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.”