20 February 2010

Pester Power 2.0

This week David Cameron revealed a new policy that looks like out-Blairing even New Labour. In terms of lack of substance and naked populism, it is an overt attempt to position the party as in-touch with the voters. Of course there is nothing wrong with actually being in touch with voters' concerns, but this latest piece of headline grabbing is so thin you could use it as greaseproof paper to produce some half-baked ideas.

Starting off with the bold headline promise of "Protecting children from sexualisation and commercialisation", he introduces the concept of "premature sexualisation". To me that sounds like the sort of thing Dear Deirdre would tackle in The Sun, but Dave doesn't bother to give any examples of this, or even explain how he came to the conclusion it was of popular concern. It's out there, apparently, and Dave wants you to know he's concerned about it. But he no sooner raises it then he moves on to the bulk of the policy announcement covering measures that are "designed to crack down on irresponsible marketing practices and products targeted at children."

Speaking as a parent who consumes quite a lot of advertising on children's TV stations, I'm struggling to see the problem or why it suddenly merits a policy response. Advertisers have always targeted children, but today they work under greater restrictions than when I was a child. Children are big grabby bundles of Id, as likely to furiously demand to watch a TV show or have another 25 biscuits as they are to covet something they have seen in an ad. Unfortunately, one of the onerous tasks of parenting is managing their expectations, meeting the challenge of their desires, and setting clear parameters.

But let's run with this for the minute and assume ads aimed at children are Very Bad. What's Dave's solution?
  • Banning the most manipulative marketing techniques aimed at young people
  • Strengthening the regulatory framework
  • Giving people the power to make complaints
  • Banning irresponsible companies from winning future government contracts.
The rules around what you can and can't say when advertising to children, and where and when you can say it is listed in tedious detail on the ASA site (or click here), because a lot of people have given this tricky area a lot of thought, in balancing the legitimate rights of businesses to sell products against protecting the rights of children. And anytime you think that balance is not achieved, you can complain to the ASA. So, again, I am struggling to see what "Dave" is announcing that is not already covered, apart from a general breastbeating that he has an ill-defined concern, and wants you to know he cherishes your kids too.

What I think has changed things in Cameron's mind is the Internet in general, and social media specifically. Cameron is supposedly a hip young guy, groovy to the web and all things digital, as we saw a few years ago with his "Web Cam" broadcasts on YouTube. But here he paints new media as a source of unmitigated threat: children vulnerable to new advertising channels and parents powerless to stop it. But in truth, it is a two way street; just as new media gives new routes to consumers, it gives greater powers to parents to express their displeasure, co-ordinate action against inappropriate messaging and mobilise our economic clout. Parents may no longer be the gatekeepers to the advertising channels open to children, but they still hold the purse strings. New media offers creators of products aimed at children new ways of engaging with the people who foot the bill, to persuade them of their worthiness.

He emphasised that "social pressure" is the best way to combat irresponsible behaviour and encourage responsibility, saying that the Conservatives would "make it easier for parents to mobilise against campaigns and products that they think are inappropriate". At present, thanks to the explosion of new technology, parents are doing just that - forming networks, sharing information, creating pressure groups around issues and concerns, and exerting that pressure in co-ordinated ways.

Take the example of the infamous "Lolita Bed" that was withdrawn from sale at Woolworths, after parental pressure led by the raisingkids.co.uk website (story here). Cameron himself supported this campaign as an example of the "sexualisation of children". He seems to have missed the point that it is an example of grass-roots "social pressure" at work, the very thing he will supposedly encourage. Unless he is somehow suggesting a new law allowing vigilante attacks upon toy manufacturers, parents mobilising against campaigns and products is exactly what they are doing at the moment. Cameron is graciously giving us permission to carry on.

Cameron finishes by saying: "A Conservative Government would take the tough action needed to help families and build a society in which we stop treating children as adults". My concern is, instead, that a Conservative Government will build a society where we treat adults as children.

1 comment:

Gary said...

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