For the sake of the adults, stop advertising to kids

The reason advertising meets so much resistance from adults is because of its targeting of one of society’s most vulnerable groups – children.

Camelot has spent &£72m getting the Big Yin – Billy Connolly – with the purple chin to publicise the fact that marketing people are idiots. It is not the first time an advertiser has used anti-marketing marketing – John Cleese used the same technique to promote Sony in the Eighties – and it won’t be the last.

But this seemingly innocuous campaign is symptomatic of a much bigger problem for marketing communications.

The public’s hatred of this industry is the main reason why persuasive communication has become so incredibly difficult to achieve, and causes hundreds of millions of pounds to be wasted each year on ineffective advertising.

The point was made by Winston Fletcher in a newspaper article last week, when he said: “If consumers have confidence in advertising, it is likely to be effective. If consumers distrust advertising it will fail.”

Researchers at Northern Illinois University in the US have found that people’s confidence in advertising is undermined if they believe that they are being conned into buying. If people have the illusion of invulnerability to advertising’s effects they often do not resist it.

However, Dr Brad Sagarin, a psychologist at the university, suggests that resistance to advertising is increased if you demonstrate that this invulnerability really is illusory, because it shows them that they really have been fooled.

The advertising industry’s best efforts to promote self-regulation have failed to combat this growing mistrust.

For a long time, commentators have acknowledged that the British public deeply distrusts advertisers, but they have never come up with an adequate explanation of why, although, over the years, commentators have given a variety of reasons – from the influence anti-marketing villains such as JB Priestley in the Thirties, to, most recently, Naomi Klein.

Last year, IPA president Bruce Haines accused journalists of being ignorant of advertising, going as far as to chastise them for not realising that advertising “paid their wages”. However, the real reason why the marketing community is disliked lies closer to home. The root cause can be summed up in just three words – marketing to children.

Here is a clear demonstration to parents of the power of advertising, whose persuasive message is not only saturating the living room, through TV – the UK has more advertising to children per hour than any other European country – but also schools.

McDonald’s is the classic aggressive children’s marketer. Much as the company would like to believe that the reason why it is resented so much is because of the fringe activities of metal-encrusted, anti-globalisation, vegetable botherers, Ronald McDonald’s real nemesis is parents who resent the fact that their children shun healthy balanced diets in favour of Happy Meals with extra fries.

Unlike adults, children are not rational economic agents, because they do not earn money, do not exert sovereignty over their lives, and are largely unaccountable for their actions. And they do not have fully formed concepts of duty or right and wrong. This immoral targeting of vulnerable children adds to consumer distrust.

Because of children’s acknowledged difference, the regulators create a twilight world of “selling without selling” that fools no one and feeds the cynicism.

There’s ample evidence of this in the contortions that the Advertising Standards Authority has to perform in acknowledging children’s vulnerability, while at the same time trying to allow “normal” marketing activity.

The use of the ambiguous and meaningless phrase, “actively encourage” in a number of guidelines illustrates this point. For instance, “advertisements and promotions addressed to children should not actively encourage them to make a nuisance of themselves to parents or others”. Or this one: “[advertising] should not actively encourage them to eat frequently throughout the day or to replace main meals with confectionery or snack foods”.

Yet encouraging changes in consumption and pushing the purse holders to spend more is exactly what children’s marketers want to do. And while we’re on the subject, why is “active” encouragement more pernicious than “inactive” encouragement?

The regulations also do not take into account the different ages of children. Younger children obviously require greater protection than teenagers. Many young children, especially those under the age of six, have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and programmes, and most do not fully understand the purpose of advertising.

Advertising to young children exploits cartoon characters and personalities in ads, which makes it harder for them to distinguish between ads and editorial.

Next month, companies including Masterfoods and Hasbro are launching the Media Smart campaign, another cynical attempt to circumvent further regulations on children’s advertising by attempting to “educate” children on how to consume advertising. It is a bizarre concept that further illustrates the contortions involved in trying to justify the morally unjustifiable.

Until the marketing and advertising industry starts to act responsibly and ban marketing to children under 12 years old, they will continue to be hated, and will carry on paying half-baked comedians millions of pounds to remind us about how unethical they really are.

The message is clear. If you want to stop wasting money trying to persuade consumers in the adult economy to believe in your sales message, stop cynically marketing to their children.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the advertising handbook