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Stealth campaigns keep kids craving


New Zealand Herald

June 21, 2008

Toucan Sam stands poised at the edge of a tomb flooded with milk. There are tantalising riches just out of reach, we imagine. It's really all very Indiana Jones.

The only way our hero _ that's the toucan _ can navigate the milky pond is to hop from fruit loop to fruit loop. If he lingers too long, the fruit loop will sink below the cream _ as the cereal does in a breakfast bowl.

We are, of course, talking cereal here: the Fruit Loop cereal marketed by Kellogg's in bright, eye-catching boxes on the supermarket shelves, positioned near cereals which earn a bigger tick from nutritionists.

The game is part of a Kellogg's website, festooned with the same bright packaging seen at the supermarket and one of the reasons the restrictions on television advertising targeting children, which starts on July 1, may not be as successful as the Ministry of Health might like.

Neither are these voluntary curbs on advertising certain foods _ generally fatty, salty or sugary foods, kids' favourites _ on TV likely to resolve all the ethical problems arising from marketing campaigns aimed at children, says Australian-based psychologist Cordelia Fine.

As worries grow about a looming obesity epidemic, New Zealand television broadcasters have agreed to voluntarily restrict advertising of some foods and unhealthy drinks during designated children's viewing times.

Whether such restrictions, on a relatively narrow span of viewing times, will have the desired effect is called into question by Dr Fine, one of the keynote speakers at the International Science Festival next month in Dunedin.

Dr Fine will reflect on the ethical issues faced by families and society when advertising is targeted at children.

She says the debate surrounding the ethics of advertising to children generally centres on the age at which children have developed sufficient cognitive resources to understand persuasive intent _ the point at which they understand someone is trying to sell them something.

But research is beginning to show that even more media-savvy children, 12 years and older, are not necessarily any better equipped to shrug off the advances of the advertising agency, she says.

Asked about the merits of television advertising restrictions, Dr Fine says children do not always watch their television at the relatively early times usually thought of as constituting the standard children's watching periods.

Given that, it is fair to assume those aged 12 and older are even less likely to be affected.

Dr Fine says children are not just watching programmes designed for them and, as a result of lifestyle changes, more children are staying awake longer.

"And a lot of children have TVs in their room."

Marketing to children is already big business. Figures from the US indicate that in 1990 about US$100 million ($131 million) was spent on TV advertising targeted at children. A decade later that figure had risen more than 20-fold, to more than US$2 billion.

As the spend has increased, the vehicles for the marketing messages have multiplied.

Dr Fine says advertisers have switched their approach away from television and are making growing use of the marketing power of the internet. Any net user will have encountered video inserts and _ particularly where children are concerned _ attractive advertising games known as "advergames".

The advertiser's product is built-in to these games _ as in the case of our friend Sam the Toucan. An approach that has proved influential with young players.

If Toucan Sam is not your child's idea of a fun time, they could try, for example, the Barbie Doll site _ which offers youngsters the chance to "think pink", as they dress their electronic dolls and watch them sprout wings.

If children are not seduced by that method, there are always the "brand pushers",

young people recruited to promote products to their friends and peers without disclosing the commercial nature of their role.

"We need more research into children's capabilities, but one obvious solution is to restrict the use of more covert forms of marketing," Dr Fine says. "At the very least, kids should know when they're being marketed to.

"There are really a few issues here. One is that parents often find certain marketing techniques particularly hard to deal with because of the pestering that they elicit _ such as free toys that come with fast food, or when breakfast cereals, snack foods and so on are `endorsed' by a much-loved character like Shrek.

"Often the products are unhealthy, or they may just be more expensive but are brilliantly designed to create what psychologists term `parent-child conflict', and parents call `an ugly scene' in the supermarket.

"This can make parenting a harder job on the day-to-day level," Dr Fine says.

"What the research is increasingly showing is that the conflict ... can be very damaging to the relationship and to the child's self-esteem."

There is also concern that the sheer volume of marketing to children is making kids more materialistic.

"The recent study, `Watching, Wanting and Wellbeing', by Agnes Nairn and others, of more than 500 9- to 13-year-old British schoolchildren, found that watching led to wanting _ and to the detriment of wellbeing.

"Greater materialism in the kids was linked with lower self-esteem, and this seemed to be because of family dynamics: the children had less positive attitudes towards their parents and argued with them more often.

"A third issue is when parents feel that certain products are being marketed to kids at too young an age.

"New advertising formats directed at kids link brands or products with rewarding stimuli like friends, celebrities, pop songs or shows. One issue is to what extent children recognise more covert or `stealth' marketing methods.

"They are evolving fast, and the research hasn't really kept up. But if advertising can persuade in ways that bypass conscious awareness and rational reflection, as research suggests that it might, then even being able to spot a subtle marketing message may not help kids too much.

"And in fact, growing evidence suggests that older, more media-savvy children are no less influenced by advertising than their younger, more naive counterparts.

"Quite young children find food tastier if they eat out of a McDonald's package."

Older, more sceptical youngsters have often been thought to be better at resisting marketing appeals. However, advertisers are often using "very emotional forms of advertising" and are not just using persuasive information, but aim to link a branded product with a "positive emotional feeling".

University of Otago professor Sarah Todd, co-leader of the university's Consumer Research Group, says she shares the concerns expressed by many about the ability of children and young people to understand "what is really being said in advertisements" and how the marketplace really works.

"Children today are undoubtedly subjected to far more marketing pressure than were previous generations," Professor Todd says. There is a need for more updated research, she says, particularly given the strong influence of peer pressure on children.

Bans on the TV advertising of "junk food" have been introduced in other countries but there is mixed evidence as to their effectiveness, Professor Todd says. Instead, children's defences continue to be overrun by the all-out assault on their senses.

"I believe, is that it's not enough to tell kids that they can't trust the marketing message _ usually there isn't a `message' as such to trust anyway," says Professor Todd. "What kids need to realise is that they can't trust their own feeling about the product, because it's been influenced by the advertising. That sort of media-literacy training might be more effective _ but probably only above a certain age."

The marketing issue for families is not simply whether the product is healthy, she says.

There have been some attempts to address the situation by using the advertisers' own tricks to peddle a healthier message. For example, the Australian children's pop group The Wiggles has been used to promote healthy food products to youngsters. But there, too, are difficulties. Affordability is another big part of the picture. Branded products are often significantly more costly than equally good but cheaper generic products that parents might prefer to buy, Dr Fine says.

They just might not make your children love you.


* Cordelia Fine's public lecture, Who's messing with my mind?, is on July 6 at the University of Otago from noon to 1pm.

Advertisers oppose mandatory ban

Association of New Zealand Advertisers chief executive Jeremy Irwin strongly rejects suggestions that advertisers are exploiting children and families.

He also rejects the idea that mandatory regulations should be used to control marketing, and points to the voluntary restrictions recently agreed on by the New Zealand free-to-air broadcasters.

Advertisers, manufacturers and others have done a "huge" amount of work through the Food Industry Group to help produce healthier food, Mr Irwin says.

The advertisers' association is taking a responsible attitude and working closely with the Ministry of Health and the Government to respond constructively to concerns about obesity and the need for healthier eating, he says.

Mr Irwin queries whether mandatory regulations are the best way of resolving conflicts within families.

Advertisements on the internet are also required to meet officially approved standards, officials say.

Under the television broadcasting agreement, commercials for "unhealthy" food and drinks will be banned during time zones for children aged 5 to 13, defined by broadcasters as:

* TV2: Monday to Friday, 7am-8.35am; 3.30pm to 5pm; Saturday, 7am to 10am

* TV3: Monday to Friday, 7-9am

* Maori Television: Monday to Friday, 4.30pm-6pm; Saturday, 5pm-6pm.

From July 1, new food or beverage advertisements shown at children's viewing times must be approved under the Children's Food Classification System, with all advertisements to comply by October 1.

The judgment about what constitutes an "unhealthy" food and whether such products can be aired during these times will be made by the Television Commercial Approvals Bureau or a nutrition consultant.

Approvals bureau general manager Richard Prosser says the children's zone restrictions are not intended as a panacea and some children will watch advertisements outside this time.

However, the zone period offers an "oasis" for parents, knowing their children can safely watch unsupervised during those times and parents themselves can give guidance if children are watching with their families at later hours, Mr Prosser says.

Broadcasters will also provide free screenings of public health messages encouraging healthier eating by children, during the kids' zones, he says.




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