Kids’ marketing is more complex than absolutes

Ruth Mortimer is Marketing Week’s associate editor and a prolific blogger. She won a PPA Award for her forthright and insightful columns on marketing.


I know that as a mother of a young child, I should probably be thrilled at the results the “Letting Children be Children” report into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. Authored by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, it condemns how the UK’s kids are being encouraged to grow up too quickly and sets out recommendations for dealing with this.

But for me, it misses the point in several areas. It aims to restrict various forms of marketing which in my mind, have nothing to do with either commercialisation and sexualisation. And it raises more questions than it answers.

First, the good parts of the report. It can only be a positive thing to offer parents more control (if wanted or needed) over how children receive adult content on their electronic devices. Also, I wouldn’t argue that it’s probably not that great to get kids involved in peer-to-peer marketing where the implications of taking part might not be clear to them. And a single website for complaints about marketing or retailing by parents sounds alright too.

Then we move onto areas that I consider at best to be dubious. Much has been made of the age-appropriate clothing issue. Some stores have been producing items for young girls with slogans such as “future WAG”. Not very tasteful, that’s for sure.
But the report mentions that black, lacy or underwired bras for girls under 12 should perhaps be discontinued. Erm, when did black bras become sexy just because of the colour? I thought they were mainly practical. Also, at 12 some of my friends already had the type of figure where an underwired bra was necessary. This wasn’t them out trying to be sexy – they just wanted convenient underwear that fitted. They already felt embarrassed about being so developed without someone suggesting they were trying to be adult when they just wanted something to fit. I feel defining underwired or black underwear as sexy in some way is an adult perspective that is not necessarily seen as such by children.

Also, I see problems in covering up or moving men’s mag covers to the top shelf so kids don’t see naked or semi-naked women sprawling about when choosing their comics. It’s not that I actually like seeing any of those covers – I think most of them are pretty tacky and unattractive. But I think it is difficult to define what is “offensive”.

For example, in the US recently, a magazine cover showing Elton John’s baby son was covered up to protect “young shoppers”. Protect them from what? A loving family smiling? Just because the family involves two gay men? It seems that the idea of what is offensive can be fluid or even in my view, plain wrong. Would this mean Men’s Health, often bearing a semi-naked man on the front, also has to be moved? But isn’t that showing a healthy body to our kids, not a sexy one? Perhaps to me, but maybe not someone else. And what about fashion magazines like Love or Pop that often feature people with not many clothes on? That’s not being sexy – it’s art. Isn’t it? I think this is a very complex area that needs much further thought than the report suggests.

The same goes for outdoor adverts containing sexualised images near schools or nurseries. How do you define what is sexualised? To some people, a woman wearing make-up is sexualised; to other people, she’s a woman who takes care of herself.

But okay, maybe I’m a rubbish parent who doesn’t see danger everywhere. So let’s just take a look at the research done for the Bailey report to see how horrendous this problem is. Perhaps I am alone in my views.

The research used in the report asks parents: have you ever bought something for your child you would rather not have done? Apparently 63% haven’t. Just 36% have. (1% aren’t sure.) So two-thirds of parents – the majority – haven’t actually experienced the horrific effects of overcommercialisation.

And 60% (again, the majority) think they have not seen unsuitable outdoor ads in the last three months. And 58% (the majority) don’t even think they have seen unsuitable ads or programmes in the last three months. Hmmm, where is all the outrage?

When parents are asked to chose which marketing and advertising tools should not be used with children, mobile phone ads (the most hated) only receive 35%. While this is multiple choice, 100% of people could have chosen that medium but didn’t – just 35% (a minority of those in the survey) did.

Ninety-two per cent of parents in the survey have not complained to brands that things were inappropriate for their children. Why not? It seems 15% don’t know who to complain to, which makes the Bailey report seem valid and 22% feel nothing would be done. But 43% (the largest single group) felt they didn’t need to complain.

Which all leaves the report looking, well, a bit limp. It appears parents aren’t quite as outraged as press coverage has made out. And the issue of what is sexualised is an extremely complex one with lots of stakeholders with different views.

Luckily the government has 18 months to see how brands respond to the report. It will be interesting to see if any of these problems have been solved along the way. I’ll give the last word to fellow journalist Barbara Ellen, who says exactly what I am trying to say but with much more humour.

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