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

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by: danah boyd

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

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

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.

Also read more on: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/01/05/what_are_market.html