Bye Buy Childhood: a report into the commercialisation of childhood


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Bye Buy Childhood:

A report into the commercialisation of childhood

Executive summary
Section1 Target market: childhood
Section 2 Smart cookies: recruiting young brand ambassadors
Section 3 The impact of commercialisation on children
Section 4 The bottom line: sex sells
Section 5 Current regulations
Section 6 Unsubscribing: bye bye commercialisation


Mothers’ Union is a worldwide organisation that works to support family life through its grassroots membership. We believe in the value of the family, in its many forms, as a source of love and support for individuals and the basis for a caring community. Our members care passionately about the commercialisation of childhood. Without wishing to sentimentalise childhood, our members want children to be free from the commercial pressures that promote materialism, affect wellbeing and add to stress in family life.

Whilst we are concerned about the impact of the commercial world on childhood we know that not only children are influenced – adults can also be susceptible. Without awareness of and alertness to how and why the commercial world is selling to us, we are at risk of allowing ourselves to be over-influenced. However, children and adults do not have to be passive recipients of commercial messages. We can choose what to accept and what to filter out. In this way, the commercialisation of childhood is the responsibility of all.

Mothers’ Union has compiled this report based on our research, that was carried out by ComRes, into the opinions and experiences of 1000 parents; a review of existing research and literature on the commercialisation of childhood, and on the thoughts and experiences of over 1000 Mothers’ Union members. From this we have launched our Bye Buy Childhood campaign to raise awareness of the issue and push for change.

Rosemary Kempsell Reg Bailey

Worldwide President Chief Executive
Executive summary
As mum to a 16 year old boy and 19 year old girl I have had to deal constantly with the effect that marketing and advertising has had on our family lives. When they were young a simple 'no' and using distraction to other products while shopping was my main strategy. As teenagers, saying 'no' simply aggravated the situation.”

– Mothers’ Union member, UK

We believe that children should be valued as children and not targeted as adult consumers. Childhood has become a marketing opportunity worth £99 billion in the UK1 and £350 million is spent in the UK each year on persuading children to consume2. Manipulative techniques exploit children’s natural credulity and use them as a conduit to the household purse. The materialism this encourages (the basing of happiness and a sense of success in the material) has negative effects on children’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, on their values, educational development and relationships with families and peers. The use of sexualised content to sell to children and the imposition of sexuality on children to market goods is particularly abhorrent.

Our research has found that the majority of parents agree that media content and advertising seen by children can be harmful to them. In particular, parents feel that media content and advertising makes children more sexually aware at a younger age than they would have been otherwise, and that it makes them feel that they have to act older than they really want to. Parents are also concerned that films and video games with sexualised and violent themes are too accessible to children and that the 9pm watershed is not adhered to. Parents believe that responsibility for media content and advertising that children are exposed to should lie with regulatory bodies, along with media companies, government and parents themselves, but that for films and video games in particular regulatory bodies do not do enough to protect children. There is more divided opinion over whether advertising in general aimed at children is age appropriate or well regulated.

Whilst the debate is moving further towards action, particularly with the coalition Government promising to ‘crack down on the irresponsible advertising and marketing, especially to children’ and ‘take steps to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood’3, this cannot be achieved through any one single measure. Rather, it requires families to reflect on their consumer habits and to take positive action; civil society, academics and NGOs to continue raising awareness and press for change; industry to manufacture, market and sell responsibly; regulators to be effective and government to intercede where it can, especially in protecting children from the ‘sex sells’ approach.

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.”4

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.5 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,6 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.7 In the UK, children between the ages of four and 15 receive on average £5.80 per week pocket money8 plus another £16 of ad-hoc handouts9. Children in Ireland receive on average €9.69 at primary school age and €18.51 at secondary school age.10 Combined with the earnings that 40% of 11-16 year olds make from paid employment11 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.12

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.

Source: Ofcom13

In the UK many children have televisions and PCs in their bedrooms and most use the internet regularly.14 On average, British children aged five to 16 now spend nearly six hours a day in front of a screen.15 Mobile phones are increasingly important to children, not just as a communication tool but also as a multimedia device, with 77% of eight to 15 year olds owning one.16

Children in Ireland spend more than four hours per day per day watching television.17 They also have access to a variety of media in their bedrooms, although not as much as British children.18

Source: Broadcasting Commission of Ireland19

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





A lot/some control







No/little control







Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union20

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

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.’21

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.22 In effect, parents can perpetuate the belief that owning equals value and belonging – a marketer’s dream.

2. Smart cookies: recruiting young brand ambassadors

Of course, marketing is a legitimate industry, an important part of commercial survival and part of the creative landscape. In the UK, £14.5 billion was spent on advertising in 200923 and it is estimated that £350 million of this is spent on advertising directly to children.24 The spending on television advertising aimed at children has decreased over the past ten years to around £200 million in 2007, but there has been an accompanying rise in children’s exposure to advertising of ‘neutral’ products or those aimed at adults.25 Around €130m is spent on food and drink advertising in Ireland, much of which is seen by children.26

However, the purpose of marketing is to sell, by creating an incentive to purchase. It is some of the incentives and techniques used, as well as some of the products themselves, that cause concern, especially those which appear to take advantage of, or exploit, children’s natural willingness to trust. Young children are influenced by marketing from as young as 18 months and at this age can recognise a corporate label. At about two and a half they can associate items with specific brand names.27 Up to the age of seven, children will generally accept television advertising at face value28. Children do not develop the capacity to understand that marketing messages are trying to sell them something until they are about 11 or 12.29
Key methods of persuading children to buy or ask adults to buy products or services for them, include the use of premium offers, such as competitions and give-aways, and the use of promotional characters such as cartoons and celebrities. Children’s purchase requests are influenced by these methods and, in particular, the use of promotional characters is positively associated with children’s recognition of, and attitude towards, a product.30 ‘Advergames’ on the internet draw children to a product or brand through interactive entertainment, taking advantage of the fact that younger children in particular are less able to distinguish between what is advertising and what is core content. These advergames will try to initiate children into a brand and create a ‘brand habit’ for when they are older, if the product is more likely to be used by adults rather than children.31

Magazines also advertise in a seamless manner – for example Mizz magazine featured a ‘true story’ of a 17 year old girl’s battle with an undiagnosable skin condition, which has only been alleviated through the use of Simple products. This was adjacent to a competition to find a ‘Teen Simple Star’ who will ‘be rewarded with all sorts of exciting prizes, including a year as the ‘Official Simple Video Blogger’.‘ Whilst the girl’s story may be true, the article does not indicate that it is advertising a product, as do adverts in magazines aimed at adults.32

In Consumer Kids: How Big Business Is Grooming Our Children for Profit, Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn analyse the ways in which marketers recruit children to become ‘brand ambassadors’. The internet is a key tool, with websites collecting information from children and young people either directly or through tracking cookies, which then help marketers target children more effectively. Websites such as Dubit ( recruit young people directly to take part in questionnaires and market products to their friends for payment. This technique works because 68% of consumers trust the advice of peers.33 In effect, children are encouraged to take advantage of their friendships and family relationships to earn money for companies with whom they have no relationship, other than an economic one.

In his acclaimed book, BRANDchild, marketing expert Martin Lindstrom outlines how companies can foster loyalty within young consumers. Tried and tested techniques include making the brand ‘cool’, ‘fun’ and ‘popular’; using toy and cartoon characters, pop stars and celebrities; creating a product ‘story’ or a sense of community; offering a loyalty programme or using product placement. Other methods, however, go beyond cultivating loyalty into the realms of manipulation. These include capitalising on children’s fears of being perceived negatively if they do not have up-to-date/on trend stuff and tapping into the ‘pack leaders’ who others are likely to follow. 34 Nancy Shalek, an experienced marketer, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying: ‘Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser... Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable.’35 The governments of the UK and Ireland have concluded that some of these methods are inappropriate for marketing to children and have prohibited their use in relation to children in certain media (see section 5).

As well as targeting children directly and promoting ‘peer to peer’ sales strategies, marketers also target parents through their children, to sell them both children’s and adult goods and services. Children report that they do influence their parents’ purchasing decisions and that parents will buy them what they want as a direct result - six out of ten children report using pestering techniques.36 Some marketers target parents through appealing to beliefs about good parenting, suggesting that purchasing the goods will demonstrate how good a parent they are.37 Marketers also target children because children often have higher levels of consumer and technological awareness than their parents and can therefore act as ’conduits from the consumer marketplace into the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse’.38
Children’s opinions of the commercial world have been collected in a few studies. In 2005 the National Consumer Council found that children are responsive to marketing, enjoy shopping and care about possessions. 75% of 10 to 12 year olds like shopping, two thirds like popular clothes labels and half think that brands are important. However, some children do feel under pressure to have the ‘right’ stuff; that methods of selling can be intrusive and inappropriate, that they are ripped off and that retailers treat them badly and unfairly.39
Interestingly, our research found that parents have mixed feelings about the way advertisers treat children.

Advertising aimed at children is appropriate to their age

Advertising aimed at children treats them like adults

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union40

The Advertising Association argues that ‘commercially-related factors are powerful enablers of wellbeing’. Children’s wellbeing (defined in terms of how they connect with friends, relax and enjoy entertainment) is enabled though the internet, mobile phones, television, advertising, computer games and magazines. 41 This technology also provides a source of creativity, escapism, help and advice and there is no reason why children should not be able to have fun through the commercial world. However, marketers target these forms of media precisely because they are popular with children, in order to sell to them.
“... as a teacher I see many parents who put themselves in debt to provide expensive items for their children, simply because they do not know how to deal with constant demands for the latest style, phones etc.”

- Mothers’ Union member, UK

3. The impact of commercialisation on children
If advertising had no impact on children, $447.5 billion would not be spent globally on advertising as a whole in a year.42 The impact of the commercial world goes beyond influencing children’s consumer behaviour, whether intentionally or not. Many studies and observations have been made into how the commercial world affects all areas of a child’s life. These include their physical health, mental health and emotional wellbeing, values, educational development and relationships.

Nearly three-fifths of parents with children under 18 believe that advertising seen by children can be harmful to them.

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union43

Physical health

Childhood obesity has become a matter of grave concern in the developed world. More than 2.3 million children in Britain are estimated to be overweight or obese, which has contributed to many under-12s already showing signs of high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.44 In Ireland 19% of children are overweight, with seven per cent being classified as obese.45 Sedentary lifestyles, whether through preference for computer games, fear of the outside world or lack of outdoor play areas, plus a love of junk food have largely been blamed. One study has found that for every additional hour of television a child of two-and-a-half watches, 13% less time is spent doing weekend physical activity, nine per cent less time doing activities involving physical effort, and 10% higher consumption of soft drinks and snacks; leading to a five per cent increase in body mass index.46

Whilst health professionals and governments rightly argue that parents need to ensure their children eat healthily and take exercise, the World Health Organisation has concluded there is a ‘probable causal link’ between persistent unhealthy food and drink marketing and weight gain and obesity. In a study carried out by Yale University in 2008, it was found that children significantly prefer the taste of food with popular cartoon characters on the packaging compared with exactly the same food without the cartoons. The effect is particularly strong for energy dense, nutrient poor food.47 It is not surprising, then, that both the UK and Irish governments have prohibited the use of licensed characters and celebrities in advertisements for unhealthy (high in fat, sugar and salt) food and drink.

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