Leave them kids alone

Benito L. Teehankee

26 May 2011

The View From Taft, BusinessWorld

The public uproar seems to have died down two months after the controversial dance routine of a six-year-old boy shown over the variety show Willing Willie. Lessons have been learned, it seems. ABC 5 voluntarily pulled the program off the air, and the MTRCB subsequently suspended the program for a month. Reportedly, the network has instituted noteworthy reforms, including the promulgation of its Guidelines on the Treatment of Children as Viewers, Subjects, Talents or Participants after consulting with the Philippine Children’s Television Foundation. I’m hoping for more prudent children participation in the network’s shows and for the other networks to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the issue of a gyrating boy on TV barely scratches the surface of what needs to be reformed with respect to business, media, and children. I’m talking about the rampant targeting of marketing messages at the young. Children-targeted ads have been around since my youth but never at the levels seen today. Marketers have found in the young the biggest potential market they could ever hope for, especially in the Philippines with its large youth sector.

Marketers don’t even hide their intentions. A news item two years ago declared: “Ad Congress told: Get inside minds of children.” The report was referring to a talk delivered during the 2009 Philippine Advertising Congress by Jeremy Carr, vice president of Turner Entertainment Network, which owns the Cartoon Network. Carr, who estimated the purchasing power of Filipino children at P42 billion, explained that children “drive a lot of purchase decisions [and] their influence is strong and undeniable in their parents’ spending decisions.”

But the targeting of marketing messages at kids is simply wrong. Suppose a salesman rings your doorbell, and your ten-year-old opens the door. You overhear the salesman make a sales pitch to your child on the wonderful features of a household product, mentioning on the side that the product comes with a free toy. What would you do?

If you’re like most parents, you’d rush to tell your child not to talk to the salesman. You’d tell the salesman not to sell to your child and to talk to you instead. Why? Children are relatively innocent. They don’t know how to evaluate sales pitches. Even adults find it difficult to be critical about marketing messages, even for products intended for their own children. Poor product choices by parents have had bad effects on kids, such as obesity from too much fast food, violent behavior and missed homework due to video games, and skipped lunches for cell phone load, among others.

It doesn’t help that many ads use misleading messages. If adults can’t see through deceptive ads, can young people stand a chance? Modern marketing, after all, uses some of the most sophisticated influence methods perfected over a century of behavioral science research, from psychological conditioning methods to persuasive play with words. I remember a huge billboard for a certain strong beer erected right in front of De La Salle University many years ago. I found it ironic to see a marketing slogan extolling the intoxicating power of a beer in front of a university. But it was effective nevertheless. Mere months after the billboard’s appearance, university students as young as 16 (and many of them girls, too) could be seen guzzling the strong beer like a soft drink. Highly effective marketing, indeed!

Aside from influencing youngsters to make unwise or unhealthy purchasing decisions, children-targeted ads also manipulate them to influence their parents’ buying behaviors. A landmark marketing study documented this so-called “nag factor” in the late 90’s and showed that children nagging their parents strongly influenced trips to entertainment centers and fast-food restaurants. As Carr argued above, using the nag factor has become a recognized and powerful marketing technique. But can the manipulation of a child to get a parent to buy a product be ethical business practice?

What’s to be done? In the wake of a growing obesity problem, the US government recently released voluntary guidelines covering the advertising of food products to children. It would be good if local companies showed self-restraint in advertising to the young. Ethical business is based on informed choice, and children are simply not prepared to make such choices. Parents need to tell the business sector that they are drawing the line where their children’s welfare is concerned. Businesses and their media partners eager to make consumers of the young have to wait; children will grow up soon enough. Meanwhile, ads should be pitched only at adults. To paraphrase the Pink Floyd song, Another Brick in the Wall: "Hey, business! Leave them kids alone!"

Dr. Teehankee is Chairman of the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario Sr. College of Business of De La Salle University. He may be e-mailed at benito.teehankee@dlsu.edu.ph.

The views expressed above are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official position of De La Salle University, its faculty, and its administrators.