Marketing and advertising that respects children’s rights

This piece by Guy Shrubsole originally appeared on the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog.

“Every day… some businesses are dumping a waste that is toxic on our children. Products and marketing that can warp their minds and their bodies and harm their future.” Not the words of some zealous activist, but those of David Cameron, just before the last election. They’re worth recalling today as Unicef launch their Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

Principle 6 states that businesses should “use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights”. That this ethic even needs spelling out speaks to the huge impact the commercial world increasingly has on children around the globe. Marketing to children is an increasingly lucrative industry – in the US, companies are estimated to spend $17bn a year targeting kids – and the means used to ensnare them in the consumerist net are increasingly pervasive.

From online ‘advertgames’ that blur the boundaries between commercials and entertainment, to recruiting children as peer-to-peer marketers, companies’ efforts at selling to kids are growing more insidious. The UN Principles recognise this concerning trend in stating that marketers must “consider factors such as… children’s greater susceptibility to manipulation” when conducting their business. And with good reason: as marketing academic and children’s campaigner Dr Agnes Nairn puts it, much marketing “operates darkly, beyond the light of consciousness”.

Advertising has the potential to cause a wide range of harms to kids. Take health, for example. A 2009 study by Yale University researchers found that children exposed to junk food advertising during a trial ate 45% more junk food than children not exposed to the adverts. An extensive literature survey by the WHO in 2006 concluded that “food promotion influences children’s food preferences, and encourages them to ask their parents to purchase foods they have seen advertised.” Such concerns contributed to Ofcom’s 2006 decision to ban the advertising of foods high in salt and sugar during children’s TV programming.  Of course, this hasn’t eliminated children’s exposure to such ads – which increasingly come via the internet (check out McDonald’s Bebo app, for starters).

Another trend that has piqued concern has been advertisers’ role in the premature sexualisation of childhood. As Unicef’s Principles assert, companies should consider “the effects of using unrealistic or sexualized body images and stereotypes” in their marketing. When the Bailey Review – set up by the Coalition Government to investigate this very concern – reported last year, it found that “We are all living in an increasingly sexual and sexualised culture… Many parents feel that this culture is often inappropriate for their children and they want more power to say ‘no’.”

But an area that Unicef’s Principles don’t really touch upon is perhaps the one of greatest long-term concern. That is the creeping commercialisation of childhood overall. After all, as another recent Unicef report showed, the UK’s materialistic culture – coupled with our high levels of social inequality – is a key reason why Britain languishes at the bottom of the score table for children’s wellbeing.

The report, which surveyed children across several European countries, concluded that “consumerism appears to have become inextricably enmeshed in children’s relationships with family and friends… families in the UK, more so that in Sweden and Spain, use the purchase of new material objects (particularly new technology) in an attempt to compensate for relationship problems and social insecurity… in the UK parents and children seemed to be locked into a compulsive consumption cycle.”

The effects of this may reach beyond childhood. Other assessments have suggested excessive advertising moulds children’s values to be more materialistic. In the US, some schools are given telecomms equipment in return for screening a daily 10-minute news programme, called Channel One, which also contains two minutes of advertisements. A famous study has shown that children enrolled at schools that used Channel One held materialistic values to be significantly more important than kids at a non-participating school. Worryingly, an emphasis on materialism has been demonstrated, time and again, to be associated with lower concern for environmental and social issues.

So the launch of Unicef’s Principles for how businesses should better respect children’s rights is welcome and timely. Yet in itself it is likely to do little to arrest the spread of marketing into children’s lives. As Unicef’s earlier study of materialism and child wellbeing concluded: “In 1991, Sweden banned television advertising aimed at children under the age of 12. Considering taking a similar step in the UK would go some way towards lifting some of the commercial pressures on children and families.” Perhaps the time has come not just for business to take childrens’ rights very seriously, but also for the government to intervene.

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