Dissertation Marketing Ethics
1. Rationale (p.2-4)
2. Investigative Questions (p.4)
3.1 What is Pester Power? (p.5)
3.2 How does pester power work and how is it used? (P.5-6)
4.1 The Swedish Case (p.6-7)
4.2 Benefits of a possible European Ban (p.7-8)
4.3 Implications of possible European Ban (p.8-9)
5. Conclusions & Recommendations (p.10-11)
6. Bibliography & References (p.12-13)
Marketing to Children: An investigation into the ethical issues surrounding television advertising aimed at children
In recent times, the children’s market has shown huge commercial potential. The buying power of children and there impact on parents decision making is increasing. This is in part due to social changes such as higher disposable income of the working adult, and the trend which suggests that parents supply their children with more spending money as a compensation factor for not being able to spend as much time with them.
This is area controversial topic which has seen extensive coverage in the media more and more in recent times. The topic has sparked huge debate between the retail industry regulators and consumers themselves and is a topic which has many opinions surrounding the ethical issues. In Britain many new rules have been implemented to govern the broadcasting of adverts aimed at children and the times in which these adverts are shown. Although this has become more of an issue in recent times the evidence and research behind this topic is conflicting and vague. The majority of the research is centred on the highly topical issue of the nation’s health and the link between ‘junk’ foods adverts aimed at children and the increasing obesity levels with which the government is struggling to control.
As to whether marketing to children is ethical, Burt, M (March, 2003) state that, ‘It depends how strongly you assert the right to freedom of expression. Communicating in itself can be a force for real good’. After this statement he goes on to describe instances where companies and organisations marketing products and services to children can be of huge benefit, for example grass roots sports. This is an area which many overlook, focusing more on areas where a child’s lack of knowledge and experience is abused, which indirectly affects parents, for example toy and confectionary adverts.
The need for further research within this area is important. As stated by Macklin (1999) ‘Advertising has been increasingly called upon to communicate with this market, reflected with a 50% increase in child-directed media from 1993 to 1996 alone’. Although these are not recent statistics it shows the increasing emphasis on companies to take advantage of what may be a very vulnerable, yet profitable demographic. This is again supported by an article from the media awareness network which states, ‘Industry spending on advertising to children has exploded in the past decade, increasing from a mere $100 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in 2000’ (“How marketers target kids”, 2008)
An article written by Pike and Jackson (2006) looks into the affect public relations marketing have on children and the ethical issues surrounding this. After research into the toys industry they found that, ‘Industry interviews suggest that in the pursuit of profit maximisation, the actions of the toy industry are justified as ethical. In contrast, the survey of wider public opinion identified that such promotional activities were perceived to be unethical’ Pike and Jackson (2006). This type of research gives more of an insight to the widely varying opinions of the marketers themselves and the parents whose children they target.
Although a large body of findings have accumulated over more than 25 years of research, few attempts have been made to summarise this literature in a comprehensive manner (Macklin, 1999). The area of research is also very vague, mainly due to the wide range of research areas involved. From looking at the psychological issues of the children themselves and the impact they have on the buying decision making process to the actual strategies the companies take on while promoting their products and the ethical issues surrounding them. All of which have conflicting opinions, all with credible arguments.
When looking at the main ethical issues behind marketing towards children, I have found the main issues are firstly whether the marketers intentionally abuse children’s naivety and secondly whether children actually are that susceptible to the messages being aimed at them.
According to Cowell (2001) there are four main socialising agents, which directly impact on child development and specifically upon their consumer socialisation. These being, parent and schools, which mainly impact on their educational development, and in the context of society, peers, television and other media, whose main impact is through social interaction. . “Consumer socialization refers to the process by which young people obtain skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to their functioning as consumers in the market place”. (Cowell, 2001, p.72).
This type of research looks at how the child themselves react and learn from messages they are subjected to. This is an area which has had considerable of research, and leads onto issues of ‘Pester Power’ by children, a topic which suggests that not only is it possible for the parent to be the only main influencer in decision making, but that reverse socialisation can occur whereby parents learn from their children. This is an area where much less attention has been shown and will be discussed in more detail later.
The last area of investigation which I feel needs much more research are where steps being taken to limit the amount of advertising children are subjected too. Although research into the ethics of aiming advertisements at children is apparent, there is limited research on whether taking steps to stop child directed marketing is beneficial to children or marketers for that matter.
In Sweden the government has stepped up its attempts to protect children by banning all TV adverts centered on children, and this is now being considered by the European Union as a possible step forward for all EU coefficients. A report by Bjurstrom on the effects of TV advertising on children looks into the area in detail and specifically how advertisements influence children and looks at different types of products which they can be subjected to. The influences on children through TV advertising is a huge factor which was considered when the ban was introduced in Sweden as this can input negative and harmful ideas into child’s mindset, for example ideas on smoking and the tobacco industry. If children cannot distinguish between fantasy and real life or more specifically an advert and a TV show this could be detrimental. “One significant result of this research is that children, especially young children, literally believe what advertisements say about products.” (Bjurstrom, 1994, P.22). Again this is an area where there is research on the affects on the children, but limited emphasis on the benefits and implications on banning advertisements aimed at children.
The following report will present an insight into the ethics behind marketing aimed at children. Although this is a vast subject area, the focus will be on TV advertising and whether or not it is ethically right to advertise directly to children. I will conduct this investigation by looking at 3 different areas which will give me a broad of results and opinions and allow me to come to conclusions in relation to ethical advertising directed at children.
1. To what extent does the creation of ‘Pester Power’ pose an ethical issue on marketers in today’s society?
2. In Sweden there is a total ban on TV adverts directed at children. Should the UK follow suit and what are the benefits/implications of such a move?
What is ‘Pester Power’?
Pester power has been defined by the Director General of the Advertising Association as ‘a pejorative term for children making requests of their parents’ (Brown 2004)
A more simplistic definition is put forward by Proctor & Richards (2002) as, ‘Pester power, the ability children have to nag their parents into purchasing items they would otherwise not buy’. This is the simple definition, which many would disagree with, but essentially the main concept of the term.
Essentially Pester Power has led to children actively playing a part in the family unit and more specifically the important role of decision making. Children today can often have integral roles within the decision making process, often acting as initiators and influencers on their parents purchases. In some cases it is thought that children now have so much power that some families are becoming Child-led. Proctor & Richards (2002) continue to explore this hypothesis ‘Growing sociological trends in family structures such as more single parent households and growing numbers of working parents may also influence the parent-child relationship. It is a popular view that children in these family structures may take on an increased influential role in the family decision making process’.
It is widely accepted that in today’s society children have a role to play in the purchase decisions within the family unit, but just how significant is this and how strong is their influence.
How does Pester Power work and where is it used?
The idea of pester power or the ‘nag factor’ as it is called by many, is used in a wide range of purchase decisions, from the choice of breakfast cereal purchased to even the model of car the parent drives. Malhotra et al (2002) explain that, ‘We have seen from previous work that children influence the brand of cars their parents drive, the food that is selected for their household shopping and even take the lead, in some cases, when influencing technology in the home’
Morales (2000) explain that ‘Children clearly have an important role to play in the parental purchase decision, but their contribution to sales varies by product category. It is also reasonable to conclude that since brand characteristics are variable, the impact of marketing to children must also vary by brand’.
Understanding this is therefore vital for all marketing and advertising firms/departments, as it now seems that knowledge in the area is vital for success.
The subject of food and childhood obesity is one which has divulged a high level of public interest in modern society, and is a topic which fails to escape the theory of Pester Power. Ward and Wackman (1972) found ‘purchase influence attempts’ varied with product type, occurring most often with respect to food. With such high levels of return riding on successful implementation of ‘Pester Power’ type advertising, more emphasis and money is now being put into research and development if these concepts.
The controversial issue that companies face when embarking on use of these methods of advertising is one of ethics. Is it right to target these impressionable age groups? This is a question which has varying opinions. ‘The argument here is that, by advertising to children, companies are encouraging the child to nag their parents into buying something that is not good for them, they don’t need or the parent cannot afford’ (Spungin, 2004. pp.38). The debate on this topic often centres on ‘junk’ food and how companies target these proven hazardous food products towards uninformed children. In 2003 research into the affects of pester power found that ‘One in three visits to a fast-food restaurant in 2003 may be attributed to the nag factor’ (Briesch and Bridge, 2003). This is obviously a problem for parents and society as a whole and an issue which requires public attention. It is obvious that if the fast food giants are able to exploit this area of advertising this problem will only become bigger. In the last two years (2006 and 2007) McDonalds have won successive ‘pester power awards’ from the parent’s jury committee an Australian committee which looks into advertising aimed at children (The parent’s jury, 2006/7). Although this is a spoof type award it does recognise the problem associated with fast food restaurants targeting children with free toys and gifts, which are strongly connected with the McDonalds happy meal.
Although it seems that many of the issues related to the theory of pester power are negative, there are some positive issue that arise from it. There are issue to just how effective it actually is when trying to persuade parents to buy products and if this level of persuasion could be used in a more beneficial way. Samson (2005) suggests that ‘Pester Power as a strategy for promoting foods to children in the future may only be permitted when applied to healthier products’. This is an idea which should pose many an opportunity for companies wishing to target children. If the success of the McDonalds happy meal for example can be so high, why is it not possible to move this theory to healthy foods for children? Could toys or free gifts not be connected to healthy food products and advertised in similar ways to create Pester Power for these types of products. It seems this is a huge opportunity for companies and one in which McDonalds have not missed out on. Recently a Telegraph article by Choueke (2007) reports that ‘McDonalds are now looking to go into business with the health conscious fruit drink producer Innocent. This shows evidence that even fast food outlets are moving with the times and trying to benefit from recent trend in health products.
There is also evidence to suggest that pester power is not all bad. Research has found that ‘mums often embraced and encouraged the involvement of children in the grocery purchase’ (Lawrence and Pilgrim, 2001) It was also the opinion of many parents that ‘This helps foster an understanding of the realities of shopping within constraints and indeed, getting the kids involved also ensured they were more likely to eat the product come the mealtime’ (Lawrence and Pilgrim, 2001)
Although the theory of pester power obviously has a part to play, it is essentially the parent who makes the final decision on whether the purchase is made or not. Research by Spungin (2004) has found that ‘Only 14% of those questioned said they agreed to let their children try a new product without vetting it’ and ‘In fact, 96% of parents agreed with the statement ‘It’s up to parents to explain [that children] can’t have everything they see advertised’. It is increasingly apparent throughout my investigation into this subject that although pester power plays a part in purchase decision making process within the family unit; it is essentially the parent who has the final say. Spungin (2004) also presents that ‘most parents don’t like bans. They don’t need to be protected from their children’, again providing evidence to support continued research in this area.
The Swedish Case
There is much deliberation into whether or not the banning of advertising aimed directly at children is the right move. The debate as to whether this type of advertising is right or wrong is in full swing and has been a topic of discussion for many years.
Canada and Sweden are often examples used when it comes to strict legislation on advertising to children, although they have very different media landscapes. ‘TV attracts only one-fifth of ads spend in Sweden, whereas in Canada it is much more dominant, coming a close second to newspaper advertising with 40.6 per cent’. (Plogell and Sundstrom, 2004)
Swedish advertisers are banned from producing TV advertising aimed at children under the age of 12. This involves products that may target this age group or adverts aired at times specifically for this age group. Sweden, which has had this ban in place since 1991, is at the forefront of efforts to protect children from the alleged harmful effects of advertising and marketing.
‘The ban is laid down in Sweden’s broadcasting legislation with the following wording: “A
Commercial with advertising that is broadcast during commercial breaks on the television must
Not have the purpose of attracting the attention of children under 12 years of age.’ (Bjurstrom, 1994. P.1)
The ban mainly affects the ‘Tv4’ channel, which is the only privately owned station available on terrestrial TV in Sweden. There are further restrictions on the use of characters and cartoons that children are familiar with until 9pm in the week and 10pm at weekends.
‘Nevertheless, the vague definition ‘aimed at attracting the attention of children under the age of 12’ can lead to uncertainties for advertisers’. (Plogell and Sundstrom, 2004). These uncertainties include, advertising of products for children but aimed at their parents and adverts aimed at adults but in a way which may be familiar to children. These are just two of the grey areas surrounding the ban imposed.
Although the Swedes continue this idea into many other areas of advertising; for examples rules on direct marketing, the main emphasis is on TV.
‘Sweden has unveiled its intention to drive through a ban on TV advertising to children throughout Europe when it takes over the presidency of the European Union in January 2001.’ (Dresden, 1999) although this type of move has its sceptics, it does on the other hand have increasing support.
Benefits of a possible European ban
Although there is much argument against the proposed bans on advertising directed at children across the EU, there is growing support for the implementation of tougher guidelines. Dresden (1999) states that ‘The National Food Alliance would like much tighter restrictions on food advertising to children, particularly in relation to ‘fatty and sugary foods’. The concentration on food advertising aimed at children is a topic of extensive research and seems to the area of highest concentration when talking about advertising aimed at children. De Bruin & Eagle (2000) go on to suggest, ‘It is commonly highlighted that the majority of foods advertised to children are ‘processed’, such as crisps, sweets, ice creams, and fizzy drinks. The preponderance of these foods is seen as not only undermining parents dietary preferences but also contributing to increasing weight and associated health problems among children’. There is continuing research into the connection between obesity and general health issues in children and the adverts aimed at them by the manufacturers/suppliers of these products.
A Daily Telegraph article written by Robert Uhlig (2003) says ‘Television advertising encourages unhealthy eating in children and probably plays a key role in obesity, the Food Standards Agency said yesterday in a “watershed” report on child nutrition’. This landmark report was at the forefront of efforts to ban junk food advertising aimed at children in the UK. Furthering from this research the British advertising regulators (Ofcom) have recently set tough new guidelines which now put the UK more in line with our Swedish counterparts. ‘There will be a total ban on ads during children’s programmes and on children’s channels, as well as adult programmes watched by a large number of children’ (“Junk food ad crackdown announced”, 2006) This is more proof that this issue is within the public interest and starting to be seen as a definite issue for concern. These measures by Ofcom which cover children’s programmes, channels and general programmes which appeal to younger audiences came into affect in January 2007. There were also crack downs on the use of celebrities, cartoon characters and free gifts in unhealthy foods aimed at children to coincide with this ban.
Although there is a strong emphasis on the food aspect of child advertising it is hard to see why this has not been continued to include toys for children. Obviously the health risks involved with ‘junk’ foods is one of importance and today is somewhat more of a popular topic in the news, but the financial implications and ethical issues surrounding toy adverts for children, especially around Christmas times has somewhat been overlooked. “More than ever, children are making decisions and voicing their desires at an increasingly early age,” says Claude-Yves Robin, general manager of the French children’s cable television network Canal J. (Dumont, 2001) This includes toys and similar products, yet no bans or similar strict guidelines apply. To add to this statement, research by Karen Pike into the correlation between children’s requests to Santa Claus and the adverts they are subjected too, found that ‘Overall, children who watched more commercial television were found to request a greater number of items from Father Christmas. These children also requested more branded items than children who watched less’. (Pike, 2002, p.530) It seems that although the UK has tightened up its guidelines and rules on food advertising aimed at children, they have failed to notice the links to the toys and games industry.
Implications and Arguments against a Possible Ban
Sweden as a nation leads the way in the march towards a total EU ban on advertising aimed at children. It seems to an extent that their lead has been gathering support from many of the member states, although there are still many which seem reluctant to get on board. The Swedes have received a certain amount of resistance to their ideas, not only from member states but advertising bodies and companies alike, ‘In response to the threat, the Advertising Association and similar bodies in Europe have joined forces to campaign against further restrictions. The Children’s Programme will spend the next two years tackling Sweden’s position. It aims to show that the majority of EU member states have more than adequate restrictions’ (Dresden, 1999). This is obviously a view from Sweden that has many implications not only on legislation, but financial complications and broadcasting issues across Europe. Dresden (1999) continues to explain that ’It is estimated that a ban on TV advertising to children across Europe would remove at least two billion Euros from European broadcasters’ revenue each year and would have a similarly drastic effect on the quality of children’s programmes’.
This moves on to highlight one of the biggest issues which not only has a financial impact but one of broadcasting in general, is the argument over quality of broadcasting. As suggested by Laver (2006) ‘A potential ban and the subsequent loss in revenue may undermine the likely investment in children’s programming on commercial television, reducing choice and innovation for younger audiences’. Laver’s main concern here is that without the huge capital gains by TV broadcasters from advertising deals the quality of children’s TV programming will suffer. This is a valid point, which has little research to date, but is certainly an area which will need to be overcome and will only continue to get worse if there is continued stringent legislation attached to advertising aimed at children.
Moving away from implications to the industry, the issue of the children’s well being and education must also be a factor. There are many conflicting arguments on the possible negative affects on children from advertising, some of which are explained above, but what are the implications of children being completely guarded from advertising? There is much support for the idea that children need to be aware of advertising and can even learn from it. Laver (2006) suggests that ‘It is arguable that a complete ban on advertising to children actually restricts an aspect of mass media that young children need to be aware of. An in-depth understanding and first-hand experience of advertising could equip children with the ability to negotiate their way around a commercialised social environment’. This is an idea which carries a certain degree of credibility. We live in a commercial world, where we all are subjected to high levels of advertising everyday. So should children be hidden away from this or left to make there own decisions. ‘Children who are exposed to advertising learn to decipher what advertisers are saying about their products, how they should be used and how they’re supposed to make them feel. In time they also learn to deal with the disappointment of not having everything they see advertised’ (Laver, 2006). This educational aspect is further backed up by Brown (2004) who explains that ‘Children are young consumers, interested in making choices and needing information about them. Everyone accepts they are potentially vulnerable and need special protection but that is not the same as trying to isolate them from the world in which they live’.
In the commercial world which we now live in the argument for education in this area is growing. A recent BBC3 programme (Tyler & Scott, 2008, March 12th) talks about the impact on child obesity through advertising and ‘The need for continued education’ in this area. Education is this area is a fairly new prospect but one which is gathering a high level of support.
Paul Jackson (2004) gives an insight into a new educational programme aimed at informing children about advertising called ‘Media Smart’. Jackson (2004) explains that media smart was ‘Launched in the UK in November 2002, Media Smart is a non profit media literacy programme for school children aged six to 11, focused on advertising. Funded by the advertising business in the UK, Media Smart develops and provides free educational materials to primary schools that teach children to think critically about advertising in the context of their daily lives’. This scheme involves helping children to appreciate the workings of advertising and educates teachers on how to develop children’s knowledge in this area. Jackson (2004) explains that ‘The group believes that advertising bans do not work, but that media literacy teaches children to understand and interpret advertising in the context of their daily lives’. The media smart scheme has a wide range of support including BSkyB, ITV and McDonalds to name a few. The scheme is now looking to expend into the rest of Europe and continue its growth onto a worldwide scale. They hope to introduce the British model to other European countries and eventually allow them to adapt this into their own model and continue the successful work already being achieved.
Within both of the issues investigated throughout this study project there are very varying opinions. Both issues have big ethical dilemmas within them. The one common factor between both topics is the idea that children now have a much bigger part to play within decision making units, whether it be as influencers on purchase decisions or as actual consumers themselves.
We live in a commercial world and this is even more evident than ever before. Brands and advertising certainly make for interesting investigation especially in such a new and evolving subject area. It is evident that the promoters of these brands have an increasing power on the consumer as understanding in the psychological effects are becoming more researched and therefore well known. The ethical issues that arise from this understanding are now much more of an issue than ever before also. There is no doubt that these companies need to realise the power they have and use it not only to their advantage but in a wise and responsible manner. As this building of trust between themselves, their brand and the consumer will inevitably be the making of a strong relationship long-term.
In regard to the use of Pester power in adverts aimed at children my investigation found surprising results. Before looking into this area I had the assumption that this would be wrong to a certain extent ethically. This it obviously a tool used to great benefit by many brands, especially within the food market. As explained above companies like McDonalds do use this type of advertising and promotion in a way which many would class as ethically wrong, although they do argue that their products are not harmful and can be part of a balanced diet. This may be the case but by promoting directly to children, a target market which have limited knowledge on the products and possible negative affects they can have on their health there is a strong argument that this should not be allowed. Although this type of advertising can seem from an outside perspective to be nothing but bad, it seems that the biggest plus point is to turn the tables and use this strategy for healthy food products. I feel this is an area which needs more research and is without doubt a huge opportunity for brands involved in the food industry. The theory behind it seems good enough, but is a question of whether in practice it will work. The research in the future needs to concentrate on the fact that children’s influence is growing. This can be both a positive and negative thing depending on how the marketers wish to move forward with their new found power. I feel this is where research and regulations need to be put into place, there is no doubt that there is a strong ethical dilemma here for the marketers and many companies will abuse the power they now have. It is important that in the future are implemented to make sure as much is possible is known about this concept and that children are not taken advantage of.
In conclusion to the Swedish case the most apparent finding was the huge confliction in theory behind the idea that there should be a total ban on advertising aimed at children. Again much of the debate centres on the food industry. There is strong research to back up a ban on this type of advertising but the facts show differing results. Although the UK now seems to have taken steps to regulate this type of advertising, I feel that the use of a total ban would be heavy handed. Looking at the research which has been carried out in this area it seems that although there is an agreement on the naivety and vulnerability of young children it is also apparent that we live in a growing commercial world. Blocking children from this type of advertising at a young age can leave them without the skills needed to understand these messages in the future. A total ban is not what parents want and is not the correct way to handle the problem. There is a need for tougher guidelines and more stringent monitoring but to place a total ban is not the way forward here.
When looking at this area of study the concentration around ethics is often aimed at the food industry as stated above. My main concern here is that if there was to be tough guidelines put in place over unhealthy foods why does this not move onto other products aimed at children. The toy industry should also have a lot to answer for the way it advertises its products also. This is an area where there is much less research and evidence.
The financial implications of total bans may also outweigh the perceived gains. The loss in revenue would hit the program makers had and I have no doubt affect the quality of programming.
This issue is one which needs continued testing and research on the long-term affects. There is concentrated research on the immediate affects on children but little on the long-term benefits/implication on both the children, parents and the industry.
Although I feel a total ban would be a heavy handed approach, and one which in the UK will struggle to be taken seriously, it is obvious the need for closer monitoring and stricter guidelines is paramount.