Here we go round the corporate push

Suzy Freeman-Greene

The Age 11 July 2009

Suzy Freeman-Greene assesses the battle for young minds.

WE KEPT Barbie at bay for quite a few years. She was a cliche of pale, thin femininity - a doll embedded in a labyrinth of marketing connections. But as we visited other children, with their inevitable Barbie stashes, I came to see that she was a status symbol as much as a plaything. Displaying your Barbies was a social rite.

On our daughter's sixth birthday, we succumbed and bought a Vet Barbie. She has an operating table, a first-aid kit and a stethoscope that dangles between her shapely breasts. I've been telling myself that compared with those Bratz dolls, this girl is positively scholarly. And after reading Professor Sharon Beder's new book on the "corporate capture of childhood", I can see that one blonde veterinarian is merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

In This Little Kiddy Went to Market, Beder argues that a generation of children have been "manipulated, shaped and exploited as never before". It's a big claim. But she offers many examples to show just how sophisticated and ubiquitous selling to children now is.

In Australia, the number of advertisements aimed at kids tripled between the 1980s and 2002. The idea is to bypass the "gatekeeper" (that is, parent or guardian), encouraging the "nag factor". And in one survey, 87 per cent of parents said their preschoolers had requested food with television or movie characters on the packaging.

Movies based on toys are common, and product placement in video games is a lucrative industry. As toys become more commodified, says Beder, play is becoming less creative. Rather than toys being seen as flexible props in the theatre of a child's imagination, frameworks for play are often "already spelt out" in movie or TV scripts.

On the internet, ads have merged with entertainment. Three-quarters of kids' websites created by food manufacturers contain games designed as advertising vehicles. Barbie has a website where girls can dress virtual dolls and chat.

One American outfit, called Girls Intelligence Agency, touts itself to children online as an exclusive club for girls over eight. But according to Beder, it's a marketing agency that spies on those who sign up - monitoring their instant messaging and reporting back to corporations such as Disney and Mattel on their likes and dislikes.

On YouTube, where "viral" or word-of-mouth marketing is popular, advertisers may post videos that appeal to children, with their commercial intent disguised. On social networking sites, some secretly pay members to talk up brands.

What's a parent to do in the face of all this? "I don't think individual parents can do anything much . . . except be saying 'no, no, no' all the time, and it puts them in a horrible position," says Beder. "What advertisers are trying to do is say to kids: 'We're on your side, against parents.' "

Corporations, she believes, are trying to usurp the role of parents in shaping children's values. She thinks governments should step in - not just banning junk food advertising on kids' TV, but also working to limit online marketing. National legislation won't work because websites are global. But there is, she says, plenty of corporate support for international agreements on free trade.

So why not ask governments to pursue such agreements on what's appropriate for internet content pertaining to children?

A social scientist and visiting professor at the University of Wollongong, Beder has been critiquing corporate power for years. Previous books have looked at everything from corporate "greenwash" to selling the work ethic.

Her argument in this book is sweeping and can be summarised thus: advertisers are messing with children's sense of identity and preying on their vulnerability. At school, business interests are increasingly shaping the education agenda, leading to a more competitive, standardised environment and undermining students' pleasure in learning. As some children react to all this by becoming stressed, bored, sad or disruptive, they're being "disciplined" with psychiatric drugs. Controversially, she argues that medical diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have converted traditional problems of child discipline into psychiatric ones (to be solved with the help of Big Pharma).

Beder is extremely critical of corporate-led pushes for a more "business-like" approach to schools, where talk of efficiency, competition and choice replaces the idea of education as a collective social good. Business, she says, has lobbied for measures such as a national curriculum and standardised testing of students. Yet constant testing in schools can lead to depressed children. According to the Times Educational Supplement, more than a third of British seven-year-olds suffer stress over national tests.

In America, the push for "efficiency" and "productivity" in schools is so great that many are eliminating recess. Some schools are being built without playgrounds.

In Australia, public spending on schools declined, writes Beder, from 5.9 per cent of GDP in the mid-1970s to 2.7 per cent by 2000. Firms such as Nestle, Pepsi and Coca-Cola have sponsored school activities, as business steps into the funding void. Teachers are also bombarded with corporate curriculum material paid for by the petroleum, plastics or forestry industries.

Education, she says, is about developing children's potential, encouraging creativity and critical thinking. Yet in Victorian high schools, she writes, about 44 per cent of students recently enrolled in a senior secondary certificate were doing Vocational Education and Training - a program equipping them for jobs in tourism, hospitality or computing. (Part-time work at McDonald's can also count towards their studies). This figure, she believes, is too high. "Training is aimed at fitting a person towards a specific end; education is aimed at giving a person choices in life."

Beder's prognosis is indeed grim. Children, she writes, have never before been under such pressure to "succeed, conform and look good". This seems a bit over-the-top to me, for although I share many of her concerns, I can't help thinking about the bad old days of corporal punishment and tyrannical boarding schools.

Surely, we now live in a freer society, with less coercion.

Beder does not advocate a return to the past. But previously, she says, children could at least escape authority figures.

Today, the psychological pressure to conform from advertisers and marketers is more internalised and harder to rebel against. "We're really interfering with kids' psyches . . . their sense of identity."

Of course, we're free not to buy stuff and she acknowledges that children will respond to advertising in different ways. Some will resist the pressure to constantly consume. But at the end of the day, she says, corporations are duty bound by shareholders to put their own interests first.

They're not promoting their products in schools or on websites to improve society. They're doing so because it helps them make a profit.

As a parent, I find it a relief to hear Beder depict marketing to children as a political problem requiring collective solutions, rather than an issue that individuals must grapple with privately.

Yet this veteran academic, whose book has already been published in England and America, later confesses that she feels quite depressed by the inability of governments to rein in corporate excess. She wonders if they've been blinkered (or even corrupted) by corporate political donations.

At the end of our interview, I find myself in the odd position of trying to reassure her. Things might be worse without her books, I suggest. And there's a growing awareness of the problem of ads targeting children. I'm not sure how much this is true. But I want to believe it.

This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood, by Sharon Beder, with Wendy Varney and Richard Gosden, is published by UNSW Press this month.

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