The Corporate Takeover of Childhood

  • Time to read 12 minutes
The Corporate Takeover of Childhood

Collin Armstrong

Few adults appreciate the overwhelming pressure our boys and girls are facing to think, act, dress, consume, and interpret the world in ways, which all too frequently diminish and dehumanise, which impacti our home life and schools, our communities and nation.

The constant barrage of cleverly targeted campaigns directed at our pre-schoolers, tweens and teens is nothing short of devastating, leaving increasing numbers of boys and girls anxious and confused, and obsessed with their presentation and possessions. This comes at a time when parents are suffering a major lack of confidence. Haunted by messages about what a cool parent does and says, they too are unsure of their role. Fearful of being labelled uncool, they stop listening to their instincts, allowing their children to adopt values and behaviour that are harmful.

Right now we’re also witnessing a profound loss of story - family stories and other essential stories - which help shape our view of ourselves and our world. As world affairs appear ever more uncertain, we’ve taken to renovating our homes, upgrading our cars and updating our wardrobes, as buffers against a wider world that at times seems firghteningly complex and volatile. In this ‘renovating our lives’ process we’ve thrown out many possessions which link us to our past, which hold the threads of our personal, family and community story.

In its place a thriving culture of celebrities has sprung up. Daily boys and girls are bombarded with trivial details of the self-indulgent, over-the-top, frequently out-of-control lives of the rich and famous. Alongside these vacuous tales are the dark, dangerous, and frequently apocalyptic stories in the video games boys watch endlessly. Stories with few life lessons. Stories where opponents and landscapes are obliterated, where the winner takes all. The world view depicted in these games offer little comfort or hope. Story is a powerful thing. It reflects back to us, who we are and how we view ourselves. What then is the impact of the steady diet of stories our children consume daily? The stories we tell, I believe, are the stories we become.

Right now we’re also seeing a concerning rise in the power of corporations and in the deliberate targeting of children from birth. As a nation we now spend around a $1000 per child a year on toys and related products for kids aged zero to three. Already our spending on baby products has exceeded $1 billion.1 This is no surprise given rapid growth in the number of baby shops and online baby stores. The problem is, the more time and money spent on kitting babies out, the more parents add to their child’s concerns about appearance, possessions, and what it takes to belong.

Given the powerfully immersive presence of licensed products in our lives, all the fun figures we’re so familiar with, such as Bob the Builder, Barbie, Dorothy the Dinosaur, are ultimately little more than branded logos, as behind them sits multi-million and in some cases multi-billion dollar corporations. These lucrative little figures are now present in everything from baby bibs to nappies.

It’s important to understand how precisely global marketers target our young, how they know exactly which buttons to press at every developmental stage of our children’s lives. International marketing guru James McNeal gives us a very clear sense of the commercial focus these top-ticket corporations have, ‘Children find security in attaching themselves to an object – a pillow, a blanket, a store, a brand – that enhances their wellbeing.’ Knowing they’re onto a good thing, there’s little to hold these professionals back. ‘If you’re a kid’s retailer or marketer, and you’re focused exclusively on the children’s business, the next logical migration is going to be younger, not older,’ advised Marshall Cohen, NPD Group chief industry analyst as far back as 2004.2

Drawing on a whole raft of experts from psychologists to neuroscientists, corporations are ever more savvy about how to target our young. Underlining the absolute importance of our buying choices, psychologist and child media expert Professor Daniel Anderson warns that ‘(With every branded purchase), you've turned over part of your child's love to a giant corporation.’3

So what is the impact of all this targeted marketing our young? With the plethora of products available to parents, we’re seeing a re-imagining of childhood – children dressed as mini adults, growing up in bedrooms filled with branded junk, watching dvds and TV, and playing on their computers for hours on end. With this level of immersion in fun products, corporations sit comfortably knowing parents will continue to spend. Leading the charge for additional marketing opportunities to kids is the increasing attention now given to the children of celebrities. Their young lives are now under increasing scrutiny, especially their clothes. For many young parents raised in affluent times it’s beguiling to know you can add a celebrity touch to your child’s wardrobe.

The lifestyles the corporations offer our kids are all-consuming. Today’s children can literally play in a Barbie™ World, hang out in a Disney™ Universe and more. So engaging are these games, dvds and websites, there’s little reason to stray beyond them. With each encounter a child is likely to want new products, and parents oblige. Disney, for example, has 26,000 Disney™ princess items currently available. These princess products are part of a $4 billion-a-year franchise - the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created.

So what if anything is the fallout from all this consumerism on small kids? When talking to preschool and kindergarten professionals, they spoke of a huge increase in anxiety amongst children three to five, who were anxious about having the right branded gear for pre-school, the right clothing, hair and body. They’ve also seen a radical drop in imagination due to a steady diet of passive entertainment. This, I believe, is where anxiety and self-loathing issues are starting for our young. Even before they’ve learned to read or write, or to attend school they’ve got the message that looks and possessions are what gets you noticed, what brings you acceptance and belonging.

Without active help from their parents small children have no way of screening out the barrage of branded material they’re now subjected to. And so, conveniently for the marketer’s, they willingly embrace branded toys and clothing as a natural part of their world. Or as Mike Searle, former president Kids-R-Us, puts it, ‘If you own this child at an early age, you own this child for years to come.’4 One on level the effectiveness marketing is impressive, what it’s easy to forget is that marketers aren’t standing still. With our children and teenagers they know they’re on to an extremely lucrative part of the market.

Work is now underway into sensory branding™, using taste, sound, colour and scent recognition to capture and reinforce brand awareness. So, having discovered the scent of vanilla in breast milk, for example, we may soon see nursery products infused with, you guessed it, a hint of vanilla.5 The marketers who have kept up to speed also know that sometimes all we need see is the distinctive colour of a brand, such as the unique red of Coca Cola™, to be reminded of that brand. All this is powerful information in the hands of those whose only interest in our kids is how much money they can make from them.

There are endless ways marketers reach young boys and girls, from computer screen pop-ups, to film spin-offs, advergames, premium offers, and giveaways. Our kids now see ads on buses, taxis and trains, in the catalogues stuffed into our letterboxes, at sports venues, on billboards and park benches. Researchers can now observe which part of the brain associated with addictions and rewards light up, when children are presented with a range of new products.6 Marketers are even monitoring the number of times a child blinks to see how attractive a product is, and fine-tuning them accordingly.7

The hearts and minds of our children are being captured in all kinds of ways. When, for example, Burger King introduced its Burger King Kids Club, they reported 300 per cent increase in kids meals.8 More and more corporations are now offering kids gifts and valued customer schemes. All this adds up to conditioning our kids to consume. ‘Advertising is … one curriculum kids are excelling in. The ads teach kids that buying is good and will make them happy. They teach that the solution to life’s problems lies not in good values, hard work, or education, but in materialism and the purchasing of more and more things,’ observes Gary Ruskin, of Commercial Alert.9

All this a world away from the spontaneous, carefree childhoods kids once enjoyed, the time when children were closely connected to nature and community, where imaginative fun play was the order of the day. This brave new world puts huge pressure on children, and on parents, who have to work harder to afford all the things their boys and girls want. The result? Many in this generation are failing to get the developmental experiences they need to feel genuinely empowered, to be exited and well prepared for their adult lives, and hopeful about the future of the planet. Figures indicate, for example, that almost 4,000 children under ten have been prescribed anti-depressants. Over five hundred of these kids are under five.10

Conditioned to consume our boys and girls are ripe for the picking. There isn’t a drinks or cereals isle in our supermarkets free of cross promotions with branded products. Nothing is left to chance. Nano-technology, the manipulation of atoms and molecules, is now used in foods to adjust a food’s flavour, texture and smell. So, even though most kids know fast food isn’t healthy, they find the taste and packaging irresistible. Big money is invested in the detail, to ensure every aspect of an item hits the spot. Even the snap, crackle or pop of certain foods have been carefully engineered to tickle the tastebuds.

Corporations outlay big money on the detail, as the returns are exceptional for those who get things right. In the US kids now spend an estimated $40 billion a year, and influence a further $700 billion of adult spending, which equals the GDP of the world’s 115 poorest countries.11 How did we come to be in this place?

By the time our girls and boys reach their tweens, their years between six and twelve, they are seasoned consumers. These are the years when celebrity worship begins in earnest. With their growing awareness of the celebrity culture, they start to absorb the values of these individuals. During these years their spare time is divided between packaged entertainment and shopping, and in a passive virtual world.

Belonging is very important to tweens, and again the marketers have been quick to respond, defining for them the must-have possessions tweens must have if they want to belong. Tweens long to be teenagers, so the corporations produce a whole range of products which enable tweens to appear older than they’re are, which in turn makes them more vulnerable as they lack the insight or maturity to be older. Global marketing guru and author of BrandChild sums up this much-exploited demographic, observing that ‘Although this may be the most affluent generation to walk the planet, it also has the dubious distinction of being the most insecure and depressed.’12

The ways in which marketers target our kids mirrors the steps paedophiles employ to groom our young. Like the sexual predator, the relationship many corporations cultivate with their child customer is one of calculated psychological manipulation. Using the best expert advice money can buy, corporations spend up big on the services of a whole raft of professionals from child psychologists and animators to cool hunters and consumer anthropologists. With assistance from this expert pool, corporations gain an intimate knowledge of the anxieties and aspirations of today’s tweens and teenagers. They know exactly what is needed to get children to purchase their products. Predators also do their homework. They spend a lot of time researching what the kids they target like, what these children aspire to and worry about. They study which sitcoms and movies boys and girls watch, which games they’re into, and who are their celebrities of choice.

Relationship marketing is now the name of the corporate game, as it’s an excellent way to reach out to potential customers, especially kids. Like predators, corporations work hard to ‘befriend’ our children. Flattering them and assuring them they understand what it’s like to be a tween or teen, the corporations encourage our boys and girls to feel special. They sweeten this budding relationship by offering kids gifts and talking in a language our kids are most likely to respond to, the same classic steps used by sexual predators to reel in their victims.

The use of sexy content in advertising their products is also deliberate, as marketers know that by making sexual content available to children wouldn’t otherwise have access to, it’s a whole lot easier to get them on board. They capture the curious children and the unsuspecting with their tantalising mix of sexualised images, concepts and language. As more corporations target our children and teenagers, marketers need to keep pushing the boundaries to stay ahead of the game. That’s why their sexualised messages and images are increasingly ‘out there’. It helps give them an edge over their competitors. We see the ramping up of risky content in everything from teen sitcoms and movies, MTV clips and celebrity styling, to sexualised dolls and lyrics, slogans on clothing and accessories.

The exposure of our kids to increasingly sexualised content is the very same technique used by sexual predators to groom kids for sex. Over a period of time the predator supplies their young victim with a whole range of sexual material they wouldn’t otherwise have see. By carefully ramping up the sexualised content, the predator lowers the child’s inhibitions to the point where they’re ready to do whatever’s asked of them. This is not done to help the child, but for the predator’s own gratification. Similarly corporations know the power of sexual images. They also know sexual content is the perfect grooming tool to get kids to buy..

The whole message marketing delivers is that life’s about winning, about besting others, even those you’re supposed to care about. And, if you’ve to scramble over others to get there, then that’s what you have to do. This message flies in the face of everything that makes us human. We’re hardwired to connect, to engage with each other, but it’s hard to do this when our children’s lives and aspirations are shaped by music videos, ads, reality TV, when most of their spare time is packaged entertainment, shopping and hanging out in malls.

Our boys and girls inhabit a space where they can rarely relax. They rarely get to experience the joy of a job well done. Though they’re constantly striving, they rarely arrive at a point where they can see an end to their efforts. Their world is constantly re-inventing itself, to keep them buying. The message being that you need to buy happiness, popularity, belonging, success.

To turn this around we need much more sophisticated media education, so boys and girls know from a young age that cool costs big time, and that behind each celebrity lies a powerful corporation. It’s liberating for kids to realize their purchases hold real power should they choose to use it. It also helps to know everyone’s under pressure from advertising regardless of their age or income.

Yes the raunch culture offers them a dangerous lifestyle, but that’s largely because there’s a vacuum needing to be filled. Currently many kids lack other forms of ‘safe’ risk-taking, activities which stretch them that are useful to themselves, their family and community. Today’s boys and girls still need the same essentials to grow up strong and empowered. They still need to experience the joy of real connection to their community. This is best achieved through service, and more community-based activities.

We also need to find ways to unpack their unique passions and feed their spirit. As music legend Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas puts it, ‘I’m not taking Ritalin, I’m taking music.’ If we want to help our kids balance out their wired 24/7 existence and rediscover their creativity, then we need to encourage a culture of handmade items, and value bespoke pieces people dream up and create. Our boys and girls need a village to grow up in, with friendships across the generations. The challenges are immense at present, but so too are the rewards when we can find new and exciting solutions.

Help protect your tweens and teens from commercialisation:

  • teach them to spot product placement and understand what it’s about
  • make gifts whenever possible
  • donate money, goods or time to environmental causes
  • encourage and model recycling
  • donate old toys to local charities or to children in countries of need
  • help them recognise when they’re being solicited for personal details
  • encourage them to see why enough is never enough
  • ensure they understand self-worth isn’t about what they own
  • talk about the vulnerabilities advertisers play on
  • discuss why marketers target kids and how much money they make from them
  • keep these conversations light and informative

Further reading

  • Cross, Gary, Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997
  • Eckersley, Richard, Well and Good: Morality, Meaning and Happiness, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2004.
  • Eckersley, Richard, Never Better or Getting Worse: The Health and Wellbeing of Young Australians, Australia 21, Canberra, 2008.
  • Hüther, Gerald, Ph.D., The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2006.
  • Kasser, Tim, PhD, and Kanner, Allen D., PhD, Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World, American Psychological Association, Washington, 2003.
  • Lindstrom Martin with Seybold, Patricia, B., BRANDchild: Remarkable Insights Into the Minds of Today’s Global Kids and Their Relationships with Brands, Kogan Page, London, 2003
  • Lindstrom Martin, buy.ology : Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, Doubleday, New York, 2008
  • Quart, Alissa, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Basic Books, New York. 2003.
  • Siegel, David L., The Great Tween Buying Machine: Capturing Your Share of the Multibillion Dollar Tween Market, Dearborn Trade Publishing, Ithaca NY, 2001.