Is Marketing to Teens, Children, and Even Babies Ethical?
Advertising in our culture has become intrinsic to everyday life, it is so fiercely ingrained in everything we see and do that I don’t think anyone can go anywhere populated and avoid advertisement for a day. Hell, I’m not even sure this is possible for an hour. The only places I can think of to get away from it as is hiking deep into the woods or up a mountain, or perhaps visiting some tiny village in a third world country. How did this all start? Where is it going?
Prior to the 1950’s advertising to children was a fairly unheard of concept. Yes, there were advertisements in the Sear’s Catalog for children’s clothes and toys, and some of the boxes that children’s products came in were slightly more colorful than other adult product boxes, but this was the extent of it. A child could happily grow up never knowing that other children might be playing with store bought toys. Then of course the TV craze began. When TV started becoming popular in the home it wasn’t long before someone realized that the little magic boxes could be used to entertain children. Shows dedicated entirely to the entertainment of children started to pop up and they were hugely popular. Just think about Howdy Doody. Even people who were born long after this creepy little puppet was popular can still see his terrifying freckled face in their head. That on its own is pretty bad but then there were the commercials. What sort of commercials do you put between the breaks in a children’s show? Plastic had just recently been brought into popular use and now toy makers could make cheap inferior factory manufactured toys for the masses. They latched onto the new media and started to give everything a new jingle, usually written in contests by bored housewives. Soon everyone loved a slinky and had their own Rock Em’ Sock Em’ Robots. Then there were the food advertisements… They didn’t come on the television to tell children to eat their broccoli, they came to tell them that, “Oh you need fluff, fluff, fluff to make a fluffer nutter. Marshmallow fluff and lots of peanut butter!” This began the fast food epidemic. McDonald’s wasn’t going to miss out on this golden opportunity and before you knew it they were advertising with a clown and cartoon characters obviously targeted towards children. The sugary cereals also paraded their own set of cartoon icons across the screen. There was Tony the Tiger, Count Chocula, Toucan Sam, the Trix rabbit, the lucky charms leprechaun, the Keebler Elves, and I could go on.
Advertising to kids remained this way for decades and then something sleazy started to happen in the 1990’s. Advertisers began to market not just kid’s stuff to children and teens but adult stuff and the ages they targeted kept getting younger and younger. Eventually they started targeting the coveted 0-3 range in an attempt to gain, “lifelong customers.” They learned that babies as young as six months of age could remember brand icons and logos an that they could rattle off dozens of them by the time they hit kindergarten. They hired child psychologists to help them crack open their fragile little heads and pour in their message. Psychologists told them that children under the age of five could not distinguish between the relative reality of a television program and the fantasy of the commercials between them. Children didn’t seem to concretely get this concept until they were as old as eight years of age. Before you knew it there were commercials on the TV, run during daytime hours, directed at babies. Think of the Luv’s commercial of 2011. Is it a coincidence it is a cartoon made in all sorts of baby friendly colors?
With our televisions often being our babysitters in this cold and calculating world we can only imagine what garbage is being repeatedly put into these kid’s minds. They’re being brainwashed and we didn’t even have a clue! And if we thought sending them to school would keep them safe from these forces you’d be wrong. Schools lacking proper funding have resorted to having soda and snack machines in their cafeterias. Companies have offered them big money to put their advertisements in classrooms and on buses and perhaps the lowest blow of all is what they call buzz. Buzz is when a company watches a group of children or teenagers, finds the ‘coolest’ one amongst them, and then hires them to wear their brand name product on their T-shirts or other clothing.
Many parents have become concerned about the sexualization of children and this is but a small part of the problem. Yes, there are things out there like Brat dolls that are obscenely thin and way over sexualized that are just the beginning steps to showing young girls what they should be like in our society. I have been horrified watching things like the Disney Channel and other children’s programming where the female characters all look like stick figures in miniskirts, with enormous lips, and more make-up than a whore. And we wonder why so many girls have eating disorders? It’s insidious and everywhere. We have to remember that we have to keep a balance on this sort of thing. We as parents have to tell our young girls that they are all beautiful in their own way because they are unique human beings and keep repeating that to them until they believe in it so strongly that none of this other stuff matters. Meanwhile we have to keep a watch on our boys. Video game products and others have been marketing wholesale violence to them at a level never seen before. Though I don’t think playing a video game will make you the next school shooter I do believe seeing so much violence so often in video games, TV shows, movies, and even advertisements does have a very desensitizing effect.
All and all, our consumer society is now raising its children to be consumerists, nothing more, nothing less. From the time they are able to form a cognitive thought they are being told they’re not good enough unless they have such n such a toy, that everyone on the block has one, and they must buy buy buy! These sleazy advertising tactics are raising children with low self-worth who see the world around them as only being as valuable as what they can buy. It’s a twisted narcissistic view that can only lead to an entitlement generation that is never satisfied with anything it gets. I am already seeing this in the teenagers today. It is damned hard to find a teenager that actually does anything at their first job. I don’t think this is an inherently teenage attitude, I think its society messing with their brains, I really do.