Targeting kids as consumers is harmful

This is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I believe in my heart that Sharon Cuneta is a great person. I don’t know her personally and I haven’t had the pleasure or being within 10 feet of the megastar. If I were an average movie fan, I would probably be a die-hard Sharonian—she strikes me as genuinely nice, warm, intelligent, talented and real. Having said that, let me now put her to task for allowing her two young daughters to appear in those television advetisements that hawk fast-food fare and a brand of medicine for kids.

Since I don’t get to watch television at daytime, I am not exposed to the advertisements that are shown before primetime. But I knew something was wrong when I had three young nieces with ages ranging from four to six in my car a couple of weeks ago. We happened to pass by this fast-food outlet and they immediately started singing. I thought it was a new pop hit so I asked them whose song it was. They chorused “Frankie” and sung the song again. It turns out that the song is featured in the TV ad of that fast-food featuring the megastar and her daughter Frankie.

Needless to say, I got suckered into dropping by that fast-food and treating the kids to greasy food that I knew was not healthy regardless of Sharon and Frankie’s testimonial.

I got to watch that advertisement eventually as well as that other one featuring the youngest daughter (Miel, I think) this time hawking kids’ medicine. I have also seen those ads featuring the offspring of celebrities Marjorie Barretto and Ruffa Gutierrez Bektas (for a milk product), the twins of Aga and Charlene Muhlach (for another fast-food chain), and even those of Zoren Legaspi and Carmina Villaroel (for yet another milk product).

I am sure that these celebrities think that there is no harm in allowing their kids to appear on television to endorse products. The fact that they earn money in the process is a plus factor. No harm done? Think again.

Targeting kids as consumers is not exactly ethical, particularly when the value of the products in question is debatable.

I don’t want to argue with fast-food chains on the nutritional value of their products. We all know, though, that fast-food fare is not good for kids. Let us call a spade a spade and come to terms with this basic fact: Fried burgers, sugar-coated spaghetti, fries swimming in oil, cola and artificially sweetened fruit juices are unhealthy, particularly when ingested frequently. Exposing children to fast-food fare leads to obesity and we know to what condition that eventually leads. And we are not even factoring in financial costs yet.

And what about milk products? I know that drinking milk is good for children. But contrary to the claims of certain advertisements, milk alone cannot provide the whole range of nutrient needs of children. When advertising packages milk as an alternative to eating other kinds of food, then we are in serious trouble.

But over and above the debate on nutrition is the issue of advertising directed at kids.
I am going to run into trouble with some friends who are in the advertising industry with this piece again but we must discuss this alarming trend in Philippine advertising. We seem to be targeting kids more and more as consumers.

It does not take a psychologist to tell us that kids are very impressionable and at a certain age (before the age of eight, if I remember my child psychology correctly), they are not able to make the distinction between advertisements and reality. Being exposed to advertisements that target them can create a wrong concept of the world around them. They can grow up with a distorted and exaggerated view of the world—one where material things and ephemeral pleasures take precedence over important values. We should be teaching kids to become responsible citizens, not to become consumers.

The use of celebrity kids further aggravates the problem because when celebrity kids endorse products, these products automatically earn the status of being cool and desirable. It is difficult to teach kids about the harmful effects of certain products or explain to them why they can’t have certain pleasures when celebrity parents are shown on television recommending or enjoying them together.

The pernicious effect of advertising directed at children is that we create consumers out of them at a very early age. And we know what consumerism brings—we begin defining ourselves based on consumerist images. One is not “in” unless one patronizes this brand or that brand, one does not fit in unless one is wearing this or that brand. Imagine the social catastrophe when kids acquire these wrong notions of personal identities at a very early age.

Targeting children in advertising seems a good business strategy because children do have persuasive powers particularly at a time when social guilt among parents is quite high. Because more parents work away from home, they make up for the guilt by giving in to their children’s wishes.

The fast-food ad of Sharon Cuneta and her daughter Frankie has another facet to it that begs scrutiny. It is an ad that capitalizes on a “shared experience” or in more popular parlance, “bonding moment” between a mother and child. The fact that the ad is presented from the point of view of the daughter presents complications. Frankie’s song says “it is only here in this fast-food that she sees her mother so happy.” This effort to imbed certain products as an integral part of the Filipino way of life is problematic because children begin to grow up with a materialistic perspective of the elements of Philippine culture.

To be fair, another fast-food chain is more blatantly upfront in this area. As a result, and I am talking from personal experience here, children grow up thinking that happiness and fun are synonymous with going to this fast-food chain. One of my nephews actually insisted that his birthday party be held at this fast-food chain, otherwise it wouldn’t be a real birthday party. I am sure this phenomenon is becoming more and more prevalent as the distinction between our real culture and that created by advertising becomes increasingly blurred, particularly in the eyes of impressionable children.

In many countries, advertising directed at children is actually banned. It is sad that in our country, the practice is flourishing and our regulators seem to be turning a blind eye to the phenomenon.

Since our regulators are not doing anything about it and business seems bent on pursuing this trend of turning children into consumers at an early age, parents will just have to work harder to counter the negative effects of advertising. Unfortunately, when you are up against someone like Sharon Cuneta, the odds are heavily stacked against you.


vic said…
Why can’t Sharon Cuneta do what most Celebrities do, use their influence in promoting common good or some higher purpose. Ms Pamela Anderson made her fame in some dubious means, others would argue, but talented just the same, is now the spokesperson for PETA (people for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and even Sir Paul McCartney , even in my view in some way is somewhat misguided, is helping the Green Peace against the Seal Hunt in Eastern Canada.

And I don’t believe in Protesting against Sharon using her Children for promoting Unhealthy Food for Children is unsurmountable task. Like they say, no man (or woman) is an island. Miss Cuneta may not realized that what she’s doing, is not only harmful to the Children health, but also putting pressure on parents to be complicit on their children early health problems.

I also believe that once Ms Cuneta found out the influence of her Children’s commercial and the risks it causes, she will be reasonable enough to re-consider pulling out the ads..
UAP students said…
Hi Mr. Austero,

We are students from the University of Asia and the Pacific taking up Communication Ethics.

Through the process of our research, we stumbled upon your article. Your article spoke true of the underlying effects of advertising on children and inspired us to come up with our project. We are going to create a blog devoted to learning about the relationship between advertising and children, particularly in the mediums of internet and television. We wish to ask you to take part in this activity by giving us permission to put up your article in our blog. In doing so, we can disseminate more information with regard to our cause and help provide parents the adequate knowledge in protecting their children.

Thank you!

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