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Kids aren't as corrupted by marketers as we think

Author David Buckingham says: ‘If you think about Harry Potter … it’s very hard to tell the difference between the marketing and the content.’

If child advocates aren't sounding the alarm over Dakota Fanning's Lolita-esque perfume ad, they're complaining about the department-store holiday campaigns that trigger pre-Christmas toy lust. Many have chosen kiddie consumerism as their machine to rage against, but are they fighting the right battle?

David Buckingham, the director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the University of London's Institute of Education, challenges popular thinking about child-targeted marking in his new book, The Material Child: Growing Up in Consumer Culture. Kids aren't as "corrupted" by marketers as we think, he says, and trying to shelter kids from ads is the wrong approach. He spoke to The Globe and Mail from his office in London.

Advocacy groups see children as vulnerable victims of the media, while marketers say they're very sharp, savvy consumers. You say they fall in-between.

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I'd say that there are some areas where you can say kids really genuinely are savvy. I think there's a lot of research that suggests kids understand how TV advertising works from a fairly young age. But the world of marketing to kids has changed quite significantly. A lot more electronic forms of marketing are much more invisible, much more pervasive. You could say there are areas there where kids don't know what's going on but I'm not sure adults do either.

What are the types of marketing where they might not know that a product is being advertised to them?

One of the things that marketers have done over the last few years is they've realized that hard-sell advertising doesn't really work. What we've gone to is a culture where it's very hard to tell the difference between what's marketing and what's not. If you think about Harry Potter or you think about Pokémon, it's very hard to tell the difference between the marketing and the content.

You also touch on this idea that for decades, kids' advocacy groups have campaigned to ban advertisements aimed at kids. You say that's misguided.

Increasingly, there's a lot of money being spent on other kinds of marketing: public relations, sponsorship – what's called place-based marketing, which is about putting things in front of kids' noses in an attractive sort of way. Focusing on advertising seems to me to be focusing on a very small part of a much bigger picture. A ban on advertising is never going to really happen anyway. What we need to be doing rather than fantasizing about that, we need to be enabling kids to understand all of this. They need to be able to critically evaluate it, make informed decisions about it, make their own choices.

And who should that be up to? Should that be the responsibility of parents? Of educators?

I think it's important to say that media literacy isn't just about defending kids from bad things. It's much more about enabling kids to participate, to understand, to be critical about commercial culture much more generally. Schools have an important role to play and I think parents do as well.

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Some parents are very particular about what they will spend their money on when it comes to their children. A violent video game is bad but an educational toy is good. What do you think of this idea of 'good consumption' versus 'bad consumption?'

When it comes to your example of video games, I think there's often an assumption that if it's educational or if it calls itself "educational," then it's good and it must be good for children. In fact, if you look at a lot of the so-called education games that are around, they're not necessarily especially good. I'd say we need to look at those things without assuming education = good, entertainment = bad. We need to talk to kids about what it is they find so interesting and engaging about a lot of entertainment media.

And how does class factor into all of that too? The 'SpongeBob is bad and this wooden toy that is going to teach my kid about the environment is good' is very much a middle- or upper-middle-class thing.

It is, it is. There is a lot of money to be made from producing toys, products, educational software for middle-class parents and appealing to their cultural values, their beliefs about education. That is just as much a form of consumerism, I would say, as the plastic toys you see in Toys R Us or wherever. There is a real kind of class snobbery that goes on there.

One of the issues here is that for kids from poorer families, from disadvantaged families, their ability to participate in consumer culture is much more limited. So one of the issues that goes on within kids' peer groups is a hierarchy which is partly about what you can have. So the kind of clothes you wear, the toys you have, and so on.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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