Advertisements actively encourage children to seek happiness and esteem through consumption. The pervasive message that the endless barrage of advertising and marketing sends is that all problems can be solved and discontent banished by buying things, and that it is cool to be wealthy or want to be wealthy and those who live modestly or shop at discount stores are “losers”. Advertisements encourage children to be impulsive and hedonistic.
The process is so insidious that by the time a child gains the language and capacity to grasp what is occurring, his or her attention patterns, preferences, memories and aspirations cannot be neatly separated from the images and poetics of corporate strategy.
By promoting consumerism to children, marketers and advertisers are seeking to breed a new generation of hyper-consumers and surveys suggest that they may be well on their way.
In the UK
Annual surveys of students starting university in the US have found that the percentage who say that developing “a meaningful philosophy of life” is very important has been declining reaching its lowest point (39 percent) in 2003. This compares with 86 percent in 1967. In contrast the percentage who say it is important to succeed financially hit a 13 year high of 74 percent compared with 59 percent in 1977.
Allen Kanner, a child psychologist, has observed that children are becoming increasingly consumerist, with a growing desire for material goods and to be rich when they grow up, rather than becoming famous or a top athlete or very clever: “The most stark example is when I ask them what they want to do when they grow up. They all say they want to make money. When they talk about their friends, they talk about the clothes they wear, the designer labels they wear, not the person’s human qualities”. James Twitchell claims “excessive adherence to financial return as a measure of worth” is increasingly found in young people.
Studies have also shown that children who have seen advertisements for toys, tend to prefer to play with the toy than with a friend and they tended to prefer to play with a child they didn’t like if the child had a coveted toy than with a child they liked.
The US-based Motherhood Project claimed that the values promoted in advertising: “that life is about selfishness, instant gratification, and materialism” were in conflict with the values that parents try to teach their children: “that children should care about others, that they should be able to govern themselves, and that there is more to life than material things.” It claimed that small children were being targeted with “sophisticated advertisements designed to cultivate as early as possible a restless and insatiable appetite for wanting and buying things” and taught a value system that “promotes self-indulgence, assaults the idea of restraint” and “promotes the notion that our identity is determined by what we buy”.
The “preoccupation with individual consumption”, which is encouraged by marketing, is damaging to individual wellbeing and detrimental to society. A number of studies have demonstrated that people in various countries who are strongly materialist tend to be more stressed and anxious, have less satisfying relationships, poorer self-esteem, and be less concerned about others and the environment. Psychologist, Tim Kassell, claims that a materialist orientation leads people to be less happy, to be less content with their lives, and to be more likely to take drugs and over indulge in alcohol.
Juliet Schor’s research has also found: “Involvement in consumer culture causes dysfunction in the forms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints.” Psychiatrist, Susan Linn, claims in her book Consuming Kids that:
the very traits that today’s marketing encourages – materialism, impulsivity, entitlement, and unexamined brand loyalty – are antithetical to those qualities necessary in a healthy democratic citizenry. Instead of being a mainstay of American life, intensive advertising to children may be eroding its foundations.
Kassell notes that the deception and manipulation involved in advertisements aimed at children is likely to undermine the ability of children to trust others. It also teaches young people how to manipulate others. This is exacerbated by the use of children in viral marketing campaigns. Kanner notes that as children “come to identify with brands, logos, and ultimately with corporations themselves… their ability to critically evaluate the corporate structure and to decided if it is truly delivering on its utopian promises” is likely to be undermined.