Villains at the School Gate

Brands and marketers stand accused of hijacking childhood and causing disaffection among youths through their promotion of junk food, video games and alcohol. But is this fair for an industry that claims to have cleaned up its marketing and contributes much to youth culture? asks Nathalie Kilby

Over the past week a plethora of brands and products – and their marketing techniques – have come under attack, held in some way responsible for “the death of childhood”, binge-drinking and rising drug use in the UK.

The first salvo came from 110 professionals and academics who wrote to The Daily Telegraph campaigning against the loss of childhood innocence, caused in their view by youngsters’ over-exposure to junk food, video games and marketing, alongside a lack of active play and an emphasis on academic success. Children are depressed, they argue, under pressure to succeed and to be mini-adults – concerns subsequently also expressed by charity The Children’s Society.

The next shot across the bows of the marketing and advertising industries came from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The government advisory body recommended increasing the legal smoking age from 16 to 18, while also calling for a ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship in music and sport, echoing a recent European Union report.

At Crisis Level

Then, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams waded into the debate blaming commercial pressures and family separations for what is being described by many complainants as a “crisis” among children. Added to this was the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s publication of a survey stating children are confused about healthy eating because of mixed advertising messages.

Now video games are in the firing line again, with the Association of Chief Police Officers slamming Saints Row, a game featuring gang violence, as “irresponsible and offensive”.

Wherever marketers look at the moment, brands seem to be labelled evil and to blame for society’s ills. Importantly, the spotlight has shifted beyond childhood to include young adults under 25, and a new swathe of brands are finding themselves in the spotlight, as the focus moves from food to alcohol brands in particular.

Beer brands have become synonymous with sports and music sponsorship. Many people like to relax with an alcoholic drink watching football or their favourite band. Unsurprisingly, brands and marketers rebuffed the ACMD’s recommendations, with bodies from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising to the European Sponsorship Association (ESA) quick to point out that advertisers are acting responsibly, citing recent changes in alcohol advertising.

The sector’s ads must already comply with restrictions outlined in Ofcom and Advertising Standards Association codes of practice. Meanwhile, drinks industry body The Portman Group promotes sensible drinking through its Drinkaware initiative.

A ban on drinks advertising and sponsorship is certainly a step too far, says ESA chairman Nigel Currie. “We are following the same course as tobacco, but with tobacco the evidence over the years proved it to be a dangerous product,” he states. “It’s different for alcohol, it’s about sensible drinking.”

Currie, along with other experts, points to the fact that sponsorship has proved an invaluable revenue stream for music and sports. “Breweries and drinks brands have added hugely to sports, cultural and music events,” he says. “Some events could not survive without sponsorship. There is an obvious synergy.”

Clearly the ACMD thinks otherwise, but Currie adds: “Like everything, good things are spoilt by the minority. It’s a free market and about brand preference. Sponsorship is not telling consumers to drink, just making them aware of the brand. We have to be careful not to reach the point of a nanny state.”

Parent Power

Brandhouse WTS planning director Warwick Cairns says the nanny state and a sense of fear in society have a role to play. He says people are quick to blame TV, video games or the internet for tying children to screens, but in fact it is parents who are encouraging such behaviour: “Children are kept indoors as the perception of risk has changed, so parents encourage them to be inside and therefore inactive.”

However, with UK teenagers among the heaviest smokers, drinkers and drug users in Europe for their age group, the problem is stark. Binge-drinking and drunkenness have increased massively among young people, and some groups argue this is directly attributable to the efforts of the drinks industry to promote alcohol to under 18s.

Cairns points to alcopops as an example of poor and irresponsible marketing, and Currie concedes that in the past mistakes were made in alcohol advertising, but says brands are more responsible now: “Johnnie Walker’s Formula 1 sponsorship is a case in point, promoting itself, but at the same time putting out a safe message.”

Cairns adds that “the number of young people getting drunk hasn’t increased but the amount of alcohol consumed by those who do, has”.

Yet, according to many critics, the problems are far-reaching, stretching from the cradle to the – sadly in some cases premature – grave. Products encouraging early learning, such as Disney’s Baby Einstein CDs, have been criticised for encouraging parents to “hothouse” children, while interactive consoles for under fives, through to Nintendo and PlayStation consoles, are lambasted for encouraging childhood inactivity.

But Sheena Horgan, joint founder of Kids Inc, a marketing to children specialist agency, says: “Every generation has its devil incarnate:

rock’n’roll, TV and so on. TV was the devil of our day, now it’s video games and the internet. But technology is a fact of life.”

Such is technology’s influence that toy companies are playing catch-up and rolling out interactive products as fast as they can. Vivid Imaginations is launching Miuchiz, a console based on the Bratz doll characters (MW September 7), as it seeks to steal share from brands such as Nintendo. These are reactive moves to a fast-changing market, where consumers, be they children or parents, are driving the demand.

Horgan adds: “We are a society in flux, trying to understand new technology but living by old values. It is a very strange society. The presumption is that technology is the preserve of youth, but this is not true: look at how the grey market is embracing technology at a rapid rate – the old are growing younger.”

Cairns agrees, saying that while critics complain that youths are stuck in front of PC screens, their parents and grandparents are actually doing the same thing.

Fair Game?

Video games are a key target of the debate, said to encourage depression and psychological and behavioural problems, but Horgan asks: “What of the fact that every other marriage ends in divorce? Surely that has an impact on children.”

Marketing experts contend that if society’s woes are not the fault of brands, parents must be culpable. Both Currie and Cairns argue that they are not forced to buy products and there is “always the off switch”. But Cairns concedes that shifting all responsibility to parents is misguided: “There need to be parental boundaries and children need a rounded upbringing. But marketers are not blameless.”

Horgan agrees: “This is a societal issue, and the business community is a key player. It also needs to take responsibility and help clarify what is happening and why, and how it can be redressed.” Ultimately, the answer is about balance – and it is up to marketers to take their share of responsibility.

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