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Marketing to Children: a time-bomb.

Patricia Edgar, 2008

The exploitation of children as a market is a global phenomenon analogous to climate change in that the serious and costly connections are not at first obvious.

With climate change we have seen a drought here, a cyclone in New Orleans, polar icecaps melting, temperatures rising; all indicators of a fundamental problem which Sir Nicholas Stern in his government commissioned report in the UK, has judged as “market failure on the greatest scale the world has seen”. The cost of environmental damage has not been factored into economic growth. We are perilously close to a tipping point from which there may be no return. Inaction will devastate the world's economies. The market's exploitation of children is also resulting in a very serious cost from damage done to their health, education and welfare which society will pay for dearly. Action now and investment in prevention will pay us back many times.

Children have become a lucrative global market during the last two decades. In the US, the marketing flagship for the Western world, budgets for advertising to children under the age of 12 have risen from $100 million in 1983 to $16 billion in 2004. US children directly influenced the spending of up to $300 billion in 2000.  Australia Scan - a social research company - reports the 'tween' market in Australia, which targets 7 to 13 year olds, is worth more than $10 billion.

Over the same two decades obesity has become the single biggest threat to child health in the Western world with juvenile diabetes at record levels. Between 1985 and 1997 childhood overweight doubled and obesity tripled among children and young people aged seven to 15 years.

During the same period lifestyle magazines for 'tweens', such as Barbie (1996), Total Girl (2002) and Disney Girl (2004) penetrated the Australian market,  initiating young girls into the teenage world of fashion, sex and pop stars. These magazines promote a culture that encourages consumption and the desire to look and behave like adults. Child models pictured, posing like fashion models wearing trendy clothing and make-up, are airbrushed to shop-window perfection creating the illusion of flawless, precocious, premature adults to which unsuspecting children aspire.

This magazine culture is not about harmless dressing-up which all kids love. This is big business, with ill-thought-through consequences, part of a recipe contributing to future eating disorders and low self-esteem among young girls, stemming from an obsession with appearance. The Royal Children's Hospital (The Age December 3, 2006) has recorded a surge in the number of children under 14 with anorexia, treating more than 10 times the cases it handled in 2003. Some of the children were aged 8 years. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons reported (Nov 11th, The Age) teenagers with problem acne are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. My generation fought against the widespread use of images of women as sex objects, but thirty years on we are seeing a much younger generation targeted, and softened up for exploitation, both as consumers and sex victims.

Australian research (Professor George Patton's Gatehouse Study on Adolescent health published recently in the American Journal of Public Health) has examined risk taking activities among school children in 26 schools. The study found: smoking, drinking, engaging in sexual intercourse and drug taking are happening earlier and lasting longer. We are allowing the promotion of a mismatch between biological maturation and social maturation which is leading to mental and physical health problems for young people.

Twenty years ago children were considered too small a market to be profitable. Indeed the lack of advertising directed towards children was seen by some television network players as a major reason why there should be no children's programs at all. But in the interests of children, agreement was reached between government, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and the public that television networks had an obligation to educate and develop children as well as entertain them. Australia led the world with a regulatory model for the development of children's television programming and advertising to them was within clearly defined limits. What was then viewed as the beginning of a process of reform is now seen as a golden age.

It would be another decade before Disney heralded a changed view of the profits to be made from the children's market. The Little Mermaid (1989) - the first new animated feature film from Disney in 30 years - grossed an astonishing US $110 million at the US box office and $222 million worldwide. Disney moved straight on to produce Beauty and the Beast. The Walt Disney Company reported a record profit of $1.4 billion in 1992 demonstrating the revenue-raising potential of licensing, with publishing, music, videos, games, along with any children's product that could carry the logo. The Lion King exemplified the Disney formula for success with fans spending $3 billion on associated merchandise.

The impact of this success story was felt globally. Soon we saw marketing-driven television programs such as Barney in the United States, Tellytubbies in the United Kingdom and the ABC's Bananas in Pyjamas. From then on, success in financing a children's programme was largely based on character merchandising as a starting point.

This fundamental change, which saw children identified as a huge market to be tapped, coincided with the emergence in the 80's of cable and pay television in competition with free-to-air broadcasting. Nickeleodeon, Fox, The Cartoon Network and Disney cable channels competed for the child audience, each with its distinct house style, aiming to dominate markets internationally with their brands, their franchises and associated merchandising spin-offs.

 Television, magazines, fashion and fast food companies combined with phenomenally successful marketing campaigns which tied together toys, clothing and 'junk food' to sell a lifestyle to children. McDonald's was the star performer: its golden arches become imprinted on children's brains for life.

Nowhere is this partnership between food, fashion, and media for kids more apparent and well integrated than when you go on-line. We have barely begun to assess the scale of advertising to children there, much less work out what we can or should do about it.

ACMA, The Australian Communication and Media Authority, has announced it will this year examine the impact of mainstream electronic media on children's families and society including - free to air analog and digital television, subscription television, portable audio and video media players such as ipods and MP3 players, multimedia mobile phones, internet-based communications and social activities such as instant messaging, chat rooms, online gaming and the use and creation of user-generated media.

Such media include the immensely popular web video site YouTube, which has come to  public attention with exposure of the DVD (distributed for sale and shown on YouTube) produced by a group of Werribee schoolboys who are now under investigation by the Victorian police for their filmed abuse of a young woman. The mixed response to this video, among teenagers interviewed, reveals a confusion of values in a society where even outrageous and criminal behaviour may be turned into a commodity.

The ACMA report 'will include a survey of parents' behaviours and attitudes to find out how modern media help or hinder in dealing with the pressures of family life. Most parents are not irresponsible, they want the best for their children, but it seems they are unwitting allies in assisting advertisers do their work targeting their sons and daughters.

In the US last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study based on a national survey of 1051 families on how kids' media-use helps parents cope. The report revealed many children live in 'heavy media households' where TV is on throughout the day, in the living room, the dining room and bedroom. One in three children under 6 has a set in their bedroom. Television's presence in the lives of many children is almost constant, while computers too are gaining in status. Eight in 10 children six years old and under (78%) live in homes with a computer and 67% had internet access from home: three in 10 households (29%) have more than one computer.

Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation released in July last year is the first analysis of on-line food advertising targeting children directly. The research examined 77 corporate web sites (including 4000 web pages) with branded content likely to appeal to children aged 12 and under. These sites are promoted on television and on product packages. The internet has enabled creative new forms of marketing which draw attention to a brand in a playful way over an extended period of time, and blur the line between advertising and entertainment. New vocabulary is used to explain new techniques.

The study found 'advergaming' - on-line games in which a company's product or brand characters are featured (an advertisement and a game all in one) - on 73% of the web sites studied.  The sites (64%) also encourage 'viral marketing' where children are being recruited as marketers to promote branded messages to their friends. Promotions, downloads and media tie-ins proliferate. On-line advertising's reach isn't as broad as that of television but it's much deeper. Children who visit are exposed to a diverse and extensive array of brand-related information far beyond anything they would see in a 30-second TV ad. 

On television, advertisers are required to insert commercial separators, or breaks, before and after advertisements in shows intended for children, yet on the internet, food and beverage advertisers are not restricted. We don't know what children understand or do as a consequence of exposure to brand messages in this new marketing environment. But with warning signs becoming clearer - a significant increase in levels of obesity, the juvenile diabetes epidemic and claims of corporate pedophilia in children's fashion advertising - we need to know.

In response to growing public concern the AANA (Australian Association of National Advertisers) in October last year released its code to self-regulate food and beverage advertising.  The code contains warm words claiming advertising “shall not improperly exploit children's imagination in ways which might reasonably be regarded as being based upon an intent to encourage those children to consume what would be considered, acting reasonably, as excessive quantities of the product” (my italics). 

However the code applies only to individual advertisements and does nothing to address the major problem with child-targeted marketing - the huge volume. And children's lack of experience and cognitive ability makes them susceptible to influence - even if the messages are honest, truthful, clear and understandable - because children do not understand advertising's persuasive intent.  The code is open to interpretation because of the qualifying language used. Clarification is needed.

Sophistry also bedevils the debate about the food industry's role in the obesity epidemic. Studies released in October at the Obesity Forum in Canberra put the cost of obesity in children and adults last year at $21 billion dollars. It's not just the amount of food we now eat in super-sized portions, but also what is in the food - the saturated fats and the quantity of sugar - that make the battle to keep weight within normal range a challenge for many people.

The food and beverage industries insist we should exercise more; the media industries insist it is not their problem, they only offer entertainment. Government calls on parents to be the guardians of their children: they can turn off the set, say no, refuse to buy, feed their children healthy food. But business conspires against them. Marketers are way ahead of the game as they bring the best minds to bear on ways to access and develop the child market. The advertising industry insists it is responsible while it pushes the boundaries with skilled campaigns, using sex increasingly, to sell to young people. 

As we debate the pros and cons of regulation and parental responsibility, exercise, fast food, children's fashion and sexuality - and advertising's linking role in all things - we are losing the battle for quality children's programs. The television industry worldwide has forsaken its responsibility to children's development as marketing to them drives the agenda. So children watch programs of inconsequence which consume their time, when their sharp acquisitive brains should be stretched and stimulated.

There is only one responsible answer and that is the provision of children's programs must be an obligation on broadcasters and the exploitation of children as a market should cease.  We should revive the calls to develop a knowledge nation. International research over the past decade reveals that if children spend their early years in a compromised environment they are at risk. For every dollar invested there will be a gain. Educated, engaged, healthy children result in fewer teenage pregnancies, better school achievement, fewer drop-outs, and a better employment record; 60% of 15 to 24 year olds who left school before finishing Year 10 are unemployed.  The social costs of welfare, health and crime will reduce exponentially with a community of educated, engaged young people. And obese, dumbed-down, kids can't be expected to make the smart decisions required to solve global problems.

As with global warming there is a business case that can and must be made for an integrated child policy, for their education, health and development. The media have a central role to play and that is not as a conduit for advertisers to reach a market with products. The media industries are now at the centre of knowledge transfer. Programming for children remains an essential part of their education. Parents, teachers and politicians will be required to act on behalf of children as the negative effects of targeting them as a market to be exploited become more apparent and the cost to society grows. There will be a tipping point.