By Dominick Platt
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Is it right for companies to market their products towards children? They’re not the consumers of these goods being advertised; their parents are. The eight year old, even though he might do so because of that cool looking tiger on the box, is not the one swiping that credit card for those Frosted Flakes. One would think advertising would be done based on who is purchasing the item, which is how it works in almost every other sphere of marketing except jewelry. In the latter it’s just your manhood being called into question if you didn’t get your lady’s ring there. But that’s not why this piece is getting written. It’s to answer the first question I proposed: should companies be allowed to market towards young children? Well, the answer’s no, but for the sake of clarity I’ll delve deeper.
Children watch about 16,000 thirty second television commercials each year. And if my childhood is anything to pull from, those commercials are quite homogenized. They’re usually the same ten or so running in a cycle for a couple of weeks before another batch are introduced. This material bombardment every eight minutes or so takes up nearly half the time of the TV watching experience. Now, we’ve already established little Johnny doesn’t have the money himself to buy that one-hundred dollar Lego set; his parents will. Advertisers know this, so their plan is to have this child pester their parents into submission. But toys are one thing. The bigger moral question arises when food gets involved.
In the year 2012 McDonald’s spent $42 Million dollars on happy meal advertising. Subway, the “health” crusader in contrast promised to spend that much over a three year period. Now, we all know neither of these options are the healthiest for anyone, regardless of age. But is it right to target kids with flashy, underhanded marketing that makes the food not the product being shown but the shiny distraction beside it? In 2008, one of McDonald’s advertisements was taken down due to how it disassociated itself from the food and instead focused on the toy inside. If you click the hyperlink you can watch the ad in question. Watching will show that the food is barely seen in the ad; it looks more like a toy commercial than anything else. The child watching the ad will associate the happy meal with the toy instead of the food, but more importantly, it will begin the process McDonald’s and other companies care about the most: “Cradle to Grave” consumers. This concept is the idea that kids who start consuming a product at a young age will naturally defer to that product over others throughout their lives. More importantly, they’ll push the product on their own children, starting the whole process over again. This goal from companies is wrong, as it promotes forcing a product on children that is not necessarily healthy for them.
Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Quebec bar advertising to children under the age of twelve. It can be argued that by the age of thirteen adolescents are able to discern advertisements for what they are. However, according to the APA, most children under age 6 cannot distinguish between programming and advertising and children under age 8 do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising. Having information being given in a confusing or shady manner without the ability or tools to understand said information could be akin to brainwashing. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, had this to say on child advertising: "There's no moral, ethical, or social justification for marketing any product to children," she says. … “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."
These are valid points, but it’s ultimately up to parents to help their child. They have to not relent and make sure the child eats healthy and doesn’t get tricked. But parenting is hard, and children can be relentless, and “cradle to grave” marketing has been in effect since my generation were children. Perhaps a ban is necessary, like in many European countries, but that’d need a universal denouncement of these practices.
Dominick Platt is a staff writer with The Galleon and is a major of Creative Writing at Christian Brothers University.