We must prevent our children from being hypnotised by advertising

With marketeers actively targeting children, it's the duty of parents and society to protect them

Illustration by Gary Clement
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‘Let’s go in’ he said. I cringed - we looked as though we had been dragged through a bush backwards - but heck, why not. And so, with backpack repositioned and fleece tied a bit more neatly around my waist, I made for the imposing glass door.

We all like something shiny. So, true to the marketing behavioural psychology principles that had been implemented, my 11-year-old made a beeline to a window display that had done its job. It had stars and planets hanging in space and illustrations of a young boy.

It was Montblanc’s pride of place on the Champs Elysées. If their plan is to entice next genners, they are onto something - next gen being the term used for those set to inherit significant sums, as opposed to generation next, which is often used to describe millennials.

$4 trillion is expected to be passed on to the next generation in the UK and North America over the next 20 years.

I think most parents would quietly move their child along, if they were outside the Montblanc store, hoping no fuss was made. But I want mine to see what’s out there to help him arrive at, and make his own decisions.

Exposure is good. It does not mean conversion.


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I mention this because the world goes to lengths to beam out who belongs where. A high end luxury shop, with gleaming glass and chrome, displaying bejewelled treasure, replete with dark-suited, groomed personnel, is meant to be intimidating for those who don’t live within the price-range of what’s on offer.

But the staff at Montblanc were attentive, pleasant and didn’t appear to assume we had no intention of spending any money with them.

We were on holiday in Paris, seeing the sites and enjoying the streets. The only shopping we’d be doing was for sustenance.

I am acutely aware that my child does not hanker after branded goods - yet. He is blind to them, but I have no idea know how long this will last.

Get them young and keep them for life. That’s what happens with brand loyalty; long-term relationships formed early is where serious cash can be made. And it’s getting easier to hook these budding consumers. I will call them Gen M – M for media.

Studies find that a majority of US children have televisions in their bedrooms. This sounds very much like the UAE where many children also have unsupervised access to computers.

These two trends - the growth in advertising channels reaching children and children using media in private - have lead to more child-specific advertising. I can’t find figures for the UAE, but suffice to say it’s a lot of money elsewhere. Estimates of how much is spent reaching the youth market in the US come in at over $17 billion per year, with children viewing tens of thousands of commercials.

It does work: product preference has been shown to happen with as little as a single commercial exposure, it increases with repeated exposures. The big issue is that this influences children's product purchase requests and that these requests influence parents' purchasing decisions. In other words, everyone is affected, and it’s not just family finances that feel the pull. The layers of harm that result from targeting children include parent-child conflict. I don’t know about you, but I want to parent, not to be ‘bad cop’.

Here’s why targeting children as consumers is important to marketeers:

* They are a primary market - they spend their pocket money

* Children are a huge ‘influence market’ - affecting the buying habits of decision makers, such as parents and grandparents.

* Children are the future: what will they buy when they grow up? Remember, exposure also leads to brand preference later in life.

Here’s the thing: it’s not just a parent’s responsibility to protect children, it’s society’s too. I believe banning advertising aimed at children is fair game.

In some countries it’s restricted, such as the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium. In Norway and Quebec, advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal. There’s good solid science behind this due to how the brain develops, and the ability to differentiate between what’s real, suggested, or fantasy.

Our children are vulnerable and can be – are being – exploited by marketing pro’s. We all need protecting from the fallout of young ones being sucked in.

It's not just the display that drew my son in -  being a budding illustrator, ink and writing tools are the thing. Yes, he baulked at the cost of the pens on display, but he still had his eye on a specific shiny thing - a purple, silver-edged notebook. He lovingly stroked it and asked for it. I told him to find out how much it was and then we would talk; €60 (Dh273) is how much. Thankfully he baulked at that too, but left the shop devising entrepreneurial schemes to earn the cost.

If the purple notebook is ever bought, I know he’d cherish it. All the more if he still hankers after it over the course of the year, saves up or earns the cost. The main reason I walked into the shop with him is to convey a message that our worth does not correlate with what's in our wallets, with the hope that he’ll always be able to walk into any place comfortably, with a secure sense of self and what’s important to him.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com