BRAND BULLYING AND THE MARKETING OF YOUTH
Britain has constructed a culture which makes children breathe the toxin of materialism. Simply blaming parents is a glib and unreflective way to let the corporate world evade their duty.
A 2007 report by UNICEF ranked the United Kingdom bottom out of 21 developed nations for the well-being of its children. In September 2011, a further report has tried to identify why. The answers are hardly revelatory. Fractured families, long working hours and relentless consumerism are components of a country which enshrines material wealth as the supreme goal of a good society. Over the last two decades, great strides have been made to safeguard children against predatory adult behaviour. Yet we have constructed a culture which makes children breathe the toxin of materialism from the rising of the sun to its setting without much more than whimsical passing comment.
Children have unprecedented purchasing power now: each year in Britain the under-16s spend £3 billion of their own money. A market of this size has inevitably attracted huge advertising and the research shows its value. By the age of two, children handle a new toy differently according to whether or not they have seen it on the TV the previous day. By the age of three they prefer an advertised food brand to another which tastes the same. Yet it is not until they are about to start secondary school that children on the whole identify the intention behind an advert. Over one-third of 9-13 year olds would ‘rather spend time buying things than almost anything else’ and a little under half says ‘the only kind of job that I want when I grow up is one that gives me lots of money’.
Few but the most unperceptive would blame children for these attitudes. Some might identify the parents as culprits. Most would accept that there is a broader remit of responsibility in an era of instant communication, where children are exposed to unprecedented levels of influence. Such is the power of consumer capitalism that the tendency is passively to accept whatever it brings us, yet the UNICEF reports clearly indicate that other developed countries are much better at protecting their children from harmful influences. Sweden bans advertising which is aimed at under-12s. Spain has a resilient and more coherent extended family and a shared love of family time. Each has a better record in delivering well-being to its children.
The weakening of intermediary institutions between the individual and the State (for instance families, clubs, churches) has created something of a void for consumerism to fill. The lack of social and spiritual resilience, which is developed in families and among healthy peer groups, makes children easier prey for buying stuff as a way of being.
One finding from the UNICEF report was the growing prominence of brand bullying. An insidious form of marketing which creates the myth of coolness surrounding a product means that some children get bullied if they do not possess the right label. Most parents of teenage children are aware of this threat. In succumbing to it, they may protect their children from being ostracised in the short term but they make an uneasy peace with an ethos which says worth is found in conspicuous consumption. Consumer capitalism is far too cynical and relentless to allow even short-term relief to be obtained, however, for the goal of re-packaging wants as needs means the label bought will soon be presented as unfashionable, with teenagers compelled to buy more expensive stuff to stay up with the game.
A new army of so-called ‘cool hunters’ ensures this vicious circle can keep profits up. These are corporate people who get alongside teenagers by speaking the same language but who use their slightly more adult status to influence the impressionable with their own, supposedly independent, consumer preferences. Such tactics should be named for what they are: a form of grooming which is manipulative. Once the ‘cool kids’ are identified, they are then primed as evangelists who will share the good news about a new label with the less enlightened.
The lack of awareness among a large proportion of younger people of the news of generous and kindly Saviour who believes that each one is ‘worth it’ when it comes to his personal sacrifice has allowed less merciful influences to predominate. The UNICEF findings demonstrate an ageless truth: we reap what we sow.
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