Should We Allow Market Conversations With Minors?

16 January 2011 | commentary,consumerism,marketing

Sympathetically incensed by this post on DadWagon.com entitled, “Dear General Mills: Fuck You”, I started giving some thought to the problem of highly child-attractive packaging selling food that even pigeons would reject. The kind of food for which it seems that the lower the cost of the ingredients, the greater the expenditure on marketing to get kids to badger their parents to buy for them.

I’m sure that a ban on child-targeted marketing (if you could get past the absurdly difficult task of defining what qualifies) would be met with cries of suppressing the free market. But what does it mean for children to be participants in the free market, when a healthy functioning market with the accurate consumer pressures can only really happen in the presence of an informed and rational consumer base? (Pushing aside, for the moment, the fact that there is no such thing as a fully-informed and rational consumer.)

Children may or may not know what’s healthy for them, but they have no concept of moderation or proportion, and they certainly don’t know how to identify a “bad” food just from its packaging. At best, we as parents could teach them, but with intensely variable results that couldn’t possibly result in an honest market. Hell, most adults aren’t that good at figuring it out for themselves, and manufacturers are adept at the art of confusing the issue of “healthy”, just to make it that much harder.

As a society we have agreed that children — persons under the age of 18 — are unable to successfully navigate the moral, legal, and fiscal landscape on their own. We don’t enable them to vote, to open bank accounts without an adult before the age of 11 (generally), or to enter into employment until age 14. We don’t hold the same kind of trial for a wayward child as we would for a wrongfully acting adult, because we don’t consider moral judgement to be fully developed until age 18.

We have agreed, in other words, that children aren’t suitable candidates for participants in a consumer culture.

So why do we allow merchandisers to create messages trying to enter into conversations with children as if they are consumers?

The obvious answer, of course, is that even if we were ready to regulate these messages, we would have an extremely hard time deciding where to draw the lines of acceptability. Could an appointed “marketing czar” satisfactorily put the kibosh only on those brands attempting to speak directly to minors?

But when a huge fast food chain like McDonald’s can admit that even for kids, marketing sells carrots, then we’ve reached the stage at which we’re declaring, without room for doubt, that market conversations drive decision-making. In other words, those veggies wrapped in brightly-colored packages festooned with cartoon characters really are better than their naked veggie counterparts.

And when a leader like McDonald’s makes these assertions, then it seems that in our free market crazed society (not necessarily a bad thing, but just sayin’), we’ve decided that there is no putting the spirits of branding back into Pandora’s box.

This choice (made entirely by corporations FOR us, it must be understood) means that the task of parenthood would not be to teach how to choose healthy foods based on knowledge of foods themselves, but to guide children through a brand landscape that seeks to engage minors in conversations based on profit motive, rather than intent of good for the child. Parents might then teach not about avoiding the attractive packaging and happy-faced cartoons, but about which happy-faced cartoons represent the Good Food.

But can we teach children in this way? The very essence of marketing is to cut to the core of human desire, to slip past the cognitive filters with a combination of emotional engagement and sensory overload. And through forces we don’t quite understand, aesthetic choice might be influenced but can’t be rationed with. As the Roman saying went, “de gustibus non disputandum est” — there is no disputing taste.

There are also implications for the foods themselves. To say that the conversation is not about the product but about the brand is to say that there is nothing intrinsically appealing about carrots — that the appeal of food comes from the sensory overload delivered by its packaging. This is fertile ground for Michael Pollan to have covered.

It’s never my intent or interest to issue decrees, to try to “solve” cultural problems, although I do think that exploring and discussing the issue actually constitutes real action towards betterment of everyone’s condition.

But I will say this. We could just ban kids from grocery stores and fast food joints.

Thanks to Jonathan Foote for un-bastardizing my egregious Latin.

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  • http://jonathanstray.com Jonathan Stray

    Yes. You have hit on a hard problem. Wonderful post.

  • Mike Pierce

    It’s a just cause and it should be discussed. I work for a small craft brewery and we can’t and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to pitch our products to underage consumers. Legally that is. A few years back I was working as a sales manager for a beer distributor and it began to become painfully obvious that one of the products we sold (Smirnoff Ice) was being targeted to minors. Not in the transparent way that McDonald’s or GM does it (the parent company Diageo/Guinness is far too sophisticated and subtle for that) but teens had become a huge part of their market nonetheless. Ultimately, I left that job since as a parent I found it too disagreeable to continue.

    Now in the craft brewing industry -aside from the legal constraints- there is not a single brewery that I’m aware of that tries to circumvent this by subtlety or guile. We are essentially self regulating on this. That works, I suspect because we are, for the most part, small companies run by people and not corporate boards. Therein lies the rub. I suspect the only way to navigate through this morass is via education, as it’s unlikely the aggregated power of these mega-corporations can be expected to self regulate and should we ever attempt to do so for them, it would be a Sisyphean task at the very least. Still, it’s worth drawing out in the open whenever possible. Thanks for the great post.

  • Mike Pierce

    It’s a just cause and it should be discussed. I work for a small craft brewery and we can’t and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to pitch our products to underage consumers. Legally that is. A few years back I was working as a sales manager for a beer distributor and it began to become painfully obvious that one of the products we sold (Smirnoff Ice) was being targeted to minors. Not in the transparent way that McDonald’s or GM does it (the parent company Diageo/Guinness is far too sophisticated and subtle for that) but teens had become a huge part of their market nonetheless. Ultimately, I left that job since as a parent I found it too disagreeable to continue.

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