Never too young to be targeted

If you’re a parent, you know only too well how exasperating it is when your kids start nagging you to buy them a toy or a snack food because they saw it advertised on TV or the Internet. But apart from taking the draconian action of banning your child from the technology to minimise their exposure, or at the very least restricting their use, there’s not much you can do. Which is why many parents end up doing nothing, hoping that somehow their kids will escape unscathed the ever more sophisticated onslaught of manufacturers and marketers.

Just how big and insidious a problem children’s advertising is and what we can do about it is the subject of this radio program. According to interviewee Johnathan Kent, founder of the UK campaign, Leave Our Kids Alone, the problem is huge. Which begs the question: why aren’t more parents, who are so overprotective of their kids in other ways, up in arms about what Kent describes as the predatory nature of advertisers in their engagement with children?

Kent says, “If you imagine life 60 years ago and suddenly this sort of advertising has been brought in out of the blue, I think parents everywhere would have thrown up their arms in horror and said ‘no’. But it hasn’t happened this way, it’s been incremental … it’s crept up on us, and if it hadn’t, I think we would have stopped it.”

Instead, we’ve allowed the industry to balloon into a multi-billion dollar behemoth that allocates a sizeable chunk of its budget to marketing goods and services directly at kids. For example, in the 2012 report on Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents, the US Federal Trade Commission found that 48 of the largest food and beverage products in the US spent US$1.79 billion marketing food to youth in 2009. And of that amount, $1 billion was spent on marketing to children aged 2 to 11.

They also found that while spending on youth-directed television advertising had fallen between 2006 and 2009, spending on online and viral marketing increased by 50 percent. In other words, marketers now have other platforms from which to entice littlies to their products.

Dr Jennifer Harris is with the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity and Yale University. She explains how digital media allows companies to interactively engage with children. “So the children select a website to go to but then there’s lots of fun games and activities and videos and art projects that they can do on these websites. And so they end up spending a lot of time on the site, and every minute they are spending is basically an ad because it’s all branded content.”

Given the barrage of junk food advertising, it’s not surprising that many studies have confirmed the link between screen time and childhood obesity as well as other risk factors for diabetes, future heart disease and cancer. More recently, researchers have been examining what happens if children’s television or screen time is reduced.

Thomas Robinson, Professor of Paediatrics in Medicine and Director of the Centre for Health Weight at Stanford University School of Medicine, describes one study where just a single 30 second exposure to an advertisement embedded within a cartoon altered preschoolers’ preferences for that specific brand of product. In another study, his team confirmed that children’s awareness of a brand strongly affects their perceptions of taste.

Robinson is in no doubt that a blanket ban on advertising and marketing to young children would be very effective, just so long as “you define what advertising or marketing is. Right now companies have gone far beyond simple advertising in terms of their approaches to marketing. And so there is product placement within other screen content. This is where a whole cartoon or a whole programme is built around a brand. And that is one way that advertisers have gotten around some of these prohibition that have tried to limit advertising to children.”




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