Advertisers and marketers argue that today’s children are more sophisticated than previous generations and, because they have grown up with ever-present selling messages, they understand them better. Such assertions are not backed up with empirical evidence. Children today may be more media savvy and cynical about advertisements but marketers are becoming more adept at hiding their intent. The boundaries between advertising and educational or entertainment content are disappearing.
Advertisers and marketers are also becoming far more knowledgeable about how to target children emotionally and get past their defences. Their research and marketing tactics are far more sophisticated than they ever were. They mine the academic literature and employ psychologists, anthropologists and market researchers to observe, survey, interview, and study children, hold focus groups and even analyse children’s drawings.
Marketing consultants want to know the ambitions and fantasies, desires, fears and concerns, behaviour and relationships of children so as so as to “exploit their developmental vulnerabilities” and turn them into customers, now and in the future. Innovation Focus explains to its clients that its “program has been designed to explore the hopes, wishes and dreams of children and to apply those discoveries to the growth of your business”.
Marketers describe their efforts to bypass parental gatekeepers as “kid empowerment”. They claim they are encouraging children’s “freedom” and “autonomy” when really they are trying to “justify making the young more vulnerable to the seductions of commercial predators”.
In 1999 a group of psychologists and related professionals wrote to the American Psychological Association about their concerns that psychologists were selling their expertise to companies, to provide them with insights into children’s needs and relationships, so that they can better manipulate and exploit them. In the letter they stated:
Advertising and marketing firms have long used the insights and research methods of psychology in order to sell products, of course. But today these practices are reaching epidemic levels, and with a complicity on the part of the psychological profession that exceeds that of the past. The result is an enormous advertising and marketing onslaught that comprises, arguably, the largest single psychological project ever undertaken.
In 2017 The Australian uncovered a confidential internal Facebook document that revealed how the organisation was using complex algorithms to identify “moments when young people need a boost” so that advertisers could target them when they were most vulnerable. Facebook monitored the posts, pictures and other Facebook activity of 6.4 million teenagers as young as 14 to work out when they were feeling “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless”, and a “failure”. Facebook’s database includes “1.9 million high schoolers with an average age of 16, 1.5 million tertiary students averaging 21 years old, and 3 million young workers averaging 26 years old”.
Reference: 'Conference Brochure', Paper presented at the Kid Power Market Research 2002, Holiday Inn Victoria, London, 23-24 July, 2002.
Kid Power Market Research 2002, London
Reference: 'Conference Brochure', Paper presented at the Teen Insight 2002, Café Royal, London, 9-10 December, 2002.
Teen Insight 2002, London
Reference: 'Conference Brochure', Paper presented at the Kid Power, Mandalay Bay Resorts & Casino, Las Vegas, 30 November - 2 December, 2004
Kid Power 2004, Las Vegas