Corporate marketing aimed at children, an increasingly global phenomenon, has evolved in both qualitative and quantitative ways in recent years. Despite growing research literature showing causal links between marketing exposure and adverse health consequences, the youth marketing industry remains essentially unregulated in the United States with minimal public debate on the issue. Abroad, several industrialized countries have passed legislation geared towards mitigating the commercialization of childhood, including some that have enacted full bans on television advertising to children under 12. Considering the relative predictability of significant health consequences for children and families, a healthy and informed debate on the issue of increased commercialization of childhood is needed.
For most of the 20th century, the world's young were effectively a huge, untapped market. The 21st century is shaping up very differently, with marketers arguing for empowerment of the young via the marketplace and right of children to consume freely. In the United States alone, expenditures on marketing to children skyrocketed from $2 billion in 1999 to $15 billion in 2005. Kids' influence on parents' spending—what marketers call "the nag factor"—now include big ticket items like cars, computers, and vacations. "Cradle to grave" marketing takes its label quite literally, not shying away from targeting newborn babies with brand messages—e.g., Pepsi logos on baby bottles and Teletubbies hospital care packages linked to the PBS show, for which there is no evidence of educational value, despite claims to the contrary.
Children have relatively more of their own money to spend than they did in the past, a fact that has changed children's relationships to money and fashionable consumption. While the rise of consumer society in the U.S. began in the 1920s, it was not until the 1950s, the same decade the term "teenager" was first coined by marketing industry researchers, that children began to be viewed as independent consumers and thus targets. In the 1970s and 1980s, the television networks, toy manufacturers, and marketers began to block out Saturday mornings just for kids and, with "He-Man" and the "Masters of the Universe" as the first examples, began to create programs specifically as marketing vehicles for toys. In the 1990s, we saw the rapid growth of cable television networks specifically for children (Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network), and an increased segmenting of the kid market, with "tweens" (8-12 year olds, roughly) becoming a coveted group, especially tween girls. Since then, marketers have shifted from television as the primary medium to a "360 degree" format that aims to surround children with messages at school, on the school bus, on the Internet, on cellphones and videogames ("advergaming"), at doctors' offices, zoos, museums, with viral marketing (i.e., fake word of mouth), grass-roots marketing, guerilla marketing, immersive marketing, and so on. Child psychologists are employed by corporations to exploit developmental vulnerabilities and the industry has lately gone forward with neuromarketing research using functional MRI (fMRI) in order to directly manipulate specific brain centers.
Children process advertising differently than adults, making them particularly vulnerable to commercial messages. Young children show peculiar attention to advertising due to what Piaget calls "centration," as well as an inability to discriminate advertising from other programming. Discrimination skills appear to improve by age five, mostly based on formal differences in the media, like length and pacing. However, before the ages of seven and eight, children are unable to understand the persuasive intent of commercials, key for being able to resist them.
Most ads directed at children are for junk food and the consumption of these media messages is directly related to unhealthy eating habits and increased physical problems. Childhood obesity, which correlates with the amount of electronic media usage as well as with diabetes and hypertension, has doubled in the U.S. since 1980, while rates for teenagers have tripled. Some writers have characterized this epidemic as the most significant health threat of our time. Eating disorders are also on the rise and record numbers of prepubescent girls report being on diets. Gender stereotyping is rampant in modern advertising to children, including the sexualization of young girls and the glorifying of dominance-obsessed boys.
Recent research shows that a high level of exposure to commercial messages is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints, including headaches and stomachaches. Sociologist Juliet Schor found robust evidence that the more that psychologically healthy children become involved in commercial culture, the worse their mental health becomes, and that the more that emotionally disturbed children disengage from commercial culture the healthier they get. Interestingly, the reverse was not found. Psychological problems did not lead children to seek out commercial media and consumer culture. She also found that children's higher levels of consumer involvement leads to worse relationships with their parents, which further leads to worsening mental health, a "double wallop" on the emotional life of the child.
Compared to other state capitalist countries, the U.S. currently places a very low priority on the regulation of marketing to kids. In 1974, public interest groups won stricter regulation of television advertising to children by the FCC, including the amount of advertising time per hour and clear separation of program and commercials. Ten years later in 1984, with deregulation being the new order of the day, these restrictions were relaxed in favor of letting the marketplace determine the best amount and kind of advertising for children.
In 1990, Congress passed a law once again limiting the amount of television time that can be devoted to ads per hour: 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends. However, despite acknowledgment by the FTC and FCC that young children are vulnerable to marketing in unique ways, no other significant regulation exists in the U.S. and program-length TV commercials flourish to this day.
In contrast, Sweden has, since 1991, banned all television advertising to children under 12 and has consistently pushed the European Union to adopt similar regulation. Norway and Greece have enacted similar bans while Canada, Australia, and England forbid advertising directed to pre-schoolers.
Nevertheless, most regulations in industrialized countries focus on old media formats, especially television. New media and less visible marketing strategies such as cross-promotion, online marketing, and product placement also need regulation. In a rapidly changing media environment, regulators and advocates (e.g., Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood) need to remain active and vigilant. New media technologies are constantly being introduced and these new advertising platforms start out being unregulated and potentially dangerous to children.
In addition to stricter pan-media regulation of the marketing industry, media education for parents and children can foster the kind of cognitive tools children need to protect themselves. Parents need to educate themselves, their children, and other parents, and raise critical questions with children when the family is faced with commercial messages. Concerned citizens should be organizing formal educational programs, such as instituting media literacy programs in school curriculums that teach critical analysis of the media environment.
Direct corporate marketing to infants and young people amounts to the obstruction and pollution of healthy human development on a massive scale. Organized offensive and defensive measures are needed to combat the institutional forces that prefer maximized profits to the physical and mental health of children.