Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit

Ed Mayo & Agnes Nairn, Constable (2009)

It’s another day, and here’s another book warning us about the evils of modern capitalist society. This one focuses on the influence of consumerism and advertising on the lives of children. As the father of a five year old, I have an interest in the subject, but I’m also sceptical of the grand claims often made about the power of advertising by both its advocates and its opponents. Not so this book’s authors, who boldly state that ‘marketing today is… the very air that [children] breathe’.

The authors are campaigner Ed Mayo and academic Dr Agnes Nairn, who evidently believe that their approach to the subject is more considered and sensible than most; a middle ground between traditionally polarised positions. And, at one level, the book is a useful objective survey of modern marketing practices, which pays particular attention to the new approaches made possible by widespread access to the Internet and considers how these are these different to previous forms of marketing. Any book that can help us understand changes in society is to be welcomed, but the prominent use in the book’s subtitle of the word ‘grooming’ – with its associations of sexual predators and paedophiles – should tip us off that this isn’t going to be a sober assessment.

Sure enough, the emotive language continues inside. If you thought that ‘behavioural tracking’ was a way of companies keeping tabs on what you buy in order to predict what you might want to buy next, think again: ‘Be under no illusions, someone is stalking your child’. And when a conference pamphlet describes children as ‘secret weapons’ in the war of marketing, Mayo and Nairn choose to take the meaning literally rather than dismissing it as an ill-advised example of marketing industry posture.

‘Catching Children’

That’s the title of the first section of the book, which continues in this overheated and alarmist vein, and follows a template set by popular books such as Fast Food Nation – light blue touch paper, stand back and wait for eruptions of middle class outrage. It also shares the latter book’s simplistic worldview: big corporations run everything, we are subject to powerful commercial forces beyond our control, and we all need protection. And none more so than children. Accordingly, almost every liberal bugbear of the last couple of decades is here, magnified through the lens of child protection – advertising, gambling, teen magazines, pornography, anorexia, body image, objectification of women, materialism, supermarkets, computer games, media violence, mobile phones, junk food, salt, plastic surgery, alcohol, Disney, etc etc.

And, like Fast Food Nation, Consumer Kids is largely content to preach to the converted and doesn’t make any serious attempt to persuade dissenters round to its point of view. Take for example the statement that ‘Around half of children aged 8 to 15 eat from a fast-food outlet at least once a week’. This is clearly intended to be self-evidently shocking but what if, instead, it seems a) unsurprising and b) nothing to worry about? In so far as Mayo and Nairn acknowledge other outlooks, their approach seems to be ‘if that hasn’t shocked you, then perhaps this will’.

One particularly unpleasant example given – a company who marketed pole dancing kits to children – seemed so unlikely, even in today’s highly sexualised times, that it prompted me to check its provenance. The reference given in the book turned out to be erroneous, but Googling the accompanying quotes took me to a hysterical newspaper piece about a mother who happened across the offending items in the Toys section of the Tesco website. If you resist the temptation to scream ‘outrage!’ and instead read the actual details of the story, it looks more like an administrative mistake, arising from confusion about how to categorise ‘adult toys’, than a deliberate attempt to sexualise our children.

Such dubious evidence suggests that, before flying into a blind panic and calling for restrictions and censorship, we should ask ourselves what actual impact this all has on the lives of our children? Despite the book’s claim to detail the ‘real effects of the runaway commercial world we live in’, the evidence it presents runs counter to its message. Every allegation of marketing malpractice is undercut by the supporting testimonies provided, which demonstrate children being far more intelligent and media-savvy that the authors give them credit for, inadvertently suggesting at the same time that a lot of the effort put into marketing is wasted and ineffectual.

Yet Mayo and Nairn appear to be blind to this, and their interpretations of their evidence compulsively negative. For example, when they discover that many young girls gleefully torture their Barbie dolls, they may be right, at a stretch, to speculate that their subjects are ‘reacting viscerally against a product that tried to package a very particular fantasy of how they should be’. We might see this though as a healthy example of children growing out of the toys they liked when they were younger.  However for Mayo and Nairn ‘There is no magic, only betrayal.’ (This begs the question, would they prefer young girls to stay enamoured of their Barbie dolls forever?) Likewise, when the inevitable happens and children learn that many adverts promise much but deliver little, Mayo and Nairn can only grant that they have ‘grown to expect disappointment’.

From this glass-half-empty outlook, advertising is seen as a minefield of thwarted expectations and disappointment. But children’s engagement with advertising isn’t that straightforward or one-sided. I remember spending hours poring through a Hornby trains catalogue when I was a child, fantasising about the games I could play if I got this train or that engine shed. It made a more lasting impact on my imagination than the actual, pretty limited, train set I finally persuaded my parents to buy (although I enjoyed that too). Nowadays I’m pleased to see that toy catalogues still grip my son’s generation with similar fascination, and ‘telly selly’ time (as advert breaks are known in our house, thanks to Tiswas) can be a cause of great excitement. The fact that children won’t get to own everything they see doesn’t automatically lead to lasting heartache and pain, and learning that you can’t have everything is an important part of growing up. I’d argue that children’s capacity to engage imaginatively with advertising and their ability to reflect upon its relationship to reality suggests that the situation is a lot less alarming than Mayo and Nairn would have us believe.

Stealth marketing

However the authors have a trump card: ‘stealth marketing’. In other words the secretion of products and brands within TV shows, films and other media. By Mayo and Nairn’s way of thinking, it doesn’t matter how clued up today’s kids are, they aren’t equipped to deal with adverts which they don’t realise are there. This is because ‘the stimuli which kids don’t really notice and which create emotional associations are the ones which influence them in the most powerful ways’

To back this up, Mayo and Nairn cite experiments in which watching films containing product placements apparently influenced children to choose Pepsi over Coke and unhealthy Fruit Loops over a healthy fruit salad. Interesting perhaps, but how much do these cases really tell us? As any parent will know, children will generally choose sugary junk food over the more virtuous equivalent, with or without the guiding hand of the marketing industry. And is persuading people to make a choice between two all-but-identical products such as Pepsi or Coke that big an achievement? (And what if Coke and Pepsi both place products in films, do they cancel each other out?) Such real world considerations do not figure in Consumer Kids, as Mayo and Nairn take the findings of this and other experiments conducted in controlled circumstances and brazenly extrapolate them to society as a whole. Ironically we learn that, in his capacity as a consultant, Mayo tells companies not to believe everything that marketing industry lobbyists tell them, yet he and his co-author seem happy to uncritically trot out any study that fits their prejudices.

Attacking the marketing industry

For a high-profile consumer activist and a Professor of Marketing, Mayo and Nairn seem staggeringly naive and ill-informed about the marketing industry. The picture they paint is, it seems to me, based on superficial observations rather than insider knowledge or insight. Whatever you think of the commercial world, it is not monolithic, and companies are not acting as one to ‘catch our children’. They are competing for our attention, some more successfully than others, and some playing dirtier than others.

Despite claiming that their book ‘uncovers the latest marketing tactics and discovers what big corporations are really up to’, it is not really the tactics that the authors object to but the ends to which they are put. They bemoan pester power when it’s exploited by corporations, but are conspicuously quiet about its government-approved use in schools to get children to guilt-trip their parents into recycling, for instance.

And while they rightly reject the marketing industry’s attempts to give its actions a socially responsible sheen, they take pretty much everything else it says as read. You don’t have to be a genius to see that marketing professionals have a vested interest in persuading people that what they do is incredibly effective (hence the almost mystical significance attached to ‘the brand’) but this beginner-level knowledge seems to have escaped Mayo and Nairn.

Attacking parents

Companies and corporations are not the only ones who come in for criticism. Mayo and Nairn also appear to have a rather dim view of parents, despite claiming to look out for their interests. This particularly comes out in the section about diet and obesity. As many critics have pointed out, the measure of obesity has been expanded in recent years to cover more and more people until it has become effectively meaningless. So we might sympathise with the parent (quoted in the book) who says of their child, ‘I don’t really think about whether [my children] are physically healthy because I can see that they are. If they were ill, I would know’. But according to Mayo and Nairn, if we dispute official advice that our children are overweight or obese, we are simply fooling ourselves.

I could go on…

…because there’s something to object to on almost every page. In that at least the book is good value. Nevertheless, the authors and I agree on something fundamental. There are much better ways of organising society than around commerce and there are better things we could be doing with our collective time than creating Barbie dolls or pole dancing kits. But if we are unhappy with the consumerist society, we need rigorous political debate about what could replace it, and honest discussion about which aspects of it work and which don’t. The jaundiced and one-sided picture presented by this book muddies rather than clarifies our understanding of the world we live in, and the authors’ willingness to cast parents and children as victims, helpless in the face of all-encompassing consumerism, is arguably more disempowering and destructive than the things they criticise.

Having said all that, the second part of the book is a different matter altogether. Entitled ‘Children Set Free’, it looks at ways in which children have turned the commercial world to their advantage, and finally takes the open-minded and inquisitive approach promised at the beginning of the book. This I found genuinely thoughtful and interesting, but it takes up a paltry fifth of the page count and is so bizarrely at odds with the previous chapters it feels like it was written by different people.

Mayo and Nairn suggest these closing chapters ‘could offer a vision of a society that … neither relegates children to the position of someone else’s customer nor assumes that they will be passive victims that need to be protected by older generations.’ A noble sentiment, but the authors should reflect upon their own role in relegating children to that position, before they criticise others.