IN the run-up to Christmas, pester power is the scourge of parents. The demands are often fuelled by smart, relentless TV and online advertising campaigns. Ethical marketer, Sheena Horgan, author of Candy-Coated Marketing, has taken a stand against this commercialisation by encouraging her four daughters — aged six to 14 — to hand over their surplus toys and clothes to charity shops.
Christmas “is an excuse to have that conversation about kids who have things and kids who haven’t,” says Horgan, whose ebook aims “to lift the lid of the Pandora’s Box of accepted marketing norms regarding children”.
She has learned from her children, from their choices in clothes, music and books. “My kids would be the norm in many ways, and not the norm in other ways, because their space is what I research and talk about all the time. I’m sure I say ‘no’ to my children an awful lot more than other parents do.”
Horgan’s challenging of marketing messages affects her girls’ attitudes and to advertising and brand-bullying. “They don’t get overly drawn into trends for certain clothes, brands or phones, and I’m very proud of them for that.” Conversations about shopping and spending are particularly important in the current climate. “Kids know there’s a recession, so it’s good to involve them to an appropriate degree in how they, and the family, can spend sensibly,” she says.
She discusses with her daughters the difference between needs and wants. “It’s about trying to get them to think about what they’d really like, as opposed to just the things they’ve seen on TV, ” she says. But in our commercialised and sexualised society, parents have “an uphill struggle” in counteracting consumerism.
Gender marketing, the distinction between boys and girls, doesn’t always exist. “Aside from the obvious female- or male-oriented products, today’s toys are more technology-focused and, in many cases, are unisex. Think Nintendo, Playstation, phones and net books,” she says.
“Intuitively, we probably think girls are more consumer led than boys, but I don’t think that’s quantifiably the case. Interestingly, the group most conscious of clothes brands is eight-year-old boys, according to Dr Agnes Nairn, author of the Unicef Report on Child Wellbeing in 2011.”
Horgan has 20 years of media and marketing experience. While working in England, she joined the Conservative Party Children’s Taskforce, from 2005 to 2007. She then consulted and contributed to the Bailey Review, which published a paper last year, Letting Children Be Children.
“One thing that came out of the Review was the British Retail Consortium’s Children’s Wear Guidelines, which is replicated, to a degree, here, in June, through Retail Ireland. The idea is that inappropriate clothing for children will not hit the shelves. It’s a work-in- progress,” she says.
Now based in Dublin, Horgan researches and campaigns on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, through her journalism and the Positive Childhood Campaign.
An advocate of social responsibility, Horgan says marketing “can be used as a tool for social good, creating behavioural change as opposed to always being for commercial gain.” She cites the Safe Cross Code (a 1970s Irish TV advertisement promoting safety on the roads) and anti-smoking campaigns as good examples.
Parents are often afraid to say ‘no’ to demands because they want to be liked and loved by their children.
“But it’s not fair to expect parents to be the only guardians of childhood. It’s a societal issue. We need to work together to take collective responsibility. It’s important that we talk to children about the messages in advertising and marketing. I’d love to see a media-literacy programme in schools that would make children realise they are being marketed to,” she says.
Food advertising, aimed at children is in flux, says Horgan. “My main issue around the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s codes around food advertising is that it’s only about Irish TV advertising. We can’t legislate for TV advertising coming from other countries.”
According to research from UPC Ireland, the largest digital cable provider in the country, 51% of six- to 12-year-olds spend 90 minutes to three hours a day watching television. This increases as they age — “making Irish children the biggest consumers of TV advertising in Europe.”
In 2003, according to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the average viewing time for four- to 14- year-olds was 152 minutes, peaking at 179 minutes. “The figures have come down but are still too high,” she says.
Horgan believes children should be allowed no more than half an hour or an hour of down-time in front of the television, and cites Dr Nairn’s observation that children need quality time with their parents rather than being showered with toys and designer labels.