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The balance of responsibility

In this age of integration, globalisation and commercial ubiquity, the question of who holds the responsibility for ensuring the well-being of our children has never been more pressing. The UK, for its part, is increasingly establishing the tone in setting guidelines, legislation and regulations that govern the way that modern children are exposed to the commercial world. And it's my hypothesis that we'll see similar types and levels of regulation taking hold around the globe in just a few short years.
February 2, 2010

In this age of integration, globalisation and commercial ubiquity, the question of who holds the responsibility for ensuring the well-being of our children has never been more pressing. The UK, for its part, is increasingly establishing the tone in setting guidelines, legislation and regulations that govern the way that modern children are exposed to the commercial world. And it’s my hypothesis that we’ll see similar types and levels of regulation taking hold around the globe in just a few short years.

Last June, the entire family marketing industry in the UK held its collective breath in anticipation of professor David Buckingham’s government-commissioned exploration of the impact of commercialism on children. And held it…And held it.

Buckingham did end up writing the report, but the government didn’t publish it last summer. I’m not sure why. At the time, no one seemed to want to tell me. Perhaps the report said something along the lines of, ‘Commercialism isn’t actually breeding a generation of violent idiots, Prime Minister. Actually, in the scheme of things, being a child right now isn’t so bad…’

Not to worry. I eventually received my copy by email just before Christmas, and according to Buckingham, there is a really unhelpful polarization occurring with this generation of kids. On the one hand, children are depicted as very media-savvy, and, on the other hand, they’re described as the defenseless victims of corporate greed. Surprise, surprise.

But at Kids Industries we spend our working lives talking to parents around the globe. The story is usually the same – parents aren’t nearly as fussed about the impact of commercialism on their kids as those in power seem to think they are.

In the hundreds of studies we have undertaken, the parents we interviewed have often said as long as the commercial messages aimed at their children are not exploiting them, there is no problem. These parents, smartly, talk of balance. They agree that too much is too much, and that a little of something every now and then never hurt anybody. Is the polarization Buckingham speaks of, in fact, evidence that this generation of kids isn’t being exploited? Is it possible that we have achieved balance already in our current system without the need to invoke further legislation?

I believe we are almost there. The six or seven stakeholder groups that fall on either side of the commercialization of childhood debate are what keep the commercial world of childhood moving ever-forward to a place where, pretty soon, we’ll establish equilibrium. To reach this point, however, each stakeholder group still needs to up its game.

NGO’s and nonprofit organizations have a huge responsibility to keep banging the drum for a reduction in commercialization. If it wasn’t for the likes of the CCFC (Centre for Commercial Free Childhood), there would be no debate and no coherent unified voice for those who have a different perspective. These organizations need to keep pulling at the shirt-tails of exploitative businesses, as it pushes ethical businesses to the top – and that’s got to be a good thing.

Governments need to listen properly, put agendas aside, and do what is right. They invariably say they’re doing just that, but lobby groups have very loud (and discreet) voices. Government has the responsibility to protect children when necessary and empower them when possible, which sometimes means affording them the respect necessary to make their own choices.

Teachers It’s not their job to teach children how to decode marketing messages. They don’t have the time. And yet this is what’s being asked of them. The idea being, teach media literacy, and then we’ll be able to advertise to children as much as we want. Nonsense. Education is about reading, writing and thinking. Teachers have the responsibility to educate our children, and if they tell us commercialism is hindering education, then we, the industry, have a responsibility to listen.

Parents Perhaps it’s not the changing face of childhood but the changing face of parenting that needs more attention. No one teaches us how to parent, and it’s different for every generation. Having said that, parents must take responsibility for the media and messaging their children consume. There is an off button on every device.

Public service broadcasters It’s not public service if it’s commercial, is it? An 11-minute preschool show airing on a pure PSB is about as effective an advertisement as it’s possible to create. And getting that show on-air in the first place is likely dependent on a co-pro deal that’s absolutely rooted in potential L&M numbers. In the UK, the BBC has a particular responsibility to provide engaging non-commercial content, but it can’t do that without acting as an advertising platform. Bit of a dichotomy, I’d say. But does it matter? Probably not, as the Beeb really does provide some of the best media experiences for children in the world.

Big corporations Some CEOs don’t mind skirting commercial regulations a little – it’s not difficult to see why a cereal manufacturer, for example, would place ads not permitted to air on kids channels in commercial slots on primetime shows that appeal to children. It’s not illegal. But is it right? Business has the responsibility to stop going through the motions and just get on with it. Companies need to realize that an issue as charged as our children’s wellbeing makes change absolutely necessary for their success in the coming decade.

Advertising and media agencies have to understand children better. Marketing strategies are very often devised and implemented by people far removed from children, with less than accurate or appropriate data on their target market. These agencies, instead, compensate by endeavoring to steal advantage, exploiting poor legislation or the even more fallible ‘guidelines’ for advertising to kids, which are an easy target. We need to improve this. They have a responsibility to stop advising clients how to circumvent the rules and just do the right thing.

Media is not currently consumed like it was when we were children. That’s progress and a jolly good thing, to be frank. But media owners have a responsibility to ensure that their power does not consume childhood itself and commercial gain does not supercede the provision of appropriate entertainment. If it’s not good for kids, it’s not good for business.

Finally, all of these groups have a responsibility to keep barking from their respective corners. It is only through continued debate and argument that we will progress to a place where we can all agree that we have achieved balance.

Gary Pope is a director at London-based Kids Industries (www.kidsindustries.com), a strategic family-brand consultancy whose clients include Disney Consumer Products, Pepsico and GlaxoSmithKline. You can reach him via email at gary.pope@kidsindustries.com.

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