Stephen Butler Leacock, a Canadian political scientist and a writer, has once said, ‘Advertising can be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.’ In today’s generation, children often get “arrested” by these media advertisements that are aimed to sell products. According to a study conducted by Gantz, Schwartz, Angelini, and Rideout, children between the ages of two and seven see close to 14,000 television advertisements per year, while children between the ages of eight to twelve see more than 30,000 per year (Chakroff, 1). As a result of this major exposure to advertisements, they tend to value “things” more than they value relationships. This phenomenon is known as Materialism — a tendency to deem material belongings and physical comfort as more significant than spiritual values. Advertising media provides a platform for materialistic attitudes to develop in today’s young generation.
Media has become a major source of information and a major source of influence in contemporary society today. News and publishing outlets carefully consider their rhetoric to appeal to their audience’s’ sense of infatuation with global commercial products. On average, children spend seven hours thirty minutes per day using media, at least three of which are spent watching television commercials (Opree, Buijzen, Reijmersdal, Valkenburg 717). Media plays a vital role in shaping the attitudes and behavior of children — particularly because of their ‘incapability to understanding the real worth of products targeted at them” (Vandana, Lenka 456). In a study conducted by Goldberg and Gorn, 231 four to five year old children were exposed to a ten minute preschool program. The children were divided into three groups. Group one was shown the program with two identical commercials in the middle. Group two was exposed to the same program with two identical commercials for two consecutive days. Lastly, the control group was shown the the program without any commercials.
After the program, all the children were shown two photographs. The first photo was a picture of a boy holding the advertised toy and the second was a photo of a boy without the advertised toy . The children were given additional information that the boy holding the toy was “not-so-nice boy.” The children were then asked whether they would play with the “not-so-nice boy” or the boy without the toy. The results showed that more than half of the children who were exposed to the program with the advertisement in it chose to play with the “not-so-nice boy” with the toy, whereas only 30% of the control group chose to play with the boy with the toy (Buijzen, Valkenburg 11-12). The study demonstrates how media sources such as advertisements can influence the development of materialism as early as at the age of five. Media has been found to be a major carrier of materialism as it “provides a ground for marketers to promote materialistic belongings to children and creates a sense of self between what we have and what we do” (Vandana, Lenka 460). The rising interest of children purchasing “things” is directly a result of marketers targeting their products and advertisements towards children. (Vandana, Lenka 464).
This claim can be supported by a study conducted in which children aged from 5 to 6 years from Sweden and Great Britain who were asked to write what they wanted for christmas from Santa. Advertising directed towards children is illegal in Sweden compared to Great Britain where it wasn’t. It was found that children from Sweden, who are exposed less to advertisements directed at them, asked for less products than children in Great Britain who are exposed to advertisements directed at them (Pine, Nash, 537). Thus, showing a positive correlation between advertising and materialism among children.
One approach to prevent all these negative effects of materialism is to control the development of materialism at an early age. Parental mediation can and should play a significant role in decreasing or eliminating materialism. There are five kinds of mediation that parents can use namely active, restrictive, monitoring, and technical to control the effects of media. Active mediation of internet is when parents talk to their children about internet safety and explain to them the intentions behind advertisements. Restrictive mediation involves controlling the child’s exposure to television and internet usage. Monitoring refers to the parent’s overlooking of the child’s social networking profile or looking at emails or instant messaging accounts. Lastly, technical mediation is defined to filter software that restricts certain types of uses or monitor’s the child’s actual use (Pasquier, Dominique, 220, 221).
Among all these types of mediation, active mediation is considered to be the most effective. In a study conducted by Austin, he investigated the factors that were associated with the skepticism of public media affairs. His experiment included 346 adolescents in two San Francisco Bay Area schools to look at different communication norms like concept orientation, socio orientation, and communication warmth, mediation among the families. The results indicated that active meditation was the only significant predictor among the different variables tested for skepticism of public media affairs (Austin 58). Hence, Austin concluded that active mediation is an effective way for parents to mediate and influence what their children are viewing on television.
In addition to using mediation techniques, parents should emphasize the importance of spending more time with outdoors rather than staying indoors and watching television since parents are a child’s primary socialization agents. Furthermore, parents should spend more time with their kids and not compensate that “one-on-one” time with their child with buying them gifts like phones or gaming consoles as the child would learn to value fancy gifts instead of relationship with their parents (Vandana, Lenka 462).
Government can take some precautions by limiting the type of content if not banning advertisements directed towards children who are the most vulnerable. For example, government can regulate the use of celebrity figures or cartoon characters in advertisements. One study revealed that nine and ten-year-olds were able to identify the frog from the budweiser ad as often as they were able to identify bugs bunny. Another study showed that the number of six-year-olds who could identify disney channel logo could also identify Joe Camel, the cartoon camel used by Camel cigarettes. The above two studies show that children are more influenced by the cartoon characters of the advertisements rather than the content (Ramsey, 387). Hence, the regulation of use of cartoon characters and celebrities would decrease the influence of ads on children.
Studies have also indicated that school-based discussion and education of causes and effects of materialism also helps to reduce materialistic attitudes among children. The discussion could “increase children’s understanding of the persuasive intent of advertising and educate them on how advertisers aim to influence their behaviour by changing their state of mind, particularly their desires and beliefs about a product” (Opree, Buijzen, Reijmersdal, Valkenburg 730). A study involving children from grades 2 and 4 are exposed to two kinds of training programs. One provided the economic component behind advertisements and the other provided information on the interpersonal and motivational aspects of advertisements. There was a control group that was not exposed to any educational programs. The programs were thirty minutes long and lasted for a week. After getting exposed to the educational program, the children (control and experimental) were shown advertisements and were tested on their desire for the product, information awareness, product choice, attitude towards commercials, and comprehension of commercials.
The results showed that the children who were trained in either the economic or motivation conditions rated advertised products as less desired, were more aware of the information value, found commercials less credible, were less apt to choose an advertised product over an unadvertised product in a simulated behavioral choice, had a better understanding of commercials, and were less accepting of commercials than were the control children. Furthermore, the results indicated that 19% of the children in the control group in Grade 2 could not recognize the intent behind the commercial, but only 4% of the children in the two experimental training groups showed a low awareness after training. At grade 4, without training, 16% (8 children) of the children did not know the intent of a commercial whereas only one fourth grade child with training had a low awareness of the purpose of a commercial. (Feshbach, Norma, 395, 396, 397). Thus, an educational session/program in schools can have a major impact on the choices that children make and thus hinder the development of materialistic attitudes.
While advertising media is does develop materialistic attitudes in children, some argue that it can provide children with useful information about new technology and new products in the market that can be beneficial to them. However, they fail to take into consideration that these advertisements are directly targeted towards children that do more harm than good. There are other sources of information that the children can use like friends and family who can portray the information without any motive behind it.
In conclusion, media advertising is a major issue in today’s society and has a major impact in the lives of children today that needs to be addressed and restricted. The above proposals, if not completely eliminate development of materialism among children, can at least control it.