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Sociology

The battle against consumption by children

Children have become a direct target for all kinds of products

MIGUEL BOYAYANTV leads to weight gain, especially in the case of children, the viewer category regarded by media experts and psychologists as the category most able to be influenced. Commercials advertising snacks, sandwiches, ice cream and cookies promise tasty meals and freebies such as stuffed animals, toy cars or popular cartoon characters, which lead to something else: it is not enough to buy the product and eat it. One must buy it in large quantities. Sometimes, to get the freebie, the shopper has to collect coupons, tickets or bar codes and add some money. In addition, these product manufacturers offer collectible items, with the justification that they are offering a wide selection. This obliges parents to multiply their purchases.

Should growth be vertical or sideways? None of these commercials mention the nutrition value or the calories contained in these foods. And what is one to do with all these snacks, ice creams and sandwiches? Eat them, of course. “Eat, eat, eat, to grow,” were the words of one commercial. Thus, child obesity is not related only to stress and the lack of parental nutrition guidelines. It is related to the food industry’s marketing strategies, whose effects upon the health of children can be devastating.

It was no coincidence that last July 18, a group of US companies took on the commitment to adopt ‘socially responsible’ market behavior. Ten out of the eleven biggest food companies, accounting for a market share of two thirds, promised to limit food commercials targeting children, if they do not comply with the nutrition standards as defined by the US Agriculture, Health and Social Welfare Department.

There are 9 million obese children, in addition to overweight children, in the USA. McDonald’s, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Campbell’s, Cadbury Adams, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Mars, Unilever and General Mills acknowledged the problem that child obesity is growing in the U.S. Some companies also announced that they would attempt to modify their product lines in order to comply with nutritional standards. Experts believe that the companies decided to take action in advance and adopted self-regulation guidelines, because they feared a law that would forbid their commercials, as is the case with the tobacco industry.

In Brazil, there has also been rising concern about child obesity. In São Paulo, 30% of public school students are overweight. The constant food commercial bombarding on TV, directly or indirectly, led Anvisa, the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency, to conduct public survey no. 71 last year, on possible changes in the media placement of commercials that target children. As Anvisa has regulatory authority, it is currently discussing with NGOs, universities and health care professionals ways of restricting commercials of non-nutritional beverages and high salt, sugar and fat content foods on radio and TV during peak hours, which run from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Although advertisements are not the only factor affecting the ‘epidemic’ of overweight children, it is expected that this measure will reduce the problem, which has become a public health issue.

The relationship between advertising and physical weight, however, is only one of the issues that physicians, psychologists, communication experts and academics are concerned about. This concern is shared with institutions that deal with children’s rights and health care issues and with the federal government itself. A study conducted by TNS InterScience shows that expenses related to children from the ages of 4 to 12 years have increased by at least 400% since the 80’s and are still growing. Another study conducted by the same institution and disclosed in August, focused on mothers and children in five Latin American countries: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Mexico. This study showed that in 2005, 42% of this age group had a strong influence on family shopping; by 2006, this percentage had risen to 52%.

The easy access to technology and information is pointed out as the reason for the change in the profile of this consumer age group over the last 20 years. Increasingly exposed to direct market stimuli, without adult interference, and well informed about the details of their desired objects, the kids interfere in the parents’ shopping decisions on child-related products, and choose categories and even brands for the adult segment.

Moreover, these young consumers want to go out and buy their own products. This was shown by a survey called ‘Kid experts’, conducted in Brazil and released in July. The survey was conducted by the Turner International Networks communications conglomerate, which owns the Cartoon Network TV channel. The respondents totaled 1,066 children aged 7 to 15 years and mapped the behavior of this consumer category in Brazil. The results showed that 40% would prefer to get money as gifts rather than toys.

The concern about children as victims of commercials is related to their inability to discern the purposes underlying the commercials, as they are still growing-up. Psychologist Ester Cecília Fernandes Baptistella, an education and psychology professor at the São Francisco University does research on the understanding of TV content during childhood. She points out that children start showing an interest in TV by the time they are only six months old. The quick sound and image changes, especially in commercials, and the shape of the TV itself, appear to be motivators for babies. This does not mean that they are able to understand a TV narration or the intention behind a commercial.

Sergio Marin, an independent consultant and a professor at the Anhembi Morumbi and Centro Universitário UniFieo universities, adds that three-year olds already understand the value of money and have a very clear notion that it represents a means of exchange. In his doctoral thesis, he studied the motivational aspects that support child consumption behavior – and which provide support for promotional activities aimed at children. He points out that children, submitted to such huge pressure, transform the appearance and consumption of the means of communication into elements for them to be accepted.

The objective of direct advertising is to cause an impact on the child’s peer group and to generate personal satisfaction. In his opinion, children from aged 3 to 6 do not understand the concept of expensive/cheap; they are highly impulsive and use money to buy sweets and games. The 7 to 9 year-olds understand the concept of expensive/cheap, calculate, negotiate and use the money to buy designer labels, MP3, mobile phones and electronic games. “They perceive the impact of the brands and are familiar with and interested in the categories aimed at the other segments.”

Ester Cecília advocates that it is necessary to educate children and adolescents regarding the media as a way of teaching them how to exercise their citizenship rights. At the moment, she is working on a literacy program via TV as part of her doctoral thesis at the School of Education of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), which she is working on under the guidance of Orly Zucatto Mantovani de Assis. The psychologist advocates developing an understanding of TV language and the need to use TV as a teaching tool in the classroom. This will allow students to be exposed to media-related situations that will stir a critical spirit in them and make them less vulnerable to the appeal of commercials.

It is not easy to establish the exact time at which children started to be targeted by TV commercials. Aldo Pontes, a doctoral candidate in education and communication at the School of Education of the University of São Paulo (USP) and author/organizer of Infância, cultura e mídia and Construindo saberes em educação, a series of books on children published by Editora Zouk, agrees that this phenomenon began in the eighties. This is when the culture industry began to view children as potential consumers. It did not take long for countless children’s programs, products and services to be shown on TV screens.

MIGUEL BOYAYANTo exemplify, he names children’s shows from that time such as: Bozo (TVS), TV criança (Bandeirantes TV), Clube da criança (the defunct Manchete TV), Balão mágico (Globo TV), TV Fofão (Bandeirantes), Xou da Xuxa (Globo) etc. “We must not forget that although television is a public concession, most of the radio and TV networks are owned by the private sector, regardless of whether they are commercial channels or paid TV.” “As a result,” he adds, “what ends up prevailing are the marketing and advertising strategies designed to maintain high viewer ratings, even when the target is the TV-watching child.”

Pontes points out that culturally it has been established in contemporary liberal capitalistic societies that a person must have things in order to be somebody, and therefore children have to be targeted at a very early age. “In other words, we are programmed to link products to abstract feelings of well-being such as happiness, pleasure, fulfillment, and spiritual peace.” Pontes adds that, within this context, children give in to consumption urges, usually unconsciously, just like adults do, in order to be accepted and avoid the exclusion that victimizes those who cannot buy.

This behavior can be seen in daily school life. The researcher points out that it is enough for someone from a group to go to school with the latest brand-name book bag, sneakers or folder for peers to want the same products as well. Pontes says that on the education and communication courses he teaches, he often hears stories about kids who are so anxious to get something their parents normally cannot afford that they get physically ill.

Within this scenario, companies do their utmost to lure children. This effort extends beyond prime time TV, he says. He mentions ‘super’ animated, colorful films, pets, and the insertion of human characters into cartoon characters. The researcher is suspicious about the animal collections, cards and stickers that are given away with fast food sandwiches and snacks. “This coerces children to consume the product to complete their collections which in time are soon replaced by other collections.”

Children are sometimes used as bait to attract the parents. A study conducted by James McNeal and mentioned by Pontes identified three categories of consuming children: the first category encompasses primary consumers, the children who consume the products for their age group; the second encompasses children who influence the shopping decisions of the adults; and the third are the children who are viewed as the market of the future, the future consumers. “The category of children who persuade their parents/tutors to consume is among the fastest-growing categories because, in the absence of their parents /tutors, the kids are intensely bombarded by advertising, and thus are exposed to a flood of commercials which, in the manner of brainwashing, are shown countless times, both during the breaks and in the programs (merchandising),” says the Brazilian researcher.

Carlos André Migliorini, coordinator of consumption and research of the Criança e Consumo (Child and Consumption) project headed by the NGO Instituto Alana, names three of the most common strategies used to induce consumption during commercial breaks: conventional advertising; the licensing of film, cartoon, and comic book characters to link their image to the product; and freebies at points of sale – which sometimes require that a specific additional amount be paid.

The NGO, which has volunteers all over the country, acts as a supervisory entity and forwards extra judicial complaints to TV stations, advertisers and advertising agencies. In extreme cases, it files a formal complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Alana maintains a research and reference center and keeps track of the actions of the three branches of government to propose projects and provide technical support.

Migliorini also emphasizes the consequences of living with children whose consumption urges are not controlled: family stress rises because parents are not always able to fulfill the child’s wish; the family budget becomes unbalanced; children no longer play children’s games and consequently lead a sedentary life, which leads towards obesity; increase of violence by the person who cannot afford to buy what the child wants; and, in the long term, attitudes such as conformism, individualism and egoism. Moreover, many parents resort to excessive gift buying as a form of making up for their absence because of professional career demands.

Idec (the Brazilian Consumer Protection Institute) is equally concerned about these issues. In fact, it prepared a guidebook together with the NGO Criança Segura (Safe Child) and the Abrinq child aid foundation. The guidebook was launched this March and targets children and adolescents aged 11 to 14, as they are consistently becoming avid and decisive consumers. Written in easy language, the book uses children as its main characters, as well as illustrations and daily life situations as examples, in order to convey responsible and sustainable consumption concepts, notions on consumer rights and the safe use of goods and services.

Marilena Lazzarini, Idec’s executive coordinator and president of Consumers International, states that the institution has invested in education for consumption courses for school children in the fifth to eight grades. These courses include topics for classroom discussions inserted into the regular curriculum. For example, the debate on very high interest rates was included in math classes and sustainable consumption issues were added to geography classes. In 2002, as part of the program, Idec launched four books for teachers. “We are doing this within the perspective of looking at consumption broadly, and not only within the limits of the Consumer Protection Code,” she justifies.