Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday - How Can Parents Say No?

In a recent book, Anthony Bourdain describes his personal anti-campaign against Ronald McDonald: "Ronald smells bad," I say every time he shows up on television or [on a sign] out of the car window. "Kind of like... poo!" He goes on to discuss how McDonalds and other mass-media marketing works because it plays on a child's biggest fear: the fear of being an outsider, fair game for teasing or being picked on.

Corporate Accountability International has also mounted a campaign against Ronald McDonald, stating that “Today we’re clowning around to call attention to the need for McDonald’s to stop clowning with kids’ health,” said Deborah Lapidus, senior organizer with Corporate Accountability International. “Whether it’s the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity or individual middle-America moms, there is a growing conviction that retiring Ronald – and the wide range of predatory marketing his success has spawned – is an essential part of the public health solution to today’s crisis.”

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood discusses the pervasive new technique known as ad creep: cross-marketing, where several branded products are presented simultaneously, and how new types of marketing are bringing the fight directly to kids' homes and schools.  For instance, The Girls Intelligence Agency enlists girls as “Secret Agents” who invite their friends to branded slumber parties, using peer pressure to engage 8-29 year-old-girls in marketing products.  In the game Everquest II, players can order delivery of a real-world Pizza Hut pizza by inputting a command code while they are playing.  A Florida school district had contracted with McDonalds to offer incentive ads on childrens' report cards (which they later withdrew) and is piloting a radio program for their school bus system, which offers a mix of advertising, music, and PSAs.

I have already previously discussed the link between marketing and obesity, and how parents can educate their children on how marketing works - but how do we teach parents to say no?  While I can only assume Mr. Bourdain's quote above is hyperbole, simply saying no to children is not easy; the social ramifications they face are quite real.  When Parents Say No: Resisting Children’s Consumer Desires, a study by Dr. Allen Pugh, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, looked at outlier parents who seemed able to resist the pull of marketing.  Dr. Pugh studied two sets of parents: one group whose children attended expensive private schools, and another group whose children were in an afterschool program for low-income families. 

Dr. Pugh found that affluent families who were able to resist commercialism had "...a sense of themselves and their families as outsiders, with superior customs and practices – so that the family’s difference was not only different, it was better...Second, parents who resist must have a competing cultural idea, or frame, that enables them to withstand their child’s potential social ostracism or other repercussions by suggesting something else is more important."  The low-income family also used their differences to resist marketing: as immigrants, their culture positioned parents as the only family decision-makers, and they simply did not respond to their child's pleas for toys or games.  They cited their cultural difference as a reason not to participate in consumerism.

In both situations, parents who promote their family's unique values and philosophy as more important than their child's acceptance in a social circle tended to have more success in resisting advertising and marketing.  This is a particularly difficult stance to take as a parent: no one wants their child to be a social outcast.  Unfortunately, Dr. Pugh's study does not further discuss the ramifications of losing social dignity beyond childhood, nor does it discuss how children manage to cope with being "different."  However, it is clear that, unless outside forces reduce the marketing onslaught, to withstand it means you must be willing to cause your child some distress.

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