Monday, December 12, 2011

Opinion: The Malleable, Marketable Minds of Children

By Rachael Bailey
Gordon College News Service
December 9, 2011
(This column was published December 15, 2011, in The Gloucester Times.)

Making a Christmas list as a seven-year-old was never a problem for me. Complete with giga pets (in every color), an ice cream maker, cabbage-patch doll, a skip-it, and the Lion King soundtrack, the contents of this list consumed my mind from their first television ad till the long-awaited moment on December 25th when I could tear these packages apart.

Fifteen years later, I imagine these goodies might be of little interest to today’s seven-year-old. Sure, they were toys I eventually lost, became disinterested in, or maxed out battery life, but at Christmas morning I didn’t care. I replayed in my head the commercials depicting best friends, elated by the responsibility to feed their giga pet. Once the gifts were opened and enjoyed, however, my father wisely reminded us not to place our value in them. We were not, after all, entitled to them.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently reported that in the U.S., children under the age of eight are mentally incapable of comprehending the messages elicited in televised advertising. Nonetheless, retailers’ aim is to sell no matter what and so children are unknowingly buying into a 40 billion dollar industry. Parents give in so children have more and more spending power every year. As this permeates our culture, veteran advertisers target a younger crowd every year.

I’m worried that television ads are merely a fraction of the industry devoted to child marketing. A larger impact comes from television shows geared toward children and preteens, product placement, the rise of cell phone use at a younger age—to name a few. These new media are becoming the “norm” for kids, places where they learn to get what they want and “grow older” younger.

In a psychology class, I recently watched a clip from “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood,” a documentary exposing how children are manipulated to want and beg for what they see advertised. Today marketers use a strategy called “365-degree immersive marketing,” where researchers film children in every element—from the supermarket to their homes when they wake up to the playground. These marketers study how they can reach children from a 365-degree standpoint, so they don’t even have to move to get their messages.

As children remain plugged into a digitized, entertainment-filled sphere of society, they are barraged by messages at a younger and younger age, and in the process, they begin to feel entitled to these gifts.

Even cell phone companies have changed their marketing scheme to appeal to children and establish brand loyalty early on. A Pew Internet and American Life study in 2010, reveals that 75 percent of teens owned cell phones. While 66 percent of kids in 2010 got their first cell phone before their 14th birthday, almost 30 percent of today’s 12-year-olds go their first phone before age 10. I had mine when I was 15. And with today’s smart phone advancements, advertisements are at their fingertips.

Inevitably, this media correlates with self-indulgence, instant gratification, even children’s weight. Now that marketers are taking advantage of a power that children don’t even know they have, I’m afraid today’s children may grow up without ever learning the dangers of a materialistic culture.

On Christmas morning after I played with my cabbage patch doll and fed my giga pet, I was taught what every malleable mind needs to understand. We are privileged—not entitled to presents on Christmas. Someday these things will fail and disappointment us.

Of course, this line between blessings and indulgence belongs not with the media, who will continue to sell, but with parents who hold the reigns and monitor how their children are bombarded by daily marketing messages. My dad taught me how to respond to the ‘stuff’ and that’s a gift that has lasted long after the holidays.

Rachael Bailey, a communication arts major from Barre, VT, is a Fellow with the Gordon College News Service and will graduate in May 2012 from Gordon College.


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