As marketing to children intensifies, what can society do?

Parents and teachers should protect children as much as possible from exposure to commercial culture, argue authors.

A healthy food display is shown at the Walt Disney Company''s announcement for new standards for food advertising on their programming targeting kids and families at the Newseum in Washington
More than any segment of the population, children are susceptible to advertising [Reuters]

A four-year-old arrives at school and starts crying when she realises 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. In order to fully understand the power of and problems created by marketing in schools, we have to look at the big picture. Only then can we craft the best solutions in response.

First, children are more susceptible than adults to being influenced, even exploited and harmed, by marketing directed at them. They do not have the logical cognitive skills needed to understand its nature or intent. They are more likely than adults to believe what they see and what they are told when they see or hear a commercial message. They are unlikely to understand the underlying logic of the message, for example, why it is there, who put it there, or what values it represents.

And because children are socialised from a young age into paying attention to and valuing logos, they are especially attuned to being lured into marketing messages both in and out of school. And children are even more likely to believe what marketers teach in school because schools carry special authoritative weight and they are taught to trust what schools teach – which marketers know all too well!

Second, marketing teaches children harmful lessons about the nature of learning and the purpose of the learning process. It associates success, happiness and well-being with getting an external reward. It undermines the sense of internal satisfaction that comes from figuring out or learning something new on one’s own in a creative and unique way -the heart of successful learning in schools. It reduces children’s interest in finding and working on problems of their own making as well as feeling the sense of personal empowerment that comes from doing so.

It can also threaten children’s belief in their own ability to master the important skills and concepts schools teach. Many teachers report that children today are more passive learners, needing external rewards to get their work done. In response, commercial businesses are jumping in, offering rewards to children such as prizes and food coupons for what used to be inherently satisfying learning activities such as reading – as with the Pizza Hut Book It! Program described above.

Third, commercial culture influences the lessons children learn and the lessons they want to learn in directions that often diverge from the curriculum that teachers are supposed to teach and that standardised tests require them to learn. Children learn best when they are interested in what is being taught. Today, there is often a chasm between what teachers are trying to teach and what children are interested in learning.

Children’s deep interests are increasingly connected to the values and messages of commercial culture with its heavy emphasis on consumption, appearance, violence, sexuality and celebrity. Teachers struggle to direct children’s attention back to the school curriculum, which has itself been greatly narrowed in recent years because of the emphasis on teaching standardised tests. Perhaps embedding commercial logos and rewards into the curriculum will help recapture children’s interest, but will it teach the lessons that we want children to learn? 

Great Britain put a ban on junk food in school
meals in 2006 [AP]

Finally, marketing to children has a negative impact on the classroom and school culture. It affects children’s relationships with each other.What children can buy often determines their popularity and friends. Having the wrong Disney Princess lunchbox can lead to a child being expelled from the lunch table by her “friends”. It contributes to increased mean-spirited behavior and bullying as children judge each other more by what they have than what they do. From a young age, a wedge is driven between children and adults as children learn that it is peers, not teachers, who know what is cool. This undermines children’s relationships with teachers, a central part of the learning process. 

It is in the context of how commercial culture impacts children that the ever-increasing practice of marketing in schools is especially powerful and harmful. And in these hard economic times, schools are turning more and more to corporations to meet the basic needs that used to be met by public funding. From the food children eat in school cafeterias and buy from vending machines, to the books and curriculum materials provided to schools by corporations, to the advertisements they see on school buses going to and from school, and much more, children’s school lives are increasingly inundated with the influence of corporate efforts to claim their loyalties.

What can we do?

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 is 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 behaviour: 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 did not 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 programme 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. 

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.

by Diane Levin and Christina Asquith

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 policymakers that children will be more successful learners if they are not constantly being lured away from their lessons by marketing.

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 criticising 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 policymakers 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.

One organisation, making a difference

Ten years ago, a Harvard academic, a child advocate, and a puppeteer launched an organisation 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 organisation 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 US will follow the lead of other countries and recognise that restricting corporations’ ability to market to children is a healthy and necessary step.

Diane Levin is professor of Early Childhood Education at Wheelock College in Boston. She has written or co-written nine books, including Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood (in press); So Sexy So Soon; The War Play Dilemma; and Teaching Young Children in Violent Times.

Christina Asquith is a journalist and the author of two non-fiction books: The Emergency Teacher: A Year Inside Philadelphia’s Toughest School (Skyhorse Press, 2007) and The Spinsters’ War: A Story of Women, Life and Death in Iraq (Random House, 2009). 

A version of this article first appeared on the Solutions Journal.