In this insightful article, David Sirota points out that since the 1970s consumer activists have had an on again off again battle with marketers on the issue of advertising to children. Regulations come in that limit them, and then are swept away or weakened. From push-up bikini tops, childlike alcohol products to sexy horses and vampy monsters, children are targeted with ridiculous products that ignore their developmental needs. In the meantime, children are the vulnerable audience that suffers.
In the UK, the Prime Minister called for a report on the sexualization of children in media and marketing due to the increased concern with this issue. The Telegraph’s report provides some of the leaked information about the suggestions that the report, “Let Children Be Children” will contain:
“There will be proposals to encourage retailers to sign up to a voluntary code of practice to ensure that children’s clothes are not, as the report puts it, “simply scaled-down versions of adult fashion”. They will also be asked to agree to ensure that shop displays do not contain sexualised photography or images, and that children’s clothes are marketed separately from those aimed at adult women. Billboards with provocative sexual imagery should be kept away from schools, the report will recommend, and broadcasters should avoid exposing children to sexual imagery by restricting such material to after the 9pm watershed. Parents should be given special software that enables them to restrict their children’s access to adult websites.”
The problem with the idea of industry self-regulation is that it has already been tried and has not been successful. For example, even when an industry, such as that of movies and games, develops a rating system, they continue to market the product or program to consumers under the recommended age. In 2000, the Federal Trade Commission came out with a report indicating that even when these industries have rated products as acceptable only for those over 17, they continue to promote these products to children and early adolescents. In fact, the FTC report (pg. 1) stated that:
“Companies in those (motion picture, music recording, and electronic game) industries routinely target children under 17 as the audience for movies, music, and games that their own rating or labeling systems say are inappropriate for children.”
The FTC found that many companies within these industries had developed marketing plans that clearly targeted the under-17 age group. As reported by the Los Angeles Times (Pham, 2011), the company Electronic Arts created an advertisement called “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” to promote a Mature rated horror game. The advertisement consisted of video clips from focus groups of middle-aged women cringing and looking appalled while viewing the game. Any parent who has taken their child to McDonald’s can see this with the toys that are included in the Happy Meal. It is not unusual for toys for PG-13 movies to be included in Happy Meals, which are targeted at children in the 4-8 year old age range (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010) with Mighty Kids Meals being described on the McDonald’s website as for tweens aged 8-12 (www.McDonalds.com). In a 2010 law suit that the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed against McDonalds for using toys to market nutritionally questionable food and products directly to children, the litigation director Stephen Gardner said, “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity — all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice….” (CBC News, 2010).
This is interesting language that could be applied to many newer marketing campaigns. This is exactly why I work to provide caring adults and children with the tools to critique and respond to media and marketing messages. If we as consumers sit back and passively take whatever advertisers give us, we hand our power over. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as active, critical consumers who can speak up when we don’t like what we’re seeing and vote with our business for which companies are giving us what we truly want, then we become empowered. I urge you to see yourself as someone who can make a difference. Our children are precious, and they deserve to be treated with respect. They deserve to go to school without having products embedded in their educational experience. They deserve to have their developmental level recognized and not be manipulated unfairly because of it. It’s time for all of us to speak up and say, Enough is Enough.
This week I’m going to share some fun activities that will help you and the children in your lives become media activists. Some may see this post as negative, but I disagree. I think it’s vital to set the stage so that we all understand why it’s so important for us to be empowered media consumers and activists. The first step toward coming up with solutions for an effective response to sexualized media is recognition that a problem exists. I hope this post has prompted some thinking about why it’s important to stand up to sexualized media. In the next few posts, I’ll share some positive ways to respond.