As children increasingly become the ‘new’ market, advertising is turning its beam on the young.
"B-DAMAN WARRIORS …awesome firepower! Be da man - with B-Daman!” “Get new Sticker-mania. It’s amazingly cool!” If you have trouble recognising those product names, or even understanding the words, don’t worry. They’re not meant for you. They are, instead, examples of an industry worth at least £70 million every year: advertising aimed directly at children. The result is that today’s average British child is familiar with as many as 400 brand names by the age of ten. Researchers report that our children are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald and the Nike swoosh than a representation of Jesus. One study found that 69% of all three-year-olds could identify the McDonald’s golden arches - while half of all four-year-olds did not know their own name.
Watch commercial television at teatime and you’ll soon be bombarded by ads for burgers, ice-creams, chocolate or brightly coloured water. The ads move fast, with plenty of whooshing and whizzing, and often with an inducement outside the food itself: a link to a big current movie or a range of free plastic toys. Food giants are finding new ways to sell their wares, bypassing TV to reach directly into children’s lives. The campaign group The Food Commission has singled out a Cheerios counting book that encourages toddlers to put cereal pieces in the slots on the page. Advertisers love the idea of breaking into what psychologists call “the educable moment” - that precious second when a child is reading or playing and so at their most receptive.
Meanwhile, childhood obesity has tripled in the past twenty-five years. Nearly one in six British kids are overweight; 6% are obese. For the first time, children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a disease previously thought to be confined to the over-forties. Consumer activists predict that the promotion of unhealthy food to kids, and the wider issue of marketing to children altogether, could soon become a national cause célèbre. Where Jamie Oliver led on school dinners, campaigners against junk food on TV could soon follow. Others anticipate a larger movement, one that makes the business of selling to kids as controversial - and unpopular - as the selling of tobacco. They point to the survey by the National Family and Parenting Institute, which found that no fewer than 84% of parents believe there is too much marketing aimed at children. Are they right? And if the danger is real, what can be done about it?
“SMARTIE PEOPLE ARE happy people.” “A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat.” That took no research at all. I typed those jingles from memory, even though I can’t have heard them for twenty-five years. That says two useful things. First, that adverts really do have an impact on the juvenile brain, one that can last for decades. Second, that using TV to persuade kids to buy things, including sweets, is not new.
The inducements that stir such controversy now are hardly new either. I remember shaking the morning box of Shreddies or Frosties for the toy within. Of course, the ads were less slick then, but they were still playing the same game: promising fun and adventure if you ate more sweets. No, the difference between then and now lies somewhere else - in the sheer volume of advertising.
In my childhood, you saw ads on ITV and nowhere else. Now there is a profusion of cable channels, including half a dozen or more aimed at kids; crucially, there’s also the internet, email and mobile phones. Advertisers have found ways to use all three, from dedicated websites to viral email campaigns to unsolicited text messaging.
In other words, the marketplace aimed at children is enormous, and it is lucrative terrain. With more pocket money than ever before, children are a highly prized target audience. And make no mistake about it: they are being targeted.
Power Rangers Ninja Storm! The ice-cream of super heroes!” Food is the battleground. Analysts are now so clear on what foods are unhealthy for children that they even have a snappy name for them. They are the Big Five: sweets and chocolate, soft drinks, crisps and savoury snacks, fast food, and pre-sugared breakfast cereals.
Now, which foods are advertised when kids watch TV? According to an Ofcom report, Childhood Obesity: Food Advertising in Context, the products to get the biggest push were convenience food, confectionery or dairy products, the very categories that feature most prominently in the diets of obese children. And it is these foods that appear most frequently during those traditional, after-school hours known as ‘children’s airtime’.
That might seem to suggest a simple solution: ban all TV advertising of junk food during those kids’ hours. The trouble is, that’s not the only or even the main time children watch TV. Britain’s under-sixteens now watch around seventeen hours of television each week, but twelve of those hours are outside the traditional zone of commercial children’s TV.
The marketing of food to young consumers is not only a matter of when, but how. The techniques are tried, tested and familiar. An old favourite is the cartoon character, the likes of Tony the Tiger, still doing gr-r-r-reat service for Frosties. The appeal to young children is obvious: bright, primary colours; friendly, elastic faces. Except these lovable creations are not there to entertain but to sell.
A more visible method is the tie-in to a big, blockbuster movie or the celebrity endorsement (a staple of adult-oriented advertising, too). It could be David Beckham selling Pepsi, or Venus Williams promoting Big Macs, but the logic is the same: healthy person selling unhealthy product.
WHAT IS THE reaction of the advertisers to this issue? Some refuse to see any case to answer. They deny a link between junk food ads and young people’s eating habits; still less between ads and obesity. Academic research, concluded Ofcom, showed only “modest direct effects” of ads on food consumption. Yes, it is true that the more time a child spends in front of the box, the likelier it is that he or she will have a bad diet, bad health and even be obese - but that could be because watching TV is itself a sedentary activity. Or that TV viewing tends to go hand in hand with constant fridge-opening and snacking. Or, maybe, that the child will see more ads for those Big Five products. But who can disentangle one factor from another?
Besides, there are so many other explanations for why today’s children are getting fatter – they’re less active. Greg Rowland, whose Semiotics for Brands business has established him as the ‘thinking man’s adman’, has worked for a variety of products, including Cadbury’s Fingers and Smarties. He rattles off the possible causes for the surge in childhood obesity: the selling-off of playing fields; the decline in walking to school; the fear parents have of letting their children play unsupervised in the park; the disappearance of the old-fashioned park keeper; the breakdown of community; the rise of the two-working-parents household, leaving less time to prepare wholesome meals. “There are so many issues which can be blamed for this problem,” he says. “Why single out TV advertising? Because it’s an easy target.”
What about advertisers’ deliberate manipulation, encouraging for example pester power? “The real question”, says Rowland, “is why are parents not strong enough to say ‘No’? It’s because they feel guilty. Giving in and buying stuff is the easy way of parenting for ‘time-poor’ parents.”
IT’S NOT JUST food. Children are being targeted to buy everything from music downloads to shoes, mobile phones to jeans. Few places, it seems, are off limits. This summer it emerged that Boomerang Media, which already offers advertising space in more than 1,000 secondary schools, now promises access to toddlers’ play areas, on place mats and lunchboxes. Its Play House Media campaign tells would-be clients it can turn children’s parties into a ‘communication opportunity’and a ‘brand experience for kids’.
Some are not too troubled by that. For one thing, young people tell pollsters they like adverts - especially if they are funny or have good music. More importantly, kids are savvy, and by the age of twelve they can give a pretty shrewd critique of what advertisers are up to.
Shopping Generation, a study recently published by the National Consumer Council, established that young people in the UK enjoy shopping; that they have more money in their pockets and greater influence over the choices their families make than ever before. They are highly ‘brand-aware’, more even than their counterparts in the US.
But they pay a price. They record higher levels of dissatisfaction than American kids, wishing that they or their parents had more money to spend, sensing that too many goods were out of reach. According to the report, “they are relentlessly targeted by companies and advertisers, operating on occasion with the ethics of the playground bully. Their vulnerabilities are sold back to them through magazines and marketing.”
Especially hit were the youngest and the poorest. All the kids surveyed liked clothes with recognisable labels, but that was truest among those who could least afford them. “I feel depressed when I can’t get it,” said one boy of the items he can see but cannot pay for. Not wearing the correct gear can lead to embarrassment, if not bullying, says the report.
The NHS reports rising incidence of mental illness among the young, with anxiety and depression linked to the pressure to buy, to own, to consume. The data show that today’s children are unhappier than any generation of the post-war era. Is this down to a few corporations and their fiendishly clever advertisements? Of course not. But it may be the fruit of a culture that, on every measure, is more focused on the commercial, on the material, than ever before.
IF YOU SHIELDED kids’ eyes from adverts, when would you take the blinkers off? At sixteen? At twelve? Can you insulate children from the commercial world in which we all live? Besides, bans don’t necessarily work. There are no ads on children’s television in Sweden and yet their kids are as overweight as in the UK.
Maybe the best option is counter-propaganda, fighting fire with fire. The ever tighter bans on cigarette advertising did not cause a fall in smoking: that only happened when there was a positive campaign, using advertising, urging people to give up. Perhaps the same is needed for healthy eating; maybe even for anti-consumerism itself?
Maybe kids will stop wanting Nike trainers only when they have another way to prove their own worth, another way to show they are valued. In other words, when society itself is changed. It raises a tricky question. Can we really protect children from consumerism run wild without changing the way the rest of us live? Is this a problem of the young - or a problem for all of us?