulation by food companies to be dubious and is quoted again:

The food corporations have also tried to control the discourse by making some concessions, and through skillful use of public relations concerning those concessions. For example, Kraft recently got wide coverage for an announcement that was interpreted as a commitment to stop advertising a subset of its most unhealthy products to children, although the actual change will likely be less significant than was widely interpreted McDonalds garnered widespread positive attention for an announcement that it was abandoning the use of trans-fats, a shift it has failed to carry out. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a group originally funded by Philip Morris, which also receives funding from restaurant chains, soft drink companies and other food corporations, has engaged in substantial public relations, advertising, research and lobbying activity in order to discredit food industry critics. In January 2005, industry formed the Alliance for American Advertising (AAA), a new organization whose purpose is to protect companies rights to advertise to children. The Alliance includes Kellogg, General Mills and Kraft, and has openly questioned the link between advertising and obesity, a reprise of tobacco strategy. The formation of the AAA should be interpreted as a sign that the critics are making progresshowever, the current political environment is hardly favorable.

Since writing the above,a number of food companies have said they will volunteer to cut ads directed towards children, as reported by theInternational Herald Tribune(December 11, 2007). The companies, Coca-Cola, Groupe Danone, Burger King, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, Nestl, PepsiCo, Ferrero and Unilever,agreed not to advertise food and beverages on television programs, Web sites or in print media where children under age 12 could be considered a target audience, except for products that met specific nutrition criteria.

While such an announcement seems welcome, given Schors concerns above, some skepticism may be wise. With public awareness of such issues in Europe increasing in recent years, companies may have a harder time avoiding such responsibilities, self-imposed or not, so maybe critics of advertising have that to hold on to as hope that this is indeed a positive move.

3 years on from the above announcement,The Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score (FACTS) an organization developed by Yale Universitys Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to scientifically measure food marketing to youth found that some of the pledges to reduce advertising to children had actually reversed.

In a detailed study, it found that the fast food industry continues torelentlesslymarket to youth. For example,

The average preschooler (2-5) sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children (6-11) see three-and-a-half; and teens see almost five.

Childrens exposure to fast food TV ads is increasing, even for ads from companies who have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children.

Children see more than just ads intended for kids. More than 60% of fast food ads viewed by children (2-11) were for foods other than kids meals.

Some $4.2 billion was spent in 2009, a fifth of which was by McDonalds alone. TV accounted for the bulk of the advertising (86%) though Internet marketing was increasing. (See p.51 of their main report,Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth(November 2010), for the details)

The organization suggested changing the industry-defined definition of television programs that require restrictions on the type of advertising aimed at children. Rather than restrictions only applying when the program is created solely for children, it wants a broader standard, such as the total number of children that watch a program. That would extend the reach of child friendly advertising guidelines to such broadly popular shows asAmerican IdolandGlee. (See p.14 of the report)

As of January 1, 2008, the UK has extended the April 2007 ban of junk food ads aimed at 7 to 9 year olds toban junk food ads for all children under 16. However,campaigners feel the ban is flawedas it only applies to childrens programming, not say family shows. They want the ban extended to all programs before thewatershed(9pm).

In addition, the concerns raised above by Schor and others about less ad revenue and thus reduced quality programming are all surfacing here. A BBC news television broadcast reporting on this also noted that some broadcasters are considering advertising from other sectors, even car manufacturers. If this occurs, then this will be using so-callednag factormarketing, where such advertising aims to get children to nag their parents to buy a product/service (discussed more below).

AChannel 4broadcast in the UK (January 8, 2008) also noted that some companies, rather then directly advertising to children, are sponsoring childrens programs so that their branding is still prevalent and increasing advertising on the Internet.

In that same broadcast, the reporter interviewed the Chief Executive of the Advertising Association, Baroness Buscombe who said that this type of advertisingis responsible, and its fun! its entertaining!It is hard to tell what is more surprising, that she said it was fun and entertaining, or that the reporter didnt challenge her as to what that had to do with advertisers trying to skirt around the ban and still target children.

Another type of approach that has been taken to address some of these concerns are counter-ads. These have been reasonably successful in campaigning against tobacco use by children, for example. But it has not been as successful on wider issues as Schor once again is quoted:

To date, this strategy has been stymied by the fact that truly powerful anti-ad messaging is difficult to get on the airwaves and almost impossible to sustain. The Truth campaign was ended quickly. The networks have repeatedly refused to show Adbusters anti-consumerist ads, in part on grounds that they will offend their advertisers. Surprisingly, there are no First Amendment rights for groups that want to promote an anti-consumerist message. Media outlets are corporate entities that depend on other corporate entities to earn profits, and they have historically resisted messages that jeopardize that relationship.

Some studies suggest that economic instruments (such as price rises or taxation) of unhealthy foodsmighthave an effect, but it is not guaranteed. For example,

This review found no direct scientific evidence of a causal relationship between policy-related economic instruments and food consumption, including foods high in saturated fats. Indirect evidence suggests that such a causal relationship is plausible, though it remains to be demonstrated by rigorous studies in community settings.

C. Goodman, A. Anise,What is known about the effectiveness of economic instruments to reduce consumption of foods high in saturated fats and other energy-dense foods for preventing and treating obesity?, Health Evidence Network, World Health Organisation, July 2006

What is not clear from such studies is does it measure the impact of habituation? That is, once you open Pandoras box, is it harder to close? Does this mean that different measures could apply to different age groups? E.g. if price rises or some kind of regulation on advertising to older children and adults has limited effect, does that necessarily apply to younger children? And if younger children have less advertising targeted at them in early ages, will such regulation be needed as they grow older or would cultural norms just result in less of it, naturally?

The food industry will of course be against measures such as taxing junk food, instead preferring things like exercise and individual responsibility instead (though an individual often poor on time versus professional marketing usually suggests an imbalance in available information and decision-making).

In mid-November, 2010, the BBCsPanoramaexplored this notion oftaxing the fat, saying that Britain is the fattest nation in Europe, and wondered whether it was time to consider such a tax as it may help the National Health Service afford the various costs associated with this problem.

The documentary also went to Denmark the first country in the world to implement such a tax to see how it was working there, and to the US, where it explained how a proposal to tax sugary drinks like Coca Cola has met with fierce opposition.

It found that there were signs of young people losing weight in the already heavily taxed Denmark, although older adults were still gaining weight.

The documentary also implied that the current UK Health Secretary wasnt keen on the idea and that his view was in line with the fast food industry, as targets and other measures may be lowered, as well as funding for current health campaigns for more active lives.

Exercise and individual responsibility has been the food industrys preferred alternative to regulation (it avoids extra costs on the industry, which industry representatives claim would cost jobs and competitiveness, and while it transfers extra burden and cost onto consumers, they are often ready to sell more in relation to that as described further below).

However, the documentary also noted that more and more studies are showing that while both diet and exercise are crucial to healthy lives, the balance isnt necessarily 50-50. Instead, diet appears to have a much larger bearing on peoples health and obesity. In addition, the numerous amounts of calories now available in fast foods are so high that the levels of exercise needed to burn the excess off is immense. Many people wouldnt have that time.

One potential use of the tax would be to subsidize healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables. But, a potential problem with taxing junk food is that many fruits and other healthy ingredients are often used in unhealthy foods such as sweets and sugary drinks, and even cosmetics and other products such as shampoos. So how can you ensure the tax proceeds are used appropriately?)

The education system in the USA, for example, has turned into ahugely profitable businessestimated to be worth around $650 billion. Fromcommercial-filled Channel Onewhich many students must watch,sponsored and selective educational material, tocommercialized school field tripsthe school system is bombarded by commercialism.

As well as children being targeted via the education system in the USA, as mentioned above, there is increasing concern at ad campaigns that are increasinglytargeting childrento be consumers and overly conscious about materialistic things, perhaps even at the expense of human qualities. One of the main reasons for such a fascination in children in this way is because of the potential purchasing power that children have.

In my practice I