As marketing to children intensifies, what can society do?
A four-year-old arrives at school and starts crying when she realizes her lunch is packed in a generic plastic bag, not the usual Disney Princess lunchbox she so loves. A friend tells her she won’t be able to sit at the princess lunch table—it’s only for girls with princess lunchboxes.
A fourth grader arrives home from school all excited. He has a Book It certificate from Pizza Hut because his mother signed the form showing that he met the reading-at-home goal his teacher set for him. He pleads with his mother to take him to Pizza Hut for dinner that night.
Sixth graders are assigned the task of writing to their principal about something important that they would like to see happen at their school. They decide to ask for school vending machines that sell snack foods and drinks.
Marketing is a more powerful force in the lives of children growing up today than ever before, beginning from a very young age. The stories above provide but a few examples of how it can shape learning and behavior at home and in school. Marketing affects what children want to eat, wear, and play, and with whom they play. It also shapes what they learn, what they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And it primes them to be drawn into, exploited, and influenced by marketing efforts in schools.
Many feel that a complete ban on all marketing to children is an impossible dream. But that is exactly what many countries do. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece, and totally banned in Sweden and Norway. Studies have recently shown that children in Sweden want fewer toys, as a result. A study proves what companies already know: advertising to children works. Why advertise if it’s not effective? Similar efforts to restrict advertising were attempted in the United States in the 1970s but, unfortunately, failed to pass.
More restrictions might be on the way in countries like the UK, where a recent investigation into the causes of the 2011 looting found that a culture of consumption, fueled by marketers, played a role in the civil unrest. Early in 2012, the Riots, Communities, and Victims Panel, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, called for action against “aggressive advertising aimed at young people,” citing evidence that “rampant materialism was an underlying cause of last year’s lawlessness.”
The fact that marketing in schools is such an omnipresent and pernicious force in children’s lives makes finding solutions of utmost importance. It is unrealistic to expect that in the current economic times we can make marketing and the influence of marketing in schools go away. But, there is much we can and must do to reduce its harmful impact on children. No one effort can solve the problem; a multifaceted approach is needed. Here is what a comprehensive and meaningful response, directed at children, families, schools, communities, and the wider society, might be:
1. Educate parents, teachers and policymakers about the harm that marketing to children, especially in schools, can cause to children’s development, learning, and behavior. It is only through a change in public understanding of the dangers that we will be able to turn the tide.
2. Protect children as much as possible from exposure to commercial culture. Parents can use strategies at home that reduce children’s exposure to and focus on commercial culture and products, including less dependence on media that has advertising and multiple products associated with it. They can promote their children’s involvement with meaningful real world activities that do not focus on consumption or advertising. One school sent home a letter to parents with ideas for birthday parties that didn’t involve commercial themes like Disney Princesses or fast food chains’ packaged events.
Teachers and school administrators can work to reduce marketing in schools. For instance, they can limit the number of products with logos in school. This might involve setting up rules about what commercial products and logos children bring to school, and coming up with alternative, low-cost strategies to meet the same needs the banned product met. For instance, one early childhood program banned lunch boxes with logos, and sent home suggestions to parents about alternative, inexpensive containers they could use to pack their children’s lunches. One school board created a middle-school dress code that severely limited the size of logos that could appear on students’ clothing because so much bullying and teasing occurred against the children who didn’t have the “right,” clearly visible logos on their clothing.
3. Counteract the harmful lessons children learn from marketing both in and out of school. Teach children about the nature and impact of marketing and commercial culture in age-appropriate ways. Children are unduly influenced by ads and marketing practices directed at them because of how they think and also because of the unrelenting ways marketers capture their attention and loyalty. One teacher designed an activity based on the book Arthur’s TV Troubles by Marc Brown. The teacher asked students whether they had ever been disappointed with something they bought based on an ad. Every child had a story to share. When they wrote these stories down for homework, they produced their best writing of the year! In these days of No Child Left Behind pressures, which have forced educators to focus on the demands of the test rather than on the broad-based learning needs of children, we must convince educational policy makers that children will be more successful learners if they aren’t constantly being lured away from their lessons by marketing.1
Children need to feel safe talking to a trusted adult about what they see marketed at school and beyond and what they think about it, without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished. Only by having such conversations can we learn what children think and, in turn, influence their thinking. This does not mean lecturing about what is right and wrong or good and bad, or criticizing children for what they say and think. It means having give-and-take conversations that show we care about what they think and say, and hope they will care about and listen to what we have to say too. This is the key starting point for influencing the lessons that children are learning from marketing in schools.
4. Enact government regulations and policies that limit marketing in schools. Government and policy makers must play a role in limiting marketing to children, even in these harsh economic times. The best way to make this happen will be by providing adequate funding for schools, so that schools do not need to be so dependent on corporations. Great Britain provides the United States with a powerful example for what we can do: in 2006 it established a ban on junk food in school meals.2
Ten years ago, a Harvard academic, a child advocate, and a puppeteer launched an organization named Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), and it has lead a national effort to police advertising and marketing to children. Based out of Boston, a coalition of educators, health care providers, parents, academics, and advocacy groups take on major corporations that they find are marketing to children, from Pizza Hut and Sunny D to the coal industry and Disney. Started by Susan Linn, a professor, the organization has landed a number of recent victories, including persuading Disney to offer a refund to parents who bought Baby Einstein videos and pressuring Scholastic to stop taking money from the coal industry. Scholastic was forced to drop its curriculum for fourth graders after admitting it was paid for by the National Coal Foundation. The curriculum was, unsurprisingly, one-sided in its endorsement of coal, without any mention of the environmental repercussions or of alternative energies.
CCFC’s current campaign includes a move to pressure PBS to drop its partnership with the fast-food company Chik-fil-A, in which the channel is paid to present commercials for fast food at the beginning and end of its shows. It also wants advertising to be removed from school buses. In an age when it seems even the most well-respected advocacy groups—from Sierra Club to Save the Children—have begun accepting corporate money, CCFC stands alone in refusing to be bought off.
Although there is tremendous work to be done, and the advertising and marketing industry is a financial behemoth to tackle, we believe that children deserve to grow up free of invasive and unrelenting marketing messages that peddle products known to be harmful to the health and well-being of young people. Children deserve the opportunity to explore their creativity without the interference of do-it-for-you toys. They must be able to develop the capacity to make independent decisions, and to enjoy life free from the insecurities and pressures inherent in marketing campaigns. We hope that the United States will follow the lead of other countries and recognize that restricting corporations’ ability to market to children is a healthy and necessary step.