Thursday, July 8, 2010

Advertising and Children

The idea of advertising directed at children is one that has long troubled me and which I don't have any particularly good ideas on how my concerns could be reconciled. Seeing a loosely related post on a local food blog concerning McDonald's toys in happy meals set me off on a rant. I thought I'd share here for those that don't much care about local Albany restaurants and wouldn't see it there. I'm still chewing over this, I'd be very interested in hearing anyone else's thought on the problem of what to do in a free society in regards to children which don't have the capacity to act fully as free citizens but still live in a world where competing authorities seek to manipulate their development for their own ends, often, but not always, benign. Or to put it less technically, are marketers trampling on parent's right to influence their offspring through ads targeting children?

[Verbatim copy of comment from Times Union, I may clean it up later today.]

I've always been a little uncomfortable in this area. I don't really like the idea of restrictions on what companies can do to promote themselves and their products but also feel that this requires the assumption that their audience has the ability to weigh evidence and put their choices in context. It may seem to many that adults often fail to do this, and as practices have evolved companies have found ways to exploit our human failings, but it still seems fair game to me since an adult can at least choose to educate themselves about marketing practices to resist this.

With children though, the assumptions that make marketing fair game when used to manipulate adults don't hold true. They simply don't have the tools to properly assess the motivations and methods behind promotions such as toys given away. They also don't possess the independent ability to do the research needed to explore the cognitive biases to recognize manipulation. I remember enough of my childhood and how I thought to realize this, I paid far more attention to authority then and worked with an assumption that someone would have put in safeguards to protect against too much skewing or manipulation. I know now this is laughably naive.

You also can't put too much responsibility on parents. I don't have kids yet but when I do see programs that also target children, I'm always struck by how junk food, and other things I wouldn't want any children I have to be consuming, are so heavily marketed towards them. Trying to keep this kind of targeted programming away from a child until they're ready to assess it on its merits seems impossible in today's world without keeping a child away from much of what it means to be a kid today. Even if I tried to keep them away from TV, malls, and McDonalds, how could I ever enforce this once they're with relatives or friends? Trying to educate them on these matters also seems hopeless, children aren't developed enough to weigh competing evidence and claims to authority in meaningful ways until fairly late.

So I'm left kind of stuck. I don't believe that children are fair game to marketing such as McDonald's toys, marketing should be targeted towards those with the ability to see it for what it is. However, since targeting children is so lucrative I don't see how companies would voluntarily cease to do it, especially since many, perhaps most, parents see their products as an essential part of childhood. My belief is that this should be left to the parent until the child has developed enough to make their own choices but I don't see how to do this with modern marketing techniques that so saturate our world. It's a tough one, because the issue involved centers on the fact that children don't have the capacities to fully make their own choices and be free citizens, and the rights of both companies and parents to exercise their freedoms in ways that effect the lives of those that have not yet developed full capacities. Either way, someone's idea of freedom is getting trampled on, either the freedom to exercise property rights or the freedom to act as you think is fit as parent bringing up your child.

Sorry for the long comment, this is just a concept I'm trying to work out myself and felt this wasn't a bad place to share.

[I also can't read the full WSJ article, as someone who tries to read multiple news sources from different perspectives to try to get through the bias, the single paper subscriber model is one I have no sympathy for.]


  1. Marketing rules crush small business. Corporations LOVE them. LOVE THEM!!!! They lock in the market share of whoever is the biggest.

    If a company's product is too harmful, like McDonald's, it should be regulated to fix the product.

    This may sound more intrusive, but it is more pro free market.

  2. Marketing restrictions interest me a lot, actually, so I'm glad you brought them up. Progressives think they are a good idea, because not surprisingly there are many academics that think they would be a good idea. These academics are also lobbyists, so they will not tell you what they really believe. So I will tell you what they believe and you will just have to believe me. They think that advertising causes consumerism. It doesn't. Wealth causes consumerism. People are greedy and always have been to be blunt. Advertising allows to people to know what choices they have to pick from.
    Advertising products to children only harms them if the product is harmful and it should be scientifically provable that it is. McDonalds is harmful. Are video games harmful? That's more difficult to prove.
    Marketing restrictions do not work, though. MCDonald's advertises to children so that parents will buy it for their kids. Kids don't buy things. Parents have already decided what they will and won't buy. Marketing restrictions would only lock in McDonalds market share and do nothing to protect children. This is why large corporations also lobby for these restrictions.
    The correct thing to do is to make McDonalds make more healthful food.

  3. SirW,

    For this particular case I actually do think it's the marketing that's the problem. My issue isn't so much that kids are eating happy meals, my own indulgences lie towards sweets instead which are just as bad, it's that their advertising seems often to not be aimed at selling a particular product but at instilling certain habits and attitudes towards food in people. Most companies with high sales seem to do this, small businesses don't really.

    Specifically, McDonalds, and similar corporations that aim at children (Pop Tarts has an ad on Hulu that is particularly annoying me right now), seem to be trying to sell the idea that food is fun or that food should be an accompaniment to a wide range of activities. When this is aimed at adults I have no real issue with it, that's how marketing works.

    I'm a lot more concerned when they are trying to define a new normal for children however. My fear is that since children aren't really equipped well to distinguish motives that the ubiquity of this kind of advertising means that kids are growing up with an idea of what is normal that isn't healthy. Even if a parent tries to teach kids something else, I suspect many feel their parents are weird, even if those kids aren't getting happy meals. This concerns me far more than whether kids are eating unhealthy foods, parents can control the actual consumption but I think modern marketing might be undermining their ability to instill in kids the proper beliefs and values towards food that parents should be able to.

    This isn't about consumerism in general, which doesn't really bother me, but specifically with products where increased consumption has side effects. It doesn't matter how many DVDs I buy, but how much food I buy (and consume) does have effects that aren't neutral. The range of products I'm concerned about is small, basically food, beverages, and medicine. I think when these are being marketed to adults, my concerns about inhibiting business outweigh my misgivings about ads meant to modify behavior. When it is children that are being marketed to however, I'm less certain this is the side of less harm.

  4. A brief afterthought that might make the distinction I'm trying to make clearer. My concern isn't with an ad that is trying to say, hey doesn't this look delicious. It's the ad that wants to mix reactions away from reactions you should have to food to reactions you should be having to something else. It's the ads that are saying, hey doesn't that food look fun that are the problem for me. Food is delicious, it's not fun, and this is a very important distinction that some companies would like to break down. The solution to being bored shouldn't be presented as eating.

  5. I should have made myself clearer. Academics that are against advertising think that the advertising itself is causing harmful societal effects. Consumerism would only be one example. What you describe would be another example.
    There simply isn't any evidence that advertising can do these things.
    So why do you hate America like that?
    These types of societal changes, like people viewing food as fun, is occurring for many reasons. Food is safe and "family friendly." Americans don't indulge in many other fun activities, because they are paranoid of anything slightly dangerous and have very weak social connections. In other countries, enjoying conversation is better than enjoying food at meal time. Have you ever considered that food being fun is just a screwed up American value? You can't market something in a way that wouldn't already make sense to the target audience or the marketing wouldn't be effective, therefore we must know that children already view food as fun not the other way around.
    The important point of this is that you can't fix the problem with advertising restrictions. Children learn behavior from their parents, first. Peers, second. The media, third. The behavior is already engrained in the culture for various reasons. It would be a bad law that wouldn't help children and only help the largest food manufacturers that are killing children by making unhealthy food.