We love awards in advertising and awards motivate agency behavior and recommendations. Perhaps it is time for Cannes to have a new award. An award for the most accurate, careful and ethical use of advertising. Not PSA’s, but an award for consumer brands that have decided to take into consideration all the potential effects of their marketing and have built a plan that carefully avoids abusing the power of advertising. This would need to be the pinnacle of achievement. So what is nicer than titanium? Unobtainium? Kryptonite? Crystal? I sort of like that. Crystal clear. No blemishes. And here is what I’d like to see entered next year.
Advertising to adults is not without controversy. And although I’m concerned about consuming for consumption’s sake, I am able to see the role advertising plays in moving our economy forward and the benefit to society that can be created. However, when it comes to advertising to children, it’s much more difficult to find any redeeming value created by the activity. In fact, to the contrary, it is easy to see how destructive the process is to most of us.
First, let’s take a few words to get into the brain of a child. As we all know from experience, children are not small grownups. Their brains are fundamentally different, the big difference being that right hemisphere brain development doesn’t really kick in until the age of twelve. This is important because without the right hemisphere involved, all decisions and concepts are very black and white. If you have kids, you’ve experienced this: The child that learns at school that drinking can be dangerous and suddenly thinks that glass of wine is going to kill dad. All things go into a category of good or bad; there are no grey areas for children. And this leaves them fundamentally and developmentally unequipped to deal with advertising in the way an adult can. If you sit with a child and watch TV commercials, you will notice how vigorously effective the messages are. “I want that.” “Can I have that?” “I need that.” These words come out of their mouths with seemingly every message, and they mean it and they believe it and they are defenseless against it. And that is the issue.
So what if we stopped it? What if we decided that advertising to children was something none of would engage in anymore? Perhaps because we legislate it, or perhaps because we just decide to police ourselves. We can get into the how a bit later. But what if we stopped? What would happen? A lot of things would happen and almost all seem to be for the good of society.
Let’s start with mom and dad and the relationship with their kids. Without the messages suggesting to kids that they eat differently than how mom and dad would like them to eat, trips to the grocery store and meals at home would almost certainly contain dramatically less complete and total meltdowns. Imagine a relationship with kids where moms and dads aren’t caving in to the constant pressure their kids apply to get what they want. Helping to create this pressure is why companies advertise to a group of people who have neither jobs nor income. And it is working. More than 10 percent of 12 to 13-year-olds admitted to asking their parents more than 50 times for products they have seen advertised. That fact alone should get every parent to sign a petition. For the potential to have a little quiet time, if nothing else. But the statistics go beyond bugging mom and dad and into a much sadder place. More than half of children surveyed (53%) said that buying certain products makes them feel better about themselves. This is a pattern we all need less of, not more. So a ban on advertising to kids would improve the child-parent dynamic, as well as improve our kids’ self-esteem. So far, so good.
But without all this ad-supported revenue there would be much less programming developed and broadcast for children. Whole networks like Nick might cease to exist. Horror of horrors! Children would be forced off the couch and made to think of new ways to entertain themselves. Some of those games might include moving the body. These days they would probably just go online or play video games but at least that takes a bit of interaction. Kids would mourn the demise of the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, but they’d get over it. So I guess I can live with that, too.
But a ban would mean less dollars for the advertising industry. Oh, lord we can’t have that! Well, in my experience this isn’t really what happens. The dollars get moved; they don’t go away. Now, if you specialize in advertising to kids then, yes, your business would be a casualty. My bet is, those people would find their talents put to use in ways they would actually prefer in the end. The advertising industry as a whole doesn’t all agree and in fact, get quite excited, about doing even more adverting to children. Chinese children.
In his book, Kids as Customers, James McNeal estimates that there are about three quarters of a billion children in other industrialized countries: “Letting one’s marketing imagination run wild for a moment, if these children spend only half of what U.S. children spend, their market potential would be equal to around $86.5 billion.” When this kind of money is involved ethics and morality often become more difficult to measure.
Sweden, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Belgium all have bans on advertising to children under 12. It is interesting to note that in Sweden, the reason given is the way a child’s brain works, it is “not fair play.” I agree. But even in Europe where bans do exist, the amount of money involved has made progress slow and sometimes nonexistent. A proposed ban in the UK was blocked as recently as ‘08. The actual dollars spent advertising to children is difficult to come by and the figures I’ve been able to find vary, but a little over $15 billion annually is a moderate estimate. It is shocking to realize that is about 250% more than it was as recently as 1992. To me these numbers seem scary.
So, what about the companies that rely on advertising to kids as a way to drive sales? What happens to them? My sense is that they will be fine, too. They’ll probably sell a little less and they’ll probably have to make the products a bit healthier since it will be mom and dad that they’re trying to convince. But they will be fine. In fact, I think they’ll feel better. My old client at Burger King used to talk about pulling all the kids’ advertising as a way to garner some positive press and put pressure on McDonald’s to do the same, knowing that it was a much, much bigger part of McDonald’s business. My guess would be they debate this at McDonald’s, too, but I have no way of knowing that. The trouble that arises when ethics and money place pressure in opposite directions is that no company feels it can afford to go first. The loss of competitive advantage would be too much.
Then the question is one of adding a bit more pressure to the ethical side of the scale. I’ve been scratching my head for some potential solutions and it’s a sticky problem, but I’m not completely convinced it is hopeless just because market forces have proven that there is big money to be made by spending billions to influence our innocent and defenseless offspring. The first and most obvious solution is a ban not unlike other developed European nations. Our heavily lobbied politics makes this seem an unlikely scenario, at first glance. Unless the lobbyists were for some reason asked to do the opposite of what we might expect. It is actually beginning to make more sense for fast food lobbyists to actually ask for the ban. They need the publicity that puts them on the right side of these issues and, if legislation is created, it makes a new and even playing field where there is no disadvantage created.
Perhaps our own industry could lobby to stop the behavior. God knows advertising people need the good press.
Another potential bit of leverage might be for ethical and fair use of advertising to become a common way companies are rated. Today we see more and more data made available in the areas of a company’s impact on health, sustainability and the ethical treatment of workers and even animals. How about ethical treatment of our most precious resource? Our children. What is your score on fair and ethical use of advertising? This can be measured and quantified and it can become part of the buying decision. Not just for people with children, but for all consumers. Advertisers would reconsider quickly if they noticed that people we’re buying their product as adults because they advertised to kids.
So my hope for the 2011 Cannes Crystal award is some brilliant agency works with their client to pull all the advertising to children and takes home the Cannes Crystal Grand Prix Lion in the inaugural year. And that would be the end of that. Because as soon as you can win an award for it, we ad folk are all over that shit.
Most people in advertising have a list of categories they will and will not work on, and it evolves. My list has evolved and probably will continue to. At the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t work on any pharma. I probably would have worked on tobacco given the opportunity but luckily for me I got the opportunity to work against tobacco and I got one hell of an education in the process. My time working on TRUTH, the youth anti-tobacco campaign, taught me a lot about early brain development and soon I added to my personal list that I wouldn’t do any advertising that targeted kids (defined by most brain scientists as under 12). As we took on the BK account, we politely offered that we could not work on that part of their marketing. And in subsequent years declined multiple invitations to work on the kids business. Once one of our adult spots for Sponge Bob Squarepants (hard to believe, but young adults love Sponge Bob) was repurposed and re-edited by another agency to add toy footage and aired on Nick. I was livid and we got it pulled. The client owns the work, but pulled it out of respect for the relationship. We all work to bring our personal values in line with our professional life and there are shades of grey to these decisions. But shades of grey don’t exist in our society’s decision to allow millions to be spent targeting an audience that is literally and physiologically incapable of protecting and defending themselves from a message probably doesn’t have their very best interest at heart. It’s not a matter of the rightness or wrongness of the products being advertised. That is a grey area. But there are children and there are adults. And the duty of adults in society is to protect it’s children. And that is black and white.