1. Target market: childhood
“What is most troubling is that children’s culture has become virtually indistinguishable from consumer culture over the course of the last century. The cultural marketplace is now a key arena for the formation of the sense of self and of peer relationships, so much so that parents often are stuck between giving into a kid’s purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the playground.”
- Dan Cook, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Sociology, University of Illinois.
The term ‘commercialisation of childhood’ is now a well recognised phrase in the UK, Republic of Ireland and other parts of the world. It refers to the ‘grooming’ of children for consumerhood, and the treatment of childhood as a marketing opportunity. It is helpful to define what is meant by ‘commercial influences’ and distinguish between marketing and advertising. Marketing is the broad term used for selling products or services, including the packaging, pricing, placing and promotion of the product or service. Advertising is one form of promotion, although there is more to promotion than advertising, such as the use of promotional toys, websites and PR campaigns. These, together with other messages from media and industry can be described as commercial influences.
As a social construct, or ‘social artifact’, rather than a biological category, childhood is, and has been throughout history, susceptible to change and influence – including economic influences. It is nothing new for children to be economically active but children’s economic role within the developed world is now predominantly as consumers rather than producers. In the UK, children between the ages of four and 15 receive on average £5.80 per week pocket money plus another £16 of ad-hoc handouts. Children in Ireland receive on average €9.69 at primary school age and €18.51 at secondary school age. Combined with the earnings that 40% of 11-16 year olds make from paid employment a lucrative market is ripe for the picking, especially for those who market and sell food, drink, clothes, footwear, personal care items, magazines, books, stationery, music and entertainment, games, toys and mobile phones.
Research into the impact of the commercial world on children has coincided with the growth and diversification of mass communication, and children’s access to it.
Percentage of children with a TV in their bedroom (UK):
5-7 years old: 49%
8-11 years: 67%
Percentage of children with internet in their bedroom (UK):
8-11 years: 12%
12-15 years: 31%
Ownership of media in children’s bedrooms, all ages (Ireland):
Cable TV: 33%
DVD player: 19%
Internet access: 4%
Source: Broadcasting Commission of Ireland
In our research, parents reported that they felt they had a fair amount of control over the media content their children see. Parents feel that they have the greatest control over their children’s film and television viewing but the least over their children’s use of social networking websites. This is important to note because, as section 2 will outline, online peer to peer marketing – including through social networking sites – is a powerful tool for developing a brand’s reputation and profits.
How much control do you feel you have over the content your child/children view in each of the following?
|Social networking sites e.g. Bebo||Video games||Television||Films||Magazines||Internet|
|A lot/some control||57%||68%||78%||81%||68%||71%|
Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union
Telephone interviews conducted from 18th to 24th August 2010 based on 1004 parents with children under 18 out of 4108 respondents. Regions covered: South East, Midlands, North England, Wales and South West Scotland. Full results available at www.comres.co.uk
These results show parents’ perceptions about their control over their children’s viewing habits. However, we note these perceptions are somewhat incommensurate with other findings from our research. Section 4 shows that a high percentage of parents are concerned about the ease with which children can access violent or sexualised media content. This may suggest either a different feeling about the viewing habits of one’s own children compared to children in general, or a lack of consistent parental concern or control.
In this debate children cannot be viewed in isolation from their families. Parental values, attitudes and habits shape those of their children, and the changes in family consumer habits are reflected in those of children. Household spending on consumer goods has increased over the past 60 years and the television is now central to how many families organise their time and space. Moreover, the Social Issues Research Centre argues that consumerism is part of the family ideal. Adults seek to improve family life and the wellbeing of children through consumer goods – ‘it is in the last fifty years or so that consumption has become the primary means for representations of the family and, importantly, of childhood within the context of family life.’
Alison Pugh, of the University of Virginia, asks the question: ‘how is the commercialization of childhood shaping what it means to care and what it means to belong?’ She argues that parents demonstrate care for their children by helping them to fit in with society, particularly within their peer group – what she terms the ‘economy of dignity’. The way in which many children seek to ‘belong’ is to share experiences, particularly of modern culture as shaped by the media and marketers. Some parents, because of their desire for their children to have dignity and not be excluded by others, buy into the prevailing trends and latest products. Reaction to children’s ‘consumer emergencies’ can also be a result of the desire to connect with their children, guilt for not having time to spend with them and a response to memories of their own childhood anxieties. In effect, parents can perpetuate the belief that owning equals value and belonging – a marketer’s dream.
Dan Cook, Lunchbox hegemony; Kids and the Marketplace, Then & Now. LiP Magazine, August 2001.http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featcook_124.shtml
 BizCommunity.com www.bizcommunity.com
 Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood. Vintage Books, 1996.
 David Piachaud, Freedom to be a Child.
 Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, Every Little Helpers. Tesco Bank, July 2010. mediacentre.metafaq.com
 The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing: Report of an Independent Assessment. Department for Children, Schools and Families, December 2009.
 Research conducted by Schooldays.ie on behalf of Bank of Ireland Life in June and July 2008. www.bankofirelandlife.ie
 Ed Mayo, Shopping Generation. National Consumer Council, 2005.
 Office for National Statistics, Children’s Spending. June 2005. www.statistics.gov.uk
 UK children’s media literacy. Ofcom Research Document, March 2010.
 Childhood and family life: Socio-demographic changes. The Social Issues Research Centre, 2008.
 Alison Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. University of California Press, 2009.