My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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what are marketing and advertising’s social responsibilities wrt youth?

A new report by the UK National Union of Teachers – Growing up in a material world – shows that contemporary marketing and commercialization practices have devastating consequences on youth:

Of increasing concern to teachers is the increasing commercialisation of childhood and the lifestyle pressures exerted on children by the advertising and marketing industries. Using ever more sophisticated methods, these industries encourage children to buy particular brands of clothing and food and conform to specific images. Parents, too, experience this, as children’s ‘pester-power’ is exploited by the advertising industry. Those on a low income can feel particularly affected.

The pressure to consume and conform can lead to excessive levels of materialism and competition among children leading to bullying. There are dangerous consequences for the physical and mental health of young people.

The rise in childhood obesity and illnesses such as the early onset of type 2 diabetes, for example, highlight the dangers of advertising unhealthy food to children.

The report continues on to discuss how commercialization leads to the “creation and reinforcement of a culture of ‘cool'” amongst youth. The most terrifying finding in their report has to do with the link between bullying and consumerism: “Over 55% of those responding had either been bullied or knew someone who had been bullied because they did not have the latest products.” To fit in, youth have to consume. Marketing creates this cycle and bullies do the dirty work of making sure everyone conforms or suffers the consequences.

Body image and sexuality are at the crux of this. Girls are sold the “right” body image through dolls and clothing and their sexuality is structured around sexually provocative clothes, makeup and other product. Fitting in requires being “sexy” even at a young age. Not surprisingly, sexism and gender stereotyping are reinforced (if not constructed) by marketers seeking to capitalize on vulnerabilities.

“Companies routinely hire child and consumer psychologists to conduct research to help them target children effectively. Children’s vulnerabilities are played on as advertisers sell images of perfection and increase the pressure to have the latest ‘in vogue’ fashion and gadgets.”

In my own fieldwork, I regularly witnessed the consequences of mass commercialism. Teens had to buy to fit in and if they couldn’t buy, they were pressured to steal. Identity is constructed and status is marked by consumption. The goal of so many teens when they grow up is to make money so that they can buy the right things.

It’s easy to demonize marketers – they make for good punching bags – but many of us live off of the cud of advertising and marketing. Most of the tech industry is indebted to advertising and much of what we use for “free” is because we are eyeballs that can be manipulated. The entire structure of contemporary capitalism rests on companies ability to compete for consumers and, when they’ve saturated the market, create reasons for consumers to keep coming back for more more more. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons that companies have tapped into children is because they are the only true “new” market. More problematically, healthy economies are based on growth and growth doesn’t happen when people just consume what they need. Manipulation is central to a healthy economy – you have to convince people that they want your product so that you can report good news to your stockholders.

This presents a huge moral dilemma:

  • How can companies be both ethical and financially successful?
  • What are the moral responsibilities of a company when it comes to children’s consumption?

These are hard questions, but questions that I think that we need to start asking ourselves if for no other reason than because “teachers and parents now look to the advertising and marketing industries to become more socially responsible over their targeting of children and young people and for the Government to step in should they not live up to their responsibilities.”

(Thanks to Anastasia. News coverage of this report can be found at The Telegraph.)

This is a Shift 6 post. For more discussion, check out the comments there.

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7 comments to what are marketing and advertising’s social responsibilities wrt youth?

  • Robert Reich (former Secretary of Labor and UC Berkeley professor) recently wrote a book called “Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life“. I haven’t read the book yet, but I really enjoyed the KQED Forum discussion between Reich and Michael Krasny.

    Reich emphasizes that it’s essential for citizens (and their government) to take the responsibility to pass laws that protect democracy and human rights. Although corporations sometimes act responsibly, they are not citizens or even “moral beings” – they exist to make money. We cannot expect them to police themselves or lead the way in moral or ethical causes – as citizens, we have to make sure our personal and social values are protected. Reich makes many other good points about government and lobbyists, the conflicting roles of “citizen” and “consumer”, and the changes it would take to revive democracy – check out the program on the the KQED Forum website.

  • Bet is a worthy dilemma, yet difficult.

    Over here, in Argentina, demonizing has been the only way of facing it, leading that demonization to complete blindness against the true extent of this phenomenae, and factical incapacity of facing the matter.

    I’ll try a comparison: ages pasts, war was a medium to peace. That was thought before people understood that war was war, and peace was absence of war. In a war scenenario, war is right, but not when people knows war harm a lot and brings no peace. Yet that knowledge is achieved throught war, because of war.

    Now is a market-vore scenario, no matter what, because devoring marketing is needed, as you said, for a healthy market. Yet there’s a chance this scenario will change, thought it might be after we see clearly the harm of this kind of marketing.

    Thanks for writing, this is a great blog.

  • Sweden has banned all TV advertising aimed at kids under 12, and I think the UK bans ads that say, “So kids, tell your mom to buy . . .” or things like that. Greece passed a keeping toy ads off TV between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

    Imagine the reaction if someone in the US proposed such restrictions.

  • Banning ads “aimed at” kids isn’t going to help when they’re bullying each other over grown-up products (expensive sports shoes, designer clothing). Toys are only a very small part of what they want these days.

    Can we teach them to be wiser, more cynical consumers?

  • El Tito

    I agree with Deirdre Straughan. Toys are, definitely, a small part on this issue.

    In order to influence someone, the way kids influence each other, one must have a level of inteligence/persuasion skills.
    Whether we believe on this or choose to blame ALL of it on marketing, kids have a level of inteligence that can be influenced by the parents.
    If we can help kids to channel their inteligence towards questioning everything they absorb from the media and their friends, I think we’d have a better shot at making them unique individuals.

  • Thank you for this post. When you wrote this, I had actually been pondering the effects of intense consumerism on my children. I think that in order to address this problem, it *has* to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders – government, community,business and family.

    I would also like to add that I believe that the phenomenon where status and identity are constructed through consumption is not restricted to teens. We adults also participate in this. We are just more subtle with it but the pressure to buy to maintain or increase our status is there.

    More and more, I am seeing a need to educate children and parents on “consumption literacy”. People need to start understanding that the act of consumption does not just have an economic and financial impact, it also has social and environmental impacts.

  • publius

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    The rise in obesity and diabetes is an epiphenomenon of the success not failure of capitalism. We have abundant, safe and available food. We are biologically programmed to seek foods high in fat and sodium. This is a result of the fact that we lived for the overwhelming majority of our existence on the planet in a state of scarcity.

    More problematically, healthy economies are based on growth and growth doesn’t happen when people just consume what they need.

    Folderal! Need is more clearly understood in retrospect. Did we really need indoor plumbing? Did we really need the internal combustion engine? The integrated circuit? The pacemaker? The internet? The blog?

    If people should ever start to do only what is necessary millions would die of hunger.
    – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

    And what of this?

    Teens had to buy to fit in and if they couldn’t buy, they were pressured to steal. Identity is constructed and status is marked by consumption. The goal of so many teens when they grow up is to make money so that they can buy the right things.

    Such sentiments pique the pathos only inasmuch as they are considered outside the context of history. Sadly, it seems a common phenomenon these days when the teaching of history is eschewed in our schools in favor of identity politics. Or if history is taught, it is done through the lens of identity politics.

    Power dynamics are fundamental to human culture. Indeed, the symbols we use to denote our membership in some group or another today are merely the progeny of those symbols we used 25k years ago for much the same purpose. Only today, the consequence of the wrong symbols is some bullying, then the consequence was likely death.

    No matter. I fear I’m pissing in the ocean. As you were.