Comments by Sue Palmer   

Marketing is all around us, but to what extent are children susceptible and manipulated by this medium?

Sue Palmer feels it is has the potential to destroy childhoods, and equivilates to a bygone practice of child exploitation.



It was a nasty place, Victorian Britain. To keep the Industrial Revolution rolling, poor children were dispatched down mines, up chimneys, into dark Satanic mills. But then, as the industrialists pointed out, there was no alternative.

Child labour kept the economic miracle going. Parents didn’t object – after all, poor families needed the money, and the better-off had a vested interest in the system. So when do-gooders complained, there was an obvious reply: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ 

However, the do-gooders persisted, and public opinion changed. People noticed that child exploitation isn’t attractive in a civilized society. And when politicians at last took action, it turned out there were alternatives. Improving children’s physical and material well-being didn’t destroy the British economy. 

A couple of hundred years on, the health, safety and material comfort of children are at the top of the political agenda. Rich or poor, they’re kept super-safe at school and super-safe at home. Surrounded by the fruits of economic growth, 21st century children are materially wealthy – even the poorest have their Ipods and Playstations. 

But now the do-gooders have started complaining again, this time about children’s ‘social and emotional well-being’, including the ill-effects of competitive consumerism on mental health. A recent government report by Professor David Buckingham on “The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Well-being,” was commissioned to address growing concern that British children are the unhappiest in the developed world (UNICEF report 2007), while our teenagers’ problems with drink, drugs, promiscuity, depression and other mental health issues are amongst the worse in Europe. 

The reasons behind these developments (what I’ve called ‘toxic childhood syndrome’) are complex, but ten years’ research into the subject leaves me in no doubt that hyper-aggressive marketing, beamed directly at children, is heavily implicated. Now that corporate marketers recognise the huge potential of pester power (not just for selling children’s products, but for all family purchases), children are targeted by advertisers from birth.

The resultant bombardment means marketers increasingly undermine parental authority and cause tensions within the family, whilst simultaneously infiltrating and controlling children’s own playground culture. Most disturbing of all, they lure children from toddlerhood into a sedentary screen-based existence which is bad for both physical and mental health – but great for grooming the next generation of ‘super-consumers’. 

The psychologists who inform market practice know – as the Jesuits knew before them – that ideological messages absorbed before the age of seven are extraordinarily powerful. But by selling tiny children the idea that ‘happiness = consumption’ the market sows the seeds of mental ill-health. Scientific research is clear on this point: for human beings, happiness does not come from acquiring more and more stuff. Given a reasonable level of material comfort, it results from satisfying relationships with friends and family, enjoyable engagement in worthwhile activities, and a feeling of having some degree of control over one’s existence. 

The Buckingham report, however, scarcely touches these hugely important issues, especially the blatant exploitation of very young children’s minds. Instead, it takes a position similar to the apologists for mine – and factory-owners two centuries ago: doesn’t seem much to worry about… would need more research… kids and parents seem OK with things as they are… marketing is an important part of commercial practice… consumerism is here to stay. In short, it’s the economy, stupid. 

As one of the ‘do-gooders’ whose concern led to the report, I’m obviously disappointed at its findings and emphasis. It refers at length to improvements in children’s physical health, safety and comfort – which, of course, are important elements in raising healthy children. But it ignores other hugely significant factors of a ‘good childhood’, factors that are anathema to an economic mind-set. 


Just as in the Industrial Revolution, our consumerist revolution has emphasized over community, devalued the concept ofcare‘, widened the gap between rich and poor and seriously damaged child-rearing practices.”



Love, talk, song, stories, play and parental discipline are all free. While they’re much more important to children’s development than consumer durables, they can never be bought and sold – indeed, they may take up valuable parental time that could be spent in production and consumption. As long as our culture, our government and our official report-writers remain locked in this materialistic worldview, childhood – like much else about our society – will continue to be toxic. 

The report predictably describes childhood campaigners like me as hankering after ‘a non-existent golden age of childhood’. But since we’re perfectly capable of reading history books, we’re well aware that childhood has never been perfect. Our point is that a civilized society, well-informed by science about children’s developmental needs, should be doing everything possible to achieve this ‘golden age’ in the future. 

But the history books also show that rapid social and cultural change – driven by new technology and the forces of human greed – can skew a national value system. Just as in the Industrial Revolution, our consumerist revolution has emphasized selfishness over community, devalued the concept of ‘care’, widened the gap between rich and poor and seriously damaged child-rearing practices. It’s also trapped the political and commercial classes into that same old stupefying economic paradigm, unable to point the way out of the mess. 

However, there are signs that ordinary men and women are beginning to realize – just as they did last time round – that it’s not just the economy that counts. Human qualities like trust, honour, kindness and consideration matter every bit as much in creating a successful society. 

Take the reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal. If the electorate just admired money-making skills they’d be awash with admiration at politicians’ ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. But since they actually want elected representatives who are honourable and trustworthy, they’re enraged by smart-arsed exploitation of fiscal rules. 

At the moment, the parents of Britain don’t know about the smart-arsed exploitation of their children’s minds by market forces, because it’s a new phenomenon and the marketers sneak in under their radar. But once they find out, they’ll expect government support in stopping this latest manifestation of child exploitation. 

The simplest solution is to ban marketing to children under twelve (as has been done in Sweden). Deprived of their soft infant targets, marketers would soon find other ways to keep the commercial world rolling, so the economy wouldn’t collapse. In fact, if we take positive action to provide a good childhood for the next generation, it – along with other important aspects of life and culture – is much more likely to flourish.