Are ads targeting children being policed properly and if so by whom and how successful are they? Melina Meletakos reports.
The South African youth market has a sizeable chunk of annual spending power that has long had brands jockeying for their attention. HDI Youth Marketeers puts this at R111.3 billion for 2014, a hefty number that marketers would be foolish to ignore.
Jason Levin, the managing director of HDI Youth Marketeers, says there are two other factors that make the local youth market so alluring to brands – the one is size and the other is buying power.
“South Africa is a young country with more than 50% of the population being under 23. We’re also seeing that in developed markets, the youth have more influence in their households than ever before,” says Levin.
This increased autonomy and decision-making power, says Levin, is a result of the youth – people aged between three and 23 – being part of Generation Y, or the Millennial generation.
“They have been empowered by their parents and by the media. They have more sway because they are respected in a way that kids 30 or 40 years ago weren’t,” he says.
In addition, says Levin, there has been the rise of a suburban African youth market. “Traditional African values don’t revere kids’ opinions. But we have seen that suburban values have been adopted by the African market in the last 10 or so years, giving the suburban African youth huge lobbying power,” he adds.
To better understand what makes these more autonomous young consumers tick, the advertising industry often enlists psychologists to make their brand strategies more appealing and effective.
But to market anything to the youth is tricky and a difficult space in which to manoeuvre. Advertising creates fat, compulsive mini-consumers who think smoking and drinking are cool and who are sexualised too early, critics say.
And to assist the industry in doing so comes with the risk of invoking the ire of the fiercest of these condemning voices. In the United States, a number of psychologists have cried foul as their peers increasingly help advertisers target young consumers. They question the ethics of supporting what they call an epidemic of materialistic values among children and have even taken the issue up with the American Psychological Association (APA).
Rita Doherty, the group strategy director at Draftfcb, says she is completely comfortable with using psychological insights to understand children as consumers.
“There is a difference between being a master of your craft to understand your consumers better, and actually manipulating them. It really all depends on the consequences of the behaviour that is being promoted,” says Doherty.
Clinical psychologist Ruth Ancer agrees, saying it depends on what is being marketed to children and if these products and services are harmful to them. She says psychologists should not be lambasted for working with marketers. “Must psychologists only advise on things that are deemed important. And who makes that judgement? We can’t be telling people what they can and cannot do. That knowledge is out there and marketers are using it anyway,” says Ancer.
In South Africa, there are no actual laws that govern how advertising to young consumers should be done. The advertising industry instead makes use of a self-regulation system and relies on the independent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which ensures that this system works in the public interest.
The ASA’s advertising code provides a number of guidelines that marketers need to take into consideration when targeting the youth market.
Advertisements shouldn’t harm children mentally, morally, physically or emotionally, according to the code. They also shouldn’t exploit children’s naivety or their lack of experience.
But the more stringent rules apply to selling children food and beverages through advertisements. The code states that advertisements shouldn’t encourage poor nutritional habits, an unhealthy lifestyle, or excess consumption. Similarly, portion sizes shouldn’t be excessive. According to the ASA, these advertisements also shouldn’t mislead children about the benefits of a product, such as promising strength, popularity, growth, proficiency or intelligence.
Food and beverage advertising also shouldn’t appeal to children under the age of 12 to use the pester power that they have to convince their parents to buy a product. Additionally, celebrities or characters cannot be used in television advertisements targeted at children who are aged 12 or younger. The code also specifies that food and beverage products that do not represent a healthy lifestyle should not advertise on or in close proximity to pre-school and primary school premises.
Advertising expert Andy Rice says that one of the inherent flaws of the advertising standards system is distinguishing between an isolated complaint and an actual unethical situation. “There is a difference between a slightly fanatical complainant and a genuine problem. The question is: what would a typical, responsible citizen say? It’s tricky to mediate,” he says.
Doherty says the global brands Draftfcb works with respect the regulations and have institutionalised their own rules for advertising to the youth.
The grey space that she finds most unsettling is whether or not children should be allowed treats.
“Sometimes we can be too puritanical in our pursuit of health though. There is a place for little treats in kid’s lives, and it’s better to engage with kids in healthy ways to have a treat so they can learn discipline, rather than to shut down conversations,” she says.
Levin says that HDI tries to create a space for brands to engage with the youth market responsibly so that campaigns can have a positive spinoff.
“There are ways of approaching advertising to children that are unethical. But there are also ways which create a win-win situation for kids, teachers and the brand. There is a huge demand for things like educational material in schools and we need to make the decision about whether or not it actually matters that it is brand-funded,” says Levin.
Some of HDI’s projects include a campaign for Dettol, where the hygiene product visited over
4 100 schools since 2006 with a theatre roadshow that teaches three- to 10-year-olds how hand-washing and good personal hygiene can stop the spread of infectious diseases and illness. Similarly, HDI ran a youth programme for Coca-Cola during the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup that involved learners from 200 schools recycling ahead of the tournament. In five weeks, 4.8 million bottles and cans were collected and the top collectors were treated to game experiences.
Despite this, the threat of tighter rules and the possibility of completely banning advertising to children in South Africa constantly lingers as local authorities look to other countries as an example.
In Sweden, advertisements targeting children under 12 are not allowed, while Greece has banned advertisements for children’s toys between 7:00 and 22:00 and a total ban on advertisement for war toys. In Norway, the marketing of unhealthy food products directed at children under the age of 16 is illegal.
So could South Africa be heading down a similar path?
Levin says this might be the case. “There is a lot of irresponsibility that takes place. But it would really be to the detriment of brand-funded programmes that can have a positive influence in kids’ lives. The private sector spends R6 billion on education annually. Of this, they channel one-third of it into brand-funded programmes. If advertising to children was banned, the benefit of these education channels would fall away. That would be a great pity,” he says.
Doherty wholeheartedly supports ethical advertising to children. But, she says, “I don’t think it’s necessary to stop advertising to kids.”
“I think it’s a missed opportunity to use advertising positively to teach kids valuable lessons.”
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