Seducing the innocent

Managing For Society

The Manila Times

24 November 2009

A recent news item caught my attention: “Ad Congress told: Get inside minds of children.” The report was referring to a talk delivered during the recent Philippine Advertising Congress by Jeremy Carr, vice president of Turner Entertainment Network and owner of 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.”

The growing discretionary spending in the hands of children is a well-known fact. The mushrooming of commercial establishments wherever schools are found is obvious evidence of this. Companies have taken advantage of kids’ convincing power over their parents by targeting advertising at ever-younger segments of the youth. Parents who ask their children about what they would like to do during a Saturday pasyal will likely get a chorus of well-known fast-foods and malls. Hardly surprising, since most Filipino children learn to watch television even before they learn to walk. By the time they reach 10 years old, children would have received thousands of advertising messages, many of which involve commercial tie-ins with toys, cartoon characters and movies.

Given all these, advertisers and marketers shouldn’t go overboard when marketing to children. Psychologists explain that children below the mid-teens have not yet completed their cognitive development and are, therefore, not completely capable of making responsible decisions. As such, they do not comprise a legitimate market.

Consumers need truthful information to make informed choices. Because of the complexities that purchasing decisions often entail, even adults have a difficult time figuring out which products are best. According to The New York Times, in the US, Pantene has questioned Dove’s advertising claim that its conditioner “repairs” hair better. As a defense, Dove presented a study on how much combing force is needed by treated hair and a study on how hair breaks after 200 strokes. Assuming such information is true, can we imagine a child thinking through such competing claims as an adult should?

For many companies targeting the young, the approach often sidesteps the thinking process altogether. Children are attracted to brands through the subtle use of psychological conditioning. That is, attach something children already like (say, a popular cartoon character) to a product which they may not normally care about (say, a new children’s magazine) and the result is predictable—the child begins to repeatedly request (“nag” is a better word) his parents to buy the product.

Once the children have their own allowance to spend, the full power of conditioning shows itself. Many teenagers would rather skip lunch than go without cell phone load and drink stronger beer than the weaker variety. These are testimony to the powerful impact of advertising for cell phone service and strong beers targeted at the young. Parents and governments should act in the face of such dangerous psychological influence on the young. In 2006, Madrid took the unprecedented action of banning overly thin models at a top-level fashion show. Authorities insisted that the fashion industry had a responsibility to portray healthy body images to young people.

Companies need to acknowledge that the young are a special group because of their relative innocence. The marketing of products and services should be done in ways that promote their welfare and do not interfere with their needed physical, psychological and social development.