The Balance of Responsibility

One man's view of the commercialisation of childhood debate.
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Back in June of this year we were expecting Professor David Buckingham to publish his exploration of the impact of commercialisation on the wellbeing of children.
But he didn’t. Or rather they didn’t. He wrote it, the government didn’t publish it. Not sure why. No one seems to want to tell me. Maybe it’s got something to do with an election coming up and the report not really saying what they wanted it to. Perhaps the report said something along the lines of “commercial impact on children isn’t actually breeding a generation of violent idiots, Mr. Balls. Actually, in the scheme of things being a child right now isn’t so bad....”

But the words 'commercialisation' and 'childhood' will always be odd together. For a start as terms of reference they’re at best broad. As with much of life these days common sense has to be the way forward. At Kids Industries we spend 75 per cent of our working lives talking to parents and they aren’t nearly as fussed about commercial impact as I am sure the government thought they were going to be.

In the hundreds of studies we have undertaken, the parents we have spoken to have often passed comment on their views surrounding commercial messaging aimed at their children. And broadly speaking it is this – as long as it is not exploiting them there is no problem and they decide on a case by case basis as to what is exploitative.

When asked parents talk of balance. That there is a time and a place. That too much is too much and that a little of something every now and then never hurt anybody. But we wouldn’t have any balance if it weren’t for the six or seven different stakeholder groups that fall on either side of the commercialisation of childhood debate. Let’s have a whistle-stop look at these groups and the responsibility they have in regard to the commercialisation of childhood...

NGOs and Not for Profit Organisations
They’ve a huge responsibility to keep banging the drum for a reduction in commercialisation. If it wasn’t for the likes of the American CCFC (Centre for Commercial Free Childhood) there would be no debate and no coherent unified voice for those that have a different set of perspectives. Although a return to the agrarian economy – which would appear to be the only way forward if we get in line with the CCFC – doesn’t have so much appeal.
These organisations have a responsibility to keep pulling at the shirt tails of big exploitative business as this pushes ethical business to the top.

Government needs to listen properly. Put agendas aside and do what is right. They say they are but lobby groups have very loud (and discreet) voices. Government has the responsibility to protect children when necessary and empower when possible. Only they can do this.

It’s not their job to teach children how to decode marketing messages. They don’t have the time. And yet this is the answer from many facets of the media – get the teachers to teach media literacy then we’ll be able to advertise to them as much as we want. Teachers have the responsibility of educating our children and if they tell us that commerciality is impacting on our children’s education then we should listen.

Perhaps it’s not the changing face of childhood, but the changing face of parenting that we need to be giving a little more attention to. No one teaches us how to parent and it’s different for every generation. Having said that, parents must take responsibility for the media and messaging their children consume.

It’s not public service if it's commercial, is it? An 11 minute pre-school show airing on Cbeebies is about an effective advertisement as it’s possible to get. And getting that show there in the first place is dependent on a co-pro deal that will be absolutely rooted in M&L numbers. The BBC particularly has a responsibility to provide engaging un-commercial content but it can’t do it without acting as the advertising platform. Bit of a dichotomy. But does it matter? Probably not because they really do provide some of the best media experiences for children in the world.

Some - and it is an ever decreasing number – need to stop hiding behind their CSR initiatives and start acting. Perhaps they would do well to realise the changes that it seems to me they continually talk about. But they can’t because the shareholder will get upset. So, under pressure the CEO doesn’t mind flexing around the regulations a little... it’s not difficult to see why some cereal manufacturers still put their ads in the middle of The X Factor. It’s not illegal. There are millions of children watching after all. But is it right?

Business has the responsibility to stop going through the motions and just get on with it. They need to realise that an issue as charged as our children’s wellbeing - whatever Buckingham says – will mean change is absolutely necessary.

Advertising and Media Agencies have to understand better. Marketing strategies are very often devised and implemented by people very far removed from experience with children. We need to improve this. Quickly. They compensate often by looking at how to steal advantage and the exploitation of poor legislation is an easy target. The agencies have a responsibility to stop advising clients how to circumvent the rules and just do the right thing. As a clever man once said – rule is rules and without rules we’d be in France.

We have more children’s channels than any other country in the world. And we have some of the best children’s channels in the world. Similarly media is not consumed now as it was when we were children or how it will be when our children have children. The media have a responsibility to ensure that its power does not consume childhood itself and commercial gain does not supersede provision for the children.

So, what does this all amount to? All of these groups have a responsibility to keep barking from their corner. It is only through continued debate and argument that we will progress to a place where we can all agree that we have achieved balance. Because the one thing I know to be true about each and every one of these groups is that ultimately they must do what is right for the children.

Gary Pope is managing director of Kids Industries, the only one-stop-shop in the world specifically for brands that wish to connect with the family.


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