Wednesday, October 14, 2009
My young son Luke watching TV passively
I just ran into a great quote that expresses what I always felt about advertising:
"Societies need to consider the powerful impact of advertising on young children, for whom all information has an educational and formative impact. Children constitute an important market for consumer products, but society has a responsibility to educate them, not exploit them."
--United Nations Development Program
This was quoted in a paper called "See Change: Learning and education for sustainability" [Jan 2004 by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment], which I had picked up at the Kaipatiki ecological project a long time ago but hadn't had the focus to read it until now. Packing away thing, I opened it up, thinking of this, and saw this quote. The material in it is perfect for what I need to learn right now. It is further study in depth on all the issues that concern my mind, every waking moment. Advertising, people's awareness, this sleep humanity is in right now-- compared to how we have been in the past. It is so lovely to see something spelled out which previously felt like a secret underlying truth which no-one else saw.
The full report is at here.
And here is the cut-and-pasted section on Marketing and Advertising-- how it shapes our psyches (especially young psyches). It is my personal view that we need to create a wall or protective barrier by conscious choice, and help our children learn how to do so as well-- as in turning off the tv most of the time. Here is the fabulous report chunk (with only the footnote numbers deleted due to their decontextualization on my blog):
5.4 Marketing and advertising
Marketing explicitly aims to influence people. It involves planning the conception, pricing, promotion and spread of goods, services and ideas. It is often used by businesses to create awareness of, and desire for, their brands and products. However, marketing techniques are also used by many non-commercial organisations and government agencies to sell their messages to the public. Tools of marketing include market research, advertising and public relations.
Market research is used to understand the needs, wants, desires and values of people. Marketers often claim that they are merely finding out what people want and matching this with what they have to offer.
This is because most marketing is based on the assumption that it exists “(1) to discover the needs and wants of prospective customers and (2) to satisfy them”. In reality, many organisations also begin with what they want to sell and try to develop a market to suit.
A major part of marketing is advertising. Advertisements come in many different forms, “from the tiniest classified newspaper advertisement to a TV spot, from a small leaflet to a massive outdoor sign, from a message on the Internet to a letter delivered to one’s door, or a sponsored cultural or sporting event”.
Advertisers assert that they are providing information to consumers to enable
them to make informed decisions. Simple forms of advertising, such as classifieds, may meet this goal. But the most pervasive forms of modern advertising, especially those used on television, aim to influence and persuade people instead of informing them. Advertisers often play on people’s emotions to build connections between products, brands and people (see also section 6.5).
Advertising long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of its useful features. Modern marketing builds symbolic associations between the product and the psychological states of potential consumers, sometimes targeting known feelings ... and sometimes creating a sense of inadequacy in order to remedy it with the product.
Advertisements do not make people buy things, but they are incredibly influential in shaping human behaviour. Marketers use techniques that they have learned from psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology to shape consumer preferences. In doing so, they often help to socialise people as willing and wanting consumers. As an example, think about the marketing of four wheel drive ‘sports utility vehicles’ (SUVs) in New Zealand. These vehicles were initially used almost exclusively by farmers and commercial operators such as builders. Marketing has been used to successfully sell them as ‘urban safari vehicles’, playing on symbolic associations that have been fostered and developed in people. It is not their useful features that are marketed. Who wants to buy a vehicle that is generally more dangerous, polluting, difficult to park, and more expensive to run than the average car? It is their image as masculine and adventurous off-roading objects of desire that is marketed, even though they seldom leave the sanctuary of urban streets. The irony is that the beauty of New Zealand’s environment is often used to market these vehicles. There are countless shots on television screens and in the print media of SUVs doing damage to dunes, streams and riverbeds. Similarly, images of New Zealand’s 'clean and green’ environment are often used by many businesses to brand and sell their products to the world.
Increasingly, advertisers are targeting children to shape consumption preferences early in life and to take advantage of the growing amount of money that people are spending on children. For example, American children between four and 12 years old spend over $24 billion in direct purchases and influence another $188 billion in family household purchases. An average ten-year old in America has now been socialised to learn 300-400 different brands. In Britain, characters from a Japanese card trading game called Pokemon are far more recognisable to the average eight-year-old than animals and plants. There are therefore growing concerns about the impacts of advertising and marketing on children. Societies need to consider the powerful impact of advertising on young children, for whom all information has an educational and formative impact. Children constitute an important market for consumer products, but society has a responsibility to educate them, not exploit them.
– United Nations Development Programme
To reduce children’s exposure to marketing, countries such as Denmark, Greece, Belgium restrict advertising to children. Sweden and Norway totally ban it.
The Swedish government believes that “children have the right to safe zones” and that advertising can compromise their safety and well-being. This sentiment is strongly supported by the majority of people in Sweden, as well as by their national association for advertising agencies.
Marketing and advertising to children is permitted in New Zealand, although there are voluntary codes of practice in the advertising industry to moderate some of its effects. While there is little research on this issue, a recent survey suggests that there are major concerns among parents about the levels of advertising to children on television. Among those surveyed, there were strong feelings that television encourages children to want products they do not need. There was also a strong sentiment that advertising should not be regulated by the same people who sell products to children.
The current framework for advertising in New Zealand is mostly based on self-regulation by industry. This framework, and how it relates to the environment, is
examined in a background paper to this report.45 There is a code of practice for product claims related to the environment, but there is no code for how the environment is portrayed in advertisements. There is also a lack of consideration
given to the effects that saturation advertising can have on people. This is despite the fact that advertising expenditure in New Zealand, as a proportion of GDP, is one of the highest in the world. New Zealand ranked third in the world for advertising expenditure in 1996, and the amount of money spent on advertising has steadily increased since then. In 2002 it reached $1.5 billion per year and in 2003 it was predicted to exceed $1.7 billion. What sort of culture is all this advertising helping to create?
As noted above, advertising is just one tool of marketing. Marketers use a variety of techniques, such as product placements in movies and using celebrities and role models to shape consumer desires. Public relations skills are also used by businesses, government agencies and non-governmental organisations to ‘spin’ their stories and manage their images in the media. Public relations usually involves intensifying (playing up) some messages and downplaying others that could be detrimental to an organisation’s reputation. There is a growing awareness among the public about the ‘greenwashing’ that many organisations use to shape their environmental image. This may undermine the effectiveness of some public relations skills, while contributing to a fundamental lack of trust in big business and government to be open and honest about sustainability.
It is important to keep in mind that marketing techniques are not just used by commercial enterprises. For example, government is showing a growing willingness to use social marketing to achieve outcomes related to sustainability (see section 4.1). It has also been suggested that ‘demarketing’ can be used to encourage people to reduce their consumption of some goods or services.
There is a major potential to market the messages of sustainability, although it is important to consider that social marketing is very expensive. It is also important to question how effective government agencies can be at getting their messages across when people are already swamped by so many other marketing messages in the commercial media. In some areas, such as road safety, there is good evidence that social marketing can be very effective.
However, social marketing campaigns need to be carefully researched, planned and organised as well as well-financed to capture people’s attention, and to avoid switching people off.
As you can see from the photo of Luke above, and know from personal experience of course, watching TV is a very passive experience. I would just like to add one more note to the wonderfully well researched think-piece above-- as I learned in university communications studies, Marshall MacLuhan's "medium is the message" theory-- perhaps the actual message is less important in forming an impression on our minds than the technology of the message. My personal intuition confirms this as well, in the case of television, I can feel the harm to my children is more the passivity of watching tv than what is actually on TV. They aren't doing something, living, doing something challenging-- they are passively being entertained; and that's a message that should more often than not-- be avoided.