Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Marketing and Kids: Can ethics beat out profit?

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 report, “Let Children Be Children” contained 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 asked retailers to agree to ensure that shop displays do not contain sexualized 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, and broadcasters should avoid exposing children to sexual imagery by restricting such material to after 9pm.

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 it is so important for parents, teachers, and other caring adults to become educated about marketing campaigns directed at children. In order to increase media literacy, this must go hand in hand with the education of children and adolescents which provides them with the tools to critique and respond to media and marketing messages aimed directly at them. It is within our power as consumers to speak up to big business and make a difference. From junk food marketed to children, to sugary sodas aimed at teens, to sexy toys, those under 18 are a prime target for marketers, and industry self-regulation does not work. As Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth says in her most recent post,

“Time and again reasonable legislation is put forth to curb cruddy cues that plug unhealthy foods only to have legal beagles sic their dogs on Washington to snarl and intimidate Congress to back down in the name of “unsupported allegations of causation.” Bah.

How about some greater good common sense, people? (see Prevention Institute’s sobering stats on the $2 billion a year kids’ marketing industry, CCFC’s food marketing to kids fact sheet for a quick debrief, or CSPI’s fabulous Food Day resources and action kit)

Dig a little deeper in the polit-bureau of food marketing to kids debates and here’s what you find in media and marketing…Hmn, let’s see…

Viacom, the ANA, and leading food companies unleashed a lobbying blitz at the White House, Congress, FTC to kill off the proposed scientific-based guidelines when marketing to kids/teens by well-known First Amendment attorney Kathleen Sullivan—(w/corp ties having Disney, Time Warner, Google, the Motion Picture Academy, Yahoo etc) AND as part of the new food and media biz lobbying machine, they hired Anita Dunn, Obama’s former head of communication, to run a so-called new coalition called (wait for it!) Sensible Food Policy.orgThe “Sensible Food Policy” legal beagles (aka corporate industry food giants, note their site hasno “who we are” section, just a “what we’re doing” section!) not only placed a deep political chill on the Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children (IWG comprised of the White House, FTC , CDC, FDA, USDA) but the lift of the veil reveals the “150 trade associations” behind “Sensible Food Policy” include PepsiCo, Viacom, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Time Warner, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and the Association of National Advertisers!”

It’s high time for consumers to put pressure on both companies and government to behave in a socially responsible and ethical manner. If I said, “Hey, it may not be ethical, but it sure makes me money!” about the work that I do, I would lose my job and my license and so would most of you. So, let’s tell these companies we’ve had enough.

So what can you do about this?

Considering junk food marketing to kids, Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth recommends educating yourself and taking action. These are great recommendations for sexualized media and other targeted marketing campaigns that aren’t healthy for children and adolescents. You can:

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