Jonathan Williams


The ad biz bombards children and young people because the bottom line is cold hard cash. They’d rather chase urban trend surfers with brass in pocket, but their crossfire hits all kids. The children they’re gunning for not only have purchasing power but significantly influence their parents’ purchases. In the US, teens spend more than $300 billion a year and influence parental spending to the tune of $1.8 trillion. Between 1990 and 2000, the amount of money spent targeting children grew tenfold.

Toyota figured that children can even influence something as ‘adult’ as the purchase of a car. They ran a series of ads in Australia with cuddly cute animals in the lead. These outperformed other car ads at the time.

In my practice I see kids becoming incredibly consumerist. When I ask them what they want to do when they grow up, they all say they want to make money. When they talk about their friends, they talk about the clothes they wear, the designer labels, not the person’s human qualities. I see parents in this context, too. They come to me and say their kids are depressed and ask for violent video games or the food they see on TV. Parents say they feel in conflict. They want to say no, but they don’t want to have their child upset with them.

Allen Kanner, US clinical child psychologist

In France, advertising to children is seen as preparing them for the reality of the commercial world.

Divide and rule

Some kids lead and others follow; some kids want to be miles out of the group, others itch to get in. Teachers know this and try to address everyone. Marketers also know this and descend on the leaders. They figure that if they can get the ‘beautiful people’ of the youth market to use their product, others will find the lure of ‘be like me by using this’ irresistible. At first they may even restrict availability to a select few to whip up the longing, then make the product available on general release and see it fly off the shelves.

Older teens are divided into ‘tribes’ by marketers and products are pitched specifically at them to find that niche market.

Tapping into the leaders of the packs is the first important step to achieving brand acceptance among the whole group. How well do you understand your target group? Spend a day with them in school, at home and in their clubs. Listen to their conversations, their dreams and hopes. Then consider to what degree your concept and communications plan fulfils tweens’ [8-14 year-olds] need to have something to believe in. Would your concept and brand be able to fulfil this need?

From the marketing handbook BRANDchild by Martin Lindstrom with Patricia Seybold (Kogan Page, 2004).

In Greece, toys can’t be advertised between 7 in the morning and 10 at night.

Virtual worlds

A plethora of on-screen entertainment and games has turned children’s play from being ‘fantasy-driven’ to ‘fantasy-receiving’, according to marketers. The more complex computer games become, the less creative input is required from the player. Youngsters surfing the internet or playing electronic games are said to enter into a ‘flow state’ which makes them open to the images and messages, to say nothing of getting hooked on the activity they’re engaged in. With their guard down, the marketing theory goes, they become more receptive to advertising.

Ad pitches come at them in myriad forms. From product placement and mini ads in electronic games (Pepsi and Red Bull), to fake teen websites which look like they were created by a youngster somewhere talking about their life and friends but which subtly push products, to internet hype created by trolls (sorry, agents) entering children’s chat rooms and talking up a new CD or sneaker creating a must-have ripple across the world. Marketers know that kids today interact internationally more than ever through the net and often watch the same increasingly globalized TV media (think MTV) – a bit of the right kind of hype can lead to instant trends (‘fish streaming’ in marketing speak).

Interactivity is the name of the game – a soft drink can will ask you to text a number to win a prize; a TV ad will point you to a website brimming with games, puzzles and with a club to be part of. Teen magazines are ruled by advertisers, so the articles often pose human dilemmas as a series of consumer choices. Girls’ magazines contain all the Madonna/whore mental schisms that the ad biz can throw at their young readers.

In Britain, attempts to ban junk-food advertising on commercial channels before 9 pm failed. The regulator decided the loss of revenue involved ($441 million annually) meant broadcasters would have struggled.

Psychological warfare

A 2001 study conducted by the University of Notre Dame in the US found that elementary school children who saw advertising for a product judged it differently from those who didn’t see the ads or saw them after using the product. Advertising had actually influenced how the children experienced consumption. Older children, surprisingly, were more suggestible. The study concluded that this must be because they had more ways of connecting the ads to their own experiences.

Ad agencies are chasing down child psychologists to help them sell, sell, sell. Saatchi and Saatchi carried out a ‘global review of child development with child psychologists’ in order to ‘make advertising relevant to kids’. One person’s relevance is another’s exploitation, for sure.

In 1999, 60 psychologists and psychiatrists sent a letter to the American Psychological Association protesting ‘the drift of the profession into helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them’. They further claimed that ‘the profession does very little to protect innocent children – the people it is supposed to help – from the psychological cajoling and assaults that it itself helps to create’.

Amaranta Wright watches an in-flight presentation on ‘tapping the pre-teen market’:
In a primary-school setting a woman with a kind bubbly voice engages little boys and girls in friendly, exciting conversation about how and when they feel angry with their parents. Her caring eyes emulate those of a doctor or child psychiatrist attempting to cure the confused patient. But she is not there to help parents cope with nagging or the child to cope with peer pressure always to have the latest gadget. Her purpose is not to encourage the child to build a strong inner confidence, rather it is to help them feel less secure, to need more and to nag more effectively. She is so matter-of-fact, the report so upbeat, I feel it must be me who is crazy for thinking the world really is screwed when brands encourage kids to harass their parents. Why not just sponsor a nervous breakdown?

From Ripped & Torn (Ebury Press, 2006)

Sweden and Norway ban TV ads directly targeting children under 12.

Soak the sponges

On average, a child in Australia, Britain or the US will see anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 commercials a year. US children spend 60 per cent more time watching television in a year than they spend in school. Many North American schools are infiltrated by advertising anyway – from compulsory viewing of ads on a ‘news’ programme designed by industry, to posters in bike sheds and canteens. Australia permits sponsored classroom presentations.

Babies often form mental images of logos. A US study found three-year-old toddlers capable of recognizing an average of a hundred brand logos. Children pay more attention to ads on TV even if they are not aimed at them. With equal exposure they are three times more likely to remember a brand advertised on TV than adults and twice as likely to enjoy the ads.

Amaranta Wright recalls an encounter with marketers in Colombia:
They took me to lunch and showed me a comic strip from their advertising agency named ‘The Levi’s Kid’. Between 7.05 am, when he wakes up and enters his day with its bus-stop ads, billboards, bus posters, radio, TV, magazines, logos, tags on people’s clothes and product placements, and 11.30 pm when he sleeps, it is possible, the cartoon claims, that the 67 Levi’s messages will have subliminally penetrated their Medellín target teen. That’s excluding Friday nightlife sponsorship. Thus I am presented with Levi’s Colombian goal.

Ripped & Torn

A few years ago the former chair of the International Obesity Taskforce childhood working group described the case of a baby whose parents were alarmed by its agitation whenever the family passed a McDonald’s store. It seemed that the infant already associated the familiar golden arches with the children’s party fun depicted in the TV ads.

Neville Rigby, ‘Advertising to children’, The Ecologist, 1 April 2004

Quebec places restrictions on TV ads for under 13s. How one can measure which ads target such specific ages is another matter.

Brand = identity

Marketers believe that while the purpose of a product still had value to children in the 1980s, by the 1990s it was redundant, replaced by the idea of the brand. Owning brands is all about instant acceptability, success and admiration, to say nothing about the perversities of ‘cool’. Global brands are the worst advertising offenders, pushing desires worldwide.

Psychology plays a big part – if parental approval of a product is considered ‘uncool’, the advertising will deliberately create an outrageous image. Potent feelings and emotions are up for grabs – romance, rebellion, fear, belonging, power, you name it. Often brands are built by connecting fun situations with the product – a buzz of a skateboarding event, the hormonal swarm of the school disco. If children can ‘own’ the brand and push it among their peers, all the better (the Pokémon craze, Nike trainers). Or pay popular children to do the pushing – several agencies exist that employ children in this way. An international marketing survey (which included Majority World countries like India and Brazil) found that half of urban 8-to-14-year-olds thought that their clothing brands described who they are. Another survey, by the Center for a New American Dream, found that 6 out of 10 children still ask for brands an average of 9 times when their parents say no.

Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.

Walter Landor (1913-95), branding pioneer

Two bites from the marketing handbook BRANDchild:
* To have the best is much the same as being the best. Theirs is an absolute material reality where they become their possessions.
* Schools have turned into brand showrooms. This highlights economic divisions among groups. In a discussion, an 11-year-old girl commented: ‘I love brands. Brands are my life. Brands not only tell me who I am, but also protect me from problems with the others in my class.’

The quest for cool is by nature riddled with self-doubt. Except now the harrowing doubts of adolescence are the billion-dollar questions of our age. The insecurities go round and round the boardroom table, turning ad writers, art directors and CEOs into turbo-powered teenagers, circling in front of their bedroom mirrors trying to look blasé. Do the kids think we’re cool? they want to know.

Naomi Klein, No Logo (Flamingo, 2000)

It’s terrible to say, very often the most exciting outfits are from the poorest people.

Christian Lacroix, high-fashion designer

Australia banishes ads during programmes for pre-school children.

Anti-brand, ad aware

Insecurity and cynicism, that’s what you get when children are deceived and manipulated by adults. So what will the ad industry’s multifarious lies breed?

While advertising propaganda continues unabated, education remains the best fightback option.

If children are old enough to be sold to, they are old enough to learn to distinguish advertising from reality and recognize its purpose. Start the lessons as soon as possible. Children have an innate opposition to injustice. Big brands often do high-profile charity work; it masks their exploitation elsewhere. Dig up the dirt on them (good starting points are CorpWatch and Corporate Watch to arm your children against peer and ad pressure.

Take heart that children aren’t necessarily an easy sell. They grow out of brands quickly and swap allegiances. Getting them to question the entire notion of brands may take more work. Any brush with the global justice movement will provide young people with ample evidence that creativity and self-expression need have nothing to do with brands. Independent media for young people does exist. Check out _Bulb_ () and _Teen Voices_ ().

Two US-based groups providing useful information are Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood () and Commercial Alert ().

Get to know how the marketers think – check out marketing handbooks on selling to children at your local library.

The new fascism is the consumer society, because it profoundly transforms young people. It has touched them. It has changed their feelings, their ways of thought and their way of life.

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), radical filmmaker

If a kid went to a concert and there wasn’t merchandise to buy, he’d probably go out of his mind.

Woodstock promoter John Roberts

Sources of factual information and studies quoted: _BRANDchild_ by Martin Lindstrom with Patricia B Seybold (Kogan Page, 2004); University of Notre Dame; Felicity Lawrence, ‘Industry lobbying “derailed junk food ban’’’, _The Guardian_, 22 April 2006; Miriam H Zoll, ‘Psychologists Challenge Ethics of Marketing to Children’, 5 April 2000, ;

New Internationalist issue 393 magazine cover This article is from the September 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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