Everywhere you look there is a message for you to absorb, often without realizing it. To the left is a billboard highlighting the availability of fast food; to the right a wall with a sign suggesting this cola is the best thing you could ever want. Look down and there’s a message about online gambling on your phone.
Marketing is everywhere, and if you are especially cognizant, you might have a chance to resist. But your child or teen is not likely to have the tools required to understand the implications they face from sophisticated marketing.
Marketing is much more than advertising. It includes multiple techniques, tools and media. A fast food restaurant sponsors a youth sports team; there’s a beer tent at a local festival; and every website your child visits shines brightly with logos and products they can ask for. We used to worry about toys in a cereal box, but now they come with every kids’ meal. Because marketing can be harmful, we need to be aware of what is being aimed at children and youth.
When it comes to marketing, children and youth are especially vulnerable because they have not reached the stage of cognitive development where they are able to distinguish between marketing and entertainment. Indeed, most children under the age of eight do not see the persuasive intent of advertisements and believe they are intended to share information and tell the truth. Even older children are susceptible to the advanced techniques used in modern marketing.
We could ask what harm might come from marketing to young people, other than influencing them to buy more or choose one brand over another. That’s the view of an adult. There are specific ways in which marketing can be harmful to our health (not just our children’s).
Marketing can lead us to believe in the normalcy of unhealthy behaviours. Eating pizza, tacos and burgers and drinking gallons of soft drinks seems normal if you see them everywhere you turn. We come to understand that to have a fun party, we must have ample alcohol in the cooler. And yes, the best looking people do consume the product you want to be associated with. Imagine the power over children of these advanced tools.
The tactics themselves can also have a negative effect on mental and emotional health and well-being. For example, sex is widely used for many products. Many marketers use hypersexualized images and messages. This has extended into products intended for children, including toys and clothing. And hypersexualization itself contributes to a wide variety of harms: body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
In Canada, marketing to children is largely controlled by industry self-regulation. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this being an effective strategy. Worse, it is not uncommon for industry to violate their own guidelines.
As parents and individuals, we can start by being more aware of the marketing bombardment we and our children face, and we can challenge it when we see it, by raising the profile of the issue as important to public health. We can mobilize other parents, youth and communities to support policies that protect children from marketing and related harms. And we can teach children and youth about what they are experiencing and how to deal with it themselves.