Special Report: The marketing game
Jesuit missionaries knew something about human nature when they said, in the 16th century: "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man."
Five hundred years later, author Maggie Hamilton argues, our society is less interested in saving a child's soul and more interested in capturing his or her preferences for our consumer products.
It starts in infancy with what seem like such harmless childhood characters as Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Barbie and Ben 10.
"When marketing guru James McNeal discovered that drooling babies stare down at their dribble for extended periods, he knew he was on to something," wrote Hamilton in her 2008 book What's Happening to Our Girls?
"Trademarked characters are now strategically placed on a baby girl's clothing so that when she dribbles, she gets to know these characters and sees them as a natural part of her world.
"Without her parents realising it, thanks to the 'drool factor' this baby girl has joined the consumer treadmill, where enough is never enough and where her self-esteem comes from what she has, not who she is."
Hamilton, a Warkworth writer, became concerned about the issue when she worked for a Sydney publisher and sat in on meetings targeting "product placement" of "fun figures" to young children.
She has titled a talk she will give at an Auckland seminar tomorrow "The corporate takeover of childhood".
By 18 months old, she says, 10 per cent of an infant's object words can be brands. "By the time a child is 2, they probably can call that [brand] by name," she says.
"They see Dora the Explorer or Winnie the Pooh and their face lights up. We see the child's delight; we get a big dopamine high; we can't wait to get our hands on our wallets to get the goods, we want to delight our children."
A 2010 Australian study found that 93 per cent of children aged 3 and 4 at Brisbane preschools could recognise the McDonald's logo; 89 per cent recognised the most popular snack food brand, 80 per cent the most popular brand of cars and 79 per cent the most popular brands of movies and supermarkets.
Tomorrow's seminar, which will also look at violent video games and cyber-safety, has been organised by Sydney-based Generation Next, a "social enterprise" which has run similar seminars in Australia for several years.
Founder Dr Ramesh Manocha, a Sydney general practitioner who has just written a book on meditation, says his motivation was seeing mental health issues in young people that stemmed from social and cultural factors.
"Before I got into research in this field, I was very concerned as a GP about the kinds of mental dysfunction that we are seeing in the community," he told the Herald from Sydney. "A lot of it is not necessarily about giving someone a tablet or a potion. It's about asking ourselves questions about what kind of values and priorities people are putting on their lifestyles."
Dr Manocha's younger sister suffered from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa a decade ago but every doctor she went to failed to diagnose it.
"They said the blood tests are normal," he says.
"While 2 per cent of the population might have anorexia nervosa, what many GPs and health professionals don't know is that about 20 per cent of young girls will have some kind of eating disorder in their lives, whether that is bulimia or abnormal dieting behaviour.
"I was in a school a few months ago in a class of year 10 girls. I said, 'How many of you like the way you look in photos?' None of them put up their hand.
"It's amazing, they actually don't like the way they look. This is a culturally created mental health phenomenon."
Advertisers, he says, make people dissatisfied because they don't have whatever is being advertised.
"Messages at a fundamental level are aligned to making us unhappy about ourselves and that if we buy this we will feel happy," he says.
"The social effect is a profound unhappiness. When you are surrounded by those messages 24 hours a day, the ultimate message is that to get happy you have to keep spending."
Otago University marketing lecturer Dr Leah Watkins cites a study of 466 Dutch children aged 8 to 11, published in March, which found that increased exposure to TV advertising raised children's "materialism" - defined as the importance they attach to possessions, the satisfaction they get from obtaining new possessions, and the degree to which they like children with more possessions more than other children.
She is now surveying 160 children aged 3 and 4 at Dunedin preschools to see whether the same relationship holds in Kiwi preschoolers.
At Auckland University, early childhood researcher Jean Rockel worries that parents think they need to have gadgets such as baby-bouncers when "it's much better for infants to lie on their backs and roll over and co-ordinate themselves at their own pace than to be put too soon into gadgets".
Preschool centres, she says, too often feature "plastic fantastic" playground equipment and toys rather than trees and flowers that attract birds and insects, promoting the beauty of nature.
"It's tipping the balance, it's going too far, some of the other things like playing are being overlooked," she says.
"I'm a firm believer in the creativity of play as being important. There is that innate drive to play, perhaps that's where we get drawn to the outdoors. It's very easy to be inside with gadgets rather than going and doing things outside or without the gadgets."
The Minimarc childcare centre at Auckland's Mt Albert Research Centre puts that philosophy into practice. Head teacher Meg Moss says the centre bought iPads last year but hardly ever uses them because children "learn better through three-dimensional things".
"We provide enthusiasm about lots of other things, like playing outside," Ms Moss says.
She believes too many parents are pressured into buying branded baby formula and disposable nappies.
"Children don't need baby formula, they can just drink milk," she says.
"We put them in cloth nappies, and when we send them home we send them in a disposable nappy. But we buy the cheapest ones because there is no need for them to be super-duper and amazingly absorbent, and it's counter-productive that the children never feel that they are wet. Yet that's one of their selling points."
Some Governments have acted to reduce commercial pressures on children. Sweden bans advertising aimed at children under 12 because such young children can't understand the persuasive techniques the advertisers use.
A review for the British Government in 2011 recommended banning the use of children in marketing aimed at other children.
In New Zealand, a voluntary code provides that advertisements should not urge children to ask adults to buy particular products for them, and should not "suggest to children that they are inferior or will lack social acceptance for not having the advertised product".
Dr Watkins believes there is an ethical case for stronger regulations, at least for the youngest age group.
"I think in middle childhood they are debatable," she says.
"I think, with under-5-year-olds, there is very little to say it [advertising] is ethical. Cognitively they are unable to process those messages. They can't distinguish between programming and commercial messages, between fantasy and reality."
The mental health and wellbeing of young people, Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, tomorrow, 9am-5pm, www.generationnext.co.nz