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'Pester power': Marketing to children

Must we fuel the psychosis of the natural-born killers of calm?

Must we fuel the psychosis of the natural-born killers of calm?

Gena Tuffery

[Marketing]

I don’t enjoy the company of kids. My fantasy involves an island where their presence breaks a bylaw. But, because no such isthmus lies on any horizon, may I make a proposal: let’s stop making the little bastards crazier than they already are.

It’s terrifying enough that we manufacture foods capable of making small humans run, scream and jump off shopping trolleys into passing foot traffic. Do we really need to broadcast hypnotic messages encouraging them to eat this stuff as well?

Eighty-six percent of parents think no. A study by nutrition and obesity experts published in the August edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found 344 of the 400 parents questioned want kid-aimed junk food ads banned outright.

The New Zealand Television Broadcaster’s Council recently offered a compromise: a children’s food rating called CF. Simple, eh? No. The problem is that you can only stop what you can see, and researchers at the New South Wales Centre for Overweight and Obesity found that more than half of TV ads making nutritional claims are actually promoting junk food. The low-fat aspect of things like cereals and yoghurt is often emphasised, while their high-sugar content goes unmentioned.

Of course, the effect of sugar on kids hasn’t really been proven, but there’s a really nice demonstration going on in every house hosting a five-year-old’s birthday party right now.

There are no firm stats on ‘pester power’ either, but every parent knows the weight of a three-year-old dragging from their sleeves down a busy supermarket aisle. And admit it, so do you marketers.

Nobody is sending their kids to school with chocolate—that would be insane. But this is choc, which can’t legally be called chocolate due to the absence of any natural ingredient in its chemical makeup. We’re talking pure sweetener, flavouring and additives of crazy-making

Most commonly seen next to ‘objective’ on an advertising brief, ‘pester power’ is basically a backdoor to the pantry. Ad planners know parents aren’t going to voluntarily buy their kids food that can’t be classified as such, but there’s one way to force ’em: appeal to the master appealers. After all, have you heard a kid’s peal?

Before that wail reaches its crescendo, the trolley is chock full of “nutritious choc-covered muesli bars”. No, nobody is sending their kids to school with chocolate—that would be insane. This is choc, which can’t legally be called chocolate due to the absence of any natural ingredient in its chemical makeup. We’re talking pure sweetener, flavouring and additives of crazy-making.

Which brings me back to avoiding parenthood. I don’t know if you’d previously heard of pester power, but have you heard of this? The power of karma. Having contributed to a small army of powerful pesterers as a one-time ad copywriter, my ankles are due a good biting.

Let’s not beat around the box of Coco Pops—appealing for the custom of beings with Winstonesque powers of differentiating fact from fiction is not cool. A slew of studies post-911 proved it: kids are largely unable to distinguish between what’s real on TV and what’s not. So while we are well aware that every ad is a scurrilous lie of varying degree, the small-brained take it all as gospel.

Well, maybe not gospel. While researching his 2004 documentary, Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock found Ronald McDonald is more recognisable to kids than Jesus. Not that I’m surprised—I mean, the clown does house calls. My child-directed apathy sees kids hone on me like cats: “Let’s-read-a-book-let’s-read-a-book-let’s-read-a-book.” And so it was that I saw Ronald McDonald emerge from a six-year-old’s backpack. Homework tonight, repeat after me: I’m lovin’ It.

So, having already bought their love with Happy Meals—a 2007 study by Stanford University showed 63 percent of kids preferred McDonald’s-wrapped food, even carrots and milk—and captured their attention in every ad break, the fast food industry is now taking over their education. Seems like there’s only one thing missing in this campaign: Ronald McDonald posters at the dietician.

Personally, I feel more repelled by brainwashed kids than little fatties, but hey, whatever drives change. Childhood obesity was the beach ball that got the UK government rolling to ban ads for food and drinks high in salt, sugar or fat during kid’s TV in January last year.

Our government hasn’t done nothing. But true to racing form it hasn’t exactly done something either. The Healthy Eating Action and Mission On strategies aim to address obesity—brainwashing being a by-the-by issue—through industry self-regulation. But in an age where we have trouble trusting Catholic priests to self-regulate, do we really want to ask professional manipulators to try and do the right thing?

Well okay, let’s give it a go. Hey, junk food marketers, guess what? Adults also love eating food-that’s-not-food. They can handle many more products per unit. And you don’t even have to bother figuring out how to sugar-coat sugar. In fact, you can throw away the feel-good factor altogether and introduce the feel-shit-about-yourself ad, which is much more fun to make. While pester power moves your checkout chunky bars, misery loves King Size company. Aim for the big time.

And if you don’t? And if you won’t? Well, 86 percent of parents favouring an all-out ban is a pretty strong call to action. The anti-smacking bill is getting a re-look based on 80 percent. So, my advice to parents: eat a box of nutritious choc-covered muesli bars, pull up to parliament and grab a sleeve.