Consumerist Kiddies? Come On, Give Them A Little Credit

There’s a lot of rage directed at the advertising industry. The comedian Bill Hicks famously told his audience: “If anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself… you are Satan’s little helpers.”

And Hicks was just talking about companies that advertise to adults. In a documentary aired on the ABC last week, one talking head described advertisers who specialise in children’s products as “very similar to pedophiles”. This is an apparently widespread view, if the reactions to the doco on ABC message boards and Twitter are anything to go by.

In The Age, author Sharon Beder argued there is “a generation of children who have been manipulated, shaped and exploited” by the advertising industry. Corporations are, apparently, turning kids into mindless consumer drones.

But hold on a moment: children can’t afford to be consumers at all. Kids aren’t allowed to earn money – child labour laws are pretty explicit about that. Anything children consume is directly or indirectly controlled by their parents, whether by giving children pocket money, or buying them stuff. Kids aren’t the consumers here. Their parents are.

Often complaints about the commercialisation of childhood seem more like complaints about parenting than marketing. We keep hearing about the insidious development of “pester power”, as if kids are only annoying because a Bob the Builder (a division of HiT Entertainment, owned by Apax Partners) corporate planning session decided that nagging would be the firm’s third-quarter marketing strategy.

If there are parents who think their child will shut up when the advertising industry shuts down, they obviously don’t remember harassing their own parents about a new cricket set, or having their hair braided like other kids.

Take a child to the zoo, and all they want to do is talk about zebras. Watch a movie about cars, and all they want to do is play with cars. If the vast amount of culture modern children are enjoying on the internet, in video games and on DVDs makes them want to wear Elmo pyjamas or eat Transformers-branded cereal, it’s hardly a sign of the apocalypse – unless, of course, you have a philosophical objection to capitalism and brands in the first place.

Claims about the insidious nature of advertising are massively overblown.

Sure, children’s movies may often feature subtle product placements. Last year’s WALL-E did feature numerous references to expensive Apple products. But the plot of the movie was a satire of overconsumption and environmental degradation. Not many children would have left the cinema exhorting the virtues of consumerism.

Kiddie entertainment is usually pretty good like that – greedy characters get their comeuppance; the value of friendship is affirmed.

Similarly overblown are fears of the corporate takeover of schools. Companies that have been told to be “good corporate citizens” and sponsor community and school events are now being accused of brainwashing children.

In her book This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood Sharon Beder even speculated that “it is as if underfunding of schools is part of a corporate strategy to enable advertisers better access” – which only makes sense if you believe that government budgets are determined solely by a cabal of industrial tycoons.

Nevertheless, critics of consumerism argue that advertising is making kids depressed and unsettled because they can’t get everything they want. It’s certainly true that more children are being diagnosed with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hypertension and depression than in the past. But we’ve only seriously started to diagnose mental illness in children within the past few decades. And there is good evidence to suggest that, particularly in the US, some schools are mischaracterising unruly childhood behaviour as a symptom of mental illness: 82 per cent of American teachers believe that ADHD is overdiagnosed, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

Mental illness in children is not trivial. But to try to blame it on product placement in Pixar movies is just a little tenuous.