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Advertising and The Commodification of Childhood: How Targeting Children Misses the Mark

commodification of baby care

“These industry professionals have become increasingly influential in the social, cultural, and economic construction of childhood. They affect children’s sense of identity and self, as well as their values, behaviors, relationships with others, and daily activities. They help shape the normative vision of childhood that is held by both children and adults. In this sense, they are creating, transforming, and packaging childhood as a productive cultural concept that they then sell to the companies who make the actual products that children buy”

–Juliet B. Schor

Modern Advertising and the Commodification of Baby Care—How Media is Redefining Childhood

In his book The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer, Daniel Thomas Cook points out that even the layout of department stores is evidence of corporate power to create an advertiser’s vision of childhood. He also points out the extent to which advertisers have begun targeting children rather than their parents. The commodification of baby care is further apparent in the massive number of items for sale that specifically target parents. According to Juliet B. Schor, professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of “Born to Buy: Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood and Culture”, there has been an increase in the study of children’s behavior specifically for the purpose of targeting them as consumers.

In 2010, it was estimated that Canadian children viewed an average of 20,000 television commercials per year. Since those 2010 statistics, laws have been passed in some places against advertising that specifically targets children.  In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission studied the issue in the 1970s but placed no restrictions on advertising to children.

The commodification of baby care in the form of advertising has been blamed for a number of negative social trends, including the high incidence of childhood obesity in the U.S. According to one source, 50% of all ads targeted towards children in the U.S. are for snacks, candy, fast food, and sugary cereals.

Another modern venue for the commodification of baby care is YouTube. According to an article in Time Magazine, Google has an app called YouTube Kids. While the name might inspire confidence in the belief that children using it will be directed towards age-appropriate content, it turns out that they are also directed towards an inordinate number of advertisements directed at them.

Television advertising safeguards don’t apply on the internet, causing a complaint to be filed with the Federal Trade Commission. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry was among those who signed the complaint.

Organizations Opposing The Commodification of Baby Care

Among the organizations fighting to resist the commodification of baby care are The Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A recent article in the Guardian pointed to extreme levels of the commodification of baby care in which proponents of advertising to children suggest that it can help teach children critical analytical skills. The director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Susan Linn, says that

“Marketing targets emotions, not intellect. It trains children to choose products not for the actual value of the product, but because of celebrity or what’s on the package. It undermines critical thinking and promotes impulse buying.”

Numerous studies that have demonstrated just how much influence children have on what their parents purchase. According to an article in Time magazine, in many families, it is the children who decide what is eaten for breakfast and lunch.

Further, in addition to food, 71% of parents polled ask for their children’s opinions regarding purchases of clothes and even where to go on vacation. Businesses consider what children buy with their own money, how they affect what adults buy, and what they will buy when they become adults themselves.

The commodification of baby care is a business strategy with the goal of securing life-long customers. Proof of the effectiveness of this strategy can be demonstrated by the fact that in 2012, McDonald’s spent nearly $42 million dollars on advertising for its children’s Happy Meals.

Despite the potential for profit and the lack of legal restrictions, the advertising industry does regulate itself to some extent. Ian Barber, the communications director of the Advertising Association in the United Kingdom, outlined some of their restriction by saying

“For example, you cannot make a child feel inferior or unpopular for not buying a product. You can’t take advantage of their credulity, or suggest that they’re lacking in courage or loyalty. You can’t encourage them to actively pester their parents, or make a direct exhortation to a child to buy a product.”

As any parent knows, children don’t need much encouragement to pester their parents to buy the latest most popular item. It is no small wonder why in many countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and Greece, advertising to children is severely restricted, and in Sweden and Norway, advertising to children under 12 years of age is actually illegal.

commodification of baby care

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