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The Tricky Business of Advertising to Children

As Subway launches a multi-million-dollar healthy eating ad campaign aimed at kids, is marketing to children harmful or a useful tool for teaching critical analysis?

In the US, the average child watches an estimated 16,000 television commercials a year. And, while US children are among the world’s most avid consumers of advertising, the effect of television on children is a concern for parents across the globe.

Critics of advertising claim that it contributes to a host of ills, from childhood obesity and poor impulse control to precocious sexuality. Proponents say advertising can be a useful tool for teaching children about critical analysis.

Recently, the battle for the hearts and minds of America’s children opened a new front: their stomachs. Allying itself with Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, fast-food company Subway has agreed to spend $41m over three years to promote a healthy-eating program aimed at children.

The advertising campaign, with the slogan “Playtime: Powered by Veggies”, represents Subway’s most aggressive child marketing attempt to date. By comparison, the company spent $2.2m on child marketing in 2011 and $7m in 2012. The same year, McDonald’s spent an estimated $42m on ad buys for its Happy Meals.

Subway’s campaign offers a fresh angle on an old issue, namely the question of whether or not it is ethical for corporations to directly market to children. In some ways, the restaurant is a perfect test case; while the nutritional profile of Subway’s offerings is far from perfect, it is one of the healthier options in the large-chain fast-food market. And, by presenting an aggressively marketed alternative to McDonald’s, Subway is suggesting an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend strategy that could create some strange bedfellows in the war against childhood obesity.

On the other hand, regardless of the healthiness of Subway’s offerings, they are still being directly marketed to children, a strategy many parents consider problematic. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, questions the very nature of child marketing.

“There’s no moral, ethical, or social justification for marketing any product to children,” she says. “Advertising healthier foods to children is problematic. We want children to develop a healthy relationship to nutrition and to the foods that they consume. Advertising trains kids to choose foods based on celebrity, not based on what’s on the package.”

Ian Barber, communications director of the UK’s Advertising Association, suggests that the child marketing furore may ultimately be a matter of displacement; parents who are concerned about certain products may become angry or upset when they are marketed to children, and may blame the medium for the message.

“Advertising becomes a proxy for complaints about particular companies, brands or products,” he argues. “Advertising isn’t the issue. The sort of advertisements that children see is the issue. But then you get into a very objective debate about how people feel about certain brands or services.”

Linn disagrees. “Advertising, in and of itself, is harmful to children,” she argues. “Marketing targets emotions, not intellect. It trains children to choose products not for the actual value of the product, but because of celebrity or what’s on the package. It undermines critical thinking and promotes impulse buying.”

When it comes to legal restrictions on child advertising, the UK occupies a spot somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. At one extreme, Sweden, Norway and Quebec completely bar marketingto children under the age of 12. At the opposite end are countries such as the US, where the marketing industry is self-regulated, with few legal restrictions on the material that advertisers can broadcast to children.

In Britain, the advertising industry self-regulates, within the bounds of certain national and international laws that limit the products and techniques that it is allowed to employ. “For example, you cannot make a child feel inferior or unpopular for not buying a product,” Barbour explains. “You can’t take advantage of their credulity, or suggest that they’re lacking in courage or loyalty. You can’t encourage them to actively pester their parents, or make a direct exhortation to a child to buy a product.” Some of these rules, he emphasises, are based in laws, but many are self-imposed by the advertising industry.

For consumers in countries where advertising is less strictly regulated, the UK’s advertising standards may seem almost genteel. Then again, Barber claims, the British advertising industry has experienced few complaints from parents. “The proportion of complaints about ads that relate to concerns about children is minuscule,” he says. “In fact, the all-time number-one complained about ad in the UK was for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the reason was that people in the commercial were speaking with their mouths full.”

Another approach for ameliorating the effect of child advertising may lie in teaching children how to understand the media messages that constantly barrage them. Media Smart, an organisation funded by Barber’s advertising lobby, approaches the issue of child marketing from the perspective of education. “Media Smart helps kids better understand what advertising is, how advertising works, what its intentions are, and how to be critical of it,” Barbour explains. “Seeking to shield children completely from advertising doesn’t seem like a pragmatic or helpful response to any concerns that you might have. Our approach is to make sure the advertising targeted to kids is appropriate, and help kids to understand what advertising does.”

From this perspective, advertising can be a useful tool for teaching children to be cynical and careful consumers of cultural messages. Then again, as the advertising lobby’s own research (PDF) has shown, children are not capable of understanding the “commercial intent” of advertising until they reach the age of 12.

Linn questions the value of media literacy training. “I agree that it’s important to teach children critical thinking skills,” she says. “But to depend on children to protect themselves from advertising is either naïve or disingenuous.” More to the point, she argues, it’s unclear that media literacy can influence consumer behaviour. “There’s research showing that media literacy can inculcate scepticism, but there’s no link between scepticism and consumer behaviour.”

Ultimately, Linn notes, “there’s no evidence that advertising is beneficial”. More to the point, she argues, it erodes children’s creative play. “That’s the foundation of learning creativity and constructive problem solving, both of which are essential to a democratic society.” In other words, Linn suggests, for all its benefits, Subway’s better nutrition campaign may be yet another tool for eating away at the core values of society.


Source: The Guardian

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