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Mar 2010
Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability
Nathaniel Ward

It is a typical Saturday afternoon at the mall for Mr. Smith and his children. As he wheels his 20-month-old son through the drugstore, the toddler spots a familiar face prominently displayed on the juice boxes. “Elmo, Elmo!” the child shouts. Mr. Smith tries to move swiftly on, but his seven-year-old son keeps tugging at his shirt: “Dad,” he says, “after this let’s go to Burger King. I need another G.I. Joe movie toy that comes with those burgers and fries.” His ten-year-old daughter chimes in: “And I really need to go to the toy store and get an outdoor whirlpool tub and a flat screen TV for my Barbie Dream House.”

Mr. Smith is relieved to get home two hours later. He plunks his youngest in front of Teletubbies while his seven-year-old scampers to the computer and gets online at his favorite virtual world: Nicktropolis. There, the boy can watch webisodes of programming from the children’s channel Nickelodeon, play Nick-themed games, interact inside Nick-themed rooms, and “chat” using pre-scripted sentences about Nickelodeon shows. Meanwhile, his fourteen-year-old daughter heads off for a pajama party across the street. She is looking forward to pizza and scary movies, but what she and her father don’t know is that the sleepover is sponsored by the Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA). This market research firm recruits teens and preteens to host pajama parties at which the hostess films her friends engaging with different “cool” products from the GIA’s corporate clients. After the party, the hostess ships the film back to the GIA for editing, and then it is shown to the GIA’s corporate clients so that they can analyze the girls’ behavior and how they relate to each item.

These anecdotes begin to show what it is like to be an American child growing up today amidst what is almost certainly the best-financed and most psychologically sophisticated means of socializing children in human history. From the time they are born, most children are exposed to hundreds of messages per day designed to convince them that a happy, meaningful life depends in large part on what they own. Marketers and companies hope to inculcate this consumer identity early in children’s lives, for if they can “get them early,” not only can these organizations affect children’s current purchases and influence their parents’ consumption decisions, but the stage will be set for the children to eventually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over their adult lives in the continued pursuit of “the goods life.”

While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction. As readers of Solutions well know, each of these environmental problems is due in part to people’s consumption behaviors, and particularly to over-consumption on the part of people living in the Western world.

What’s more, recent research shows that the materialistic values encouraged by advertising messages are also quite problematic for environmental outcomes. For example, studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling. One study of 400 North American adults found that those with stronger materialistic values make transportation, food, and housing choices that result in higher ecological footprints. And game theory simulations using forest-management social dilemmas show that materialistic values lead to greedier, less sustainable behavior.

Damaging associations between materialistic values and ecological outcomes even occur at the national level. One recent project found that among 20 of the wealthiest nations in the world, those nations whose citizens are most focused on values like money and achievement have higher levels of CO2 emissions, even after controlling for GDP.

This body of empirical data strongly supports the assertion that the attitudes and behaviors required to meet today’s environmental challenges are fundamentally undermined by the materialistic values so prominent in Western cultures. We therefore propose that if the environmental movement is to reach its goals, it must directly address the problem of materialistic values and the means by which they are encouraged in society. Of the many possible solutions that are available towards this end, we suggest that one of the most promising approaches is to reduce children’s exposure to commercial marketing. There are at least two reasons to focus on limiting marketing to children as a solution to environmental problems.

First, today’s children will inherit current environmental problems and will have to live a substantially altered lifestyle if they are to forestall these problems. Rather than preparing them for these changes, today’s culture instead encourages their adoption of materialistic messages through the television, through targeted messages on their cell phones and Facebook pages, and through viral marketing on the Internet and, as we saw above, at slumber parties. Because children’s less-developed cognitive capacities leave them more vulnerable to marketing, and because their identities are still forming, they are particularly susceptible to the onslaught of messages that encourage them to value the materialistic aims that research shows will conflict with their desire and ability to make and demand the changes required to live sustainably. Reducing children’s exposure to marketing now will give them extra protection from this toxic culture and help prepare them for the changes ahead.

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Nathaniel Ward

The second reason that we believe fighting marketing to children is a promising avenue is that environmental organizations are likely to find many existing organizations with which they can form coalitions. While these potential partners may not be focused primarily on environmental problems, many are concerned with other issues that have been empirically associated with marketing to children, including childhood obesity, cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking, the erosion of children’s creative play, precocious sexuality, violent behavior, and decreases in attention abilities. Other potential partnerships could be formed with groups interested in directly preventing some of the psychosocial problems that have been empirically associated with materialistic values, including being less empathic, less generous, and caring less about those in need. If environmentalists can help to unite organizations with these diverse concerns around the underlying problem of marketing to children, then quicker progress will be made on the suggestions we propose next.

One rather obvious first step is to develop and distribute educational materials for children and adolescents that are explicitly designed to address the problems of consumerism and the strategies the marketing industry uses to inculcate materialistic values. Children and teens could be taught about, for example, the links between exposure to marketing, values, and environmental (as well as other) outcomes, so that they are aware of the connections between what may currently seem to be disparate areas of their lives. Exercises can also be developed based on the media educational literature to help students understand and “deconstruct” the messages that advertisers use to encourage them to consume. The first author’s experience working with early adolescents suggests that once they become aware of how they are being actively manipulated by marketing, their resultant anger often motivates them to be especially interested in learning about advertising.

That said, education alone is not likely to be enough. As neuro-imaging studies show, marketing typically targets portions of the brain that govern emotion rather than cognition, thereby reducing the effectiveness of such cognitive interventions. What’s more, other studies suggest that while knowledge about advertising techniques can lead to skepticism about marketing, it does not necessarily affect actual consumer behavior.

For these reasons, coalitions of civil society organizations could promote the removal of commercial messages from children’s environments. One place to start would be in the home. Environmental organizations and their partners could support efforts such as TV Turnoff Week, which encourages parents to remove electronic screens from their family’s life for one week and provides substantial advice and support as to how to succeed in this endeavor. Environmentalists could also help ensure that new parents are properly informed of the media guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend no screen time for children under the age of two and no TV in any child’s bedroom. The school environment is another place to start, as increasingly school administrators struggling to meet expenses are accepting “free” resources from corporations who, in exchange, place commercial messages within the school. The result is soda machines selling high-sugar drinks in school hallways and scoreboards featuring company logos. Ronald McDonald even recently appeared on children’s report card envelopes in one Florida district, promising free burgers and fries to students with good grades, citizenship, or attendance. Companies such as Channel One and Bus Radio have put commercial-laden TV shows in classrooms and radio shows on school buses, respectively. And then there are the corporate-sponsored teaching materials. For example, the American Petroleum Institute produces classroom materials about energy, and the American Coal Foundation offers math, science, and social studies lessons for elementary schools, as well as for middle and high school students. To the extent that any of these types of commercial messages are present in schools, they serve to reinforce social norms that promote materialism and consumerism and that undermine pro-environmental concerns. As such, environmental organizations can join with and support parents and organizations that are fighting to remove commercial influence from schools.

An even broader approach concerns tax laws. Currently in the U.S., expenses that businesses incur for advertising and marketing are considered tax write-offs. That is, the billions of dollars per year that corporations spend encouraging people to consume and to care about materialistic values are not taxed whatsoever. (It is rather remarkable to consider that donating to charity and advertising ecologically degrading values and products are considered equivalent by taxing agencies.) Some have therefore called for revoking what is essentially a subsidy for major corporations, media conglomerates, and marketing agencies. Revoking this tax write-off would not only change social norms about what is “acceptable business practice,” but could also provide additional sources of revenue for other, more socially beneficial purposes.

Finally, we propose that environmental organizations support calls for bans on advertising to children under age 12. As we alluded to above, substantial empirical evidence shows that most children under this age do not understand the persuasive intent of marketing, leaving them especially susceptible to manipulation. Such bans have been implemented in some Scandinavian countries, as well as the Canadian Province of Quebec, and in the 1970s, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actually proposed similar laws. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that proposal not only failed to gain traction in the U.S. Congress, but, in 1980, also led Congress to restrict the FTC’s power to make such proposals in the future. A few years later, at the behest of President Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deregulated children’s television, making it possible to create television programs for the sole purpose of selling a product. Within one year, all of the ten best-selling toys had ties to media programs. As a result of these governmental actions, corporations today self-regulate their own marketing to children, which is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has introduced bills to change these rules, but to little avail as yet. Environmental organizations could throw their weight behind such bills and call for banning advertising to children.

To conclude, we recognize that these suggestions are outside the normal range of solutions that most environmentalists consider as they attempt to develop strategies to forestall climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and pollution. But we would also return to the facts stated at the outset of this essay: the same people who are going to have to demand change and adapt to lower levels of consumption are currently being told several hundred times or more per day on TV, on the Internet, and on their cell phones that consumption is the pathway to happiness, love, acceptance, and success. By tackling the inflow of such materialistic messages, environmental organizations can work to diminish the values known to promote ecologically degrading attitudes and behaviors, as well as other personally and socially problematic outcomes.

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