Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Roy F Fox on unethical targeting of children by marketers

After posting a previous blog about Roy Fox Harvesting Minds, Channel One Indoctrination of Kids I found his E-mail address and wrote him to inquire about whether or not there were any follow up studies on the subject now that these students were presumably in their thirties to see how they were doing compared to other students. I didn't expect him to find the time to respond but he did and informed me that such a study would require an enormous amount of work and that as far as he knew it hadn't been done but he did inform me of another study by Alex Molnar and led me to find The National Education Policy Center which does a lot of other studies on the subject. Last November I sent him another E-mail about the subject when I wrote about the Black Friday Riots and while he was busy he did send me a copy of a question and answers that a recent UK researcher asked him about the ethics of marketing to children. After a follow up check to see if the UK researcher posted it on line I asked if he would mind if I did since I couldn't find it and he said to go ahead. Roy F Fox is a Professor of English Education and former Department Chair of the University of Missouri. The following are the questions and his answers followed by a few comments of my own, which have not necessarily been reviewed or endorsed by Roy Fox although I intend to inform him of it. It also includes a couple follow up questions that I added myself.

UK Researcher: Do you think it’s ethical to target children under the age of 18 and do you think it’s right for them to be consumers at such a young age? Why?

Roy Fox: No, I don’t think it’s ethical. Not at all. Marketers and advertisers don’t seem to bother themselves with things like “ethics,” at least in the US, where the pursuit of material wealth has eclipsed all such “quaint” notions. People even beyond the age of 18 are in the process of building their sense of selfhood and identity. An unrelenting bombardment of advertising deflects them from this work, causing them to delay, and even “stunt” or “divert” their development of identity. If your life is focused on THINGS all the time, the cultivation of your identity or psyche gets ignored. And when, later in life, you find that things are shallow and empty and never deliver the magic that they promise, then you are left with little or no foundation or solid sense of self, of who you are. Wendell Johnson put it this way: idealization (created by advertising’s promises and media in general) eventually leads to frustration (because it never lives up to its hype and promises), which leads to demoralization.

UK Researcher: What effects, both negative and positive, do you think advertising has upon everyone; more specifically, children?

Roy Fox: The positive effects—mainly factual information about products—has continued to dwindle to almost nothing, over the past several decades, roughly since Freud, et al. began exploring and demystifying our “inner lives.” Marketers quickly learned that it’s not about information, but mostly about peoples’ dreams, wishes, values, and fears. There are many negative effects, maybe the most insidious noted in response above this one.

UK Researcher: Who’s responsibility do you think it is for children not to be exposed/roped into things that they don’t know the entire information about and why do you think it's their responsibility?

Roy Fox: First, it has to be the parents. But many parents today have grown up with the notion that advertising is an integral part of life, so they view it as the norm. In this vacuum, education has tried to address the issue, but many teachers know little about “media literacy” and administrators know even less.

UK Researcher: How do you think advertisers apply the opinions and criticism placed upon them from controversial advertisements, to benefit them as well as their audience in the long run?

Roy Fox: One thing they have done in the past is USE such criticism in future advertising, making the controversial ad into an ironic comment, a kind of “wink” at the audience that they, the advertisers, know better and can laugh at themselves. The consumer therefore feels like it’s an “inside” joke that only the “wise” consumer and the advertiser comprehend.

UK Researcher: What do you think the future holds for the techniques advertisers use, including targeting children as an advertising technique?

Roy Fox: The metaphor that you use in this question can reveal a lot. The “targeting” of children or anyone is a military metaphor and it is very commonly accepted and widely used. That is, it’s legitimate and “okay” to treat people like “consuming units.”

The advent of internet technology, social media, etc. is a mixed blessing. In one sense, it spreads myths and lies like wildfire, but in another sense, it can debunk such myths with reasoning and logic. Overall, there is so much information—too much information—that one can reinforce whatever he happens to think and feel in the first place. An avalanche of entertainment and information (which includes sheer “noise”) also destroys our collective memory. The most recent vivid example in the US is Mitt Romney, who switched his “stance” multiple times and got away with it, at least in the minds of millions of people who voted for him. A culture based almost solely on instant imagery does not bode well for the future.

ZT: Do you believe that it is justified to make psychological research designed to improve marketing techniques to children or any other people proprietary so that the public doesn't know how they may be subject to manipulation techniques?

Roy Fox: No, psychological research designed to improve marketing techniques should not be proprietary—especially to children. In fact, I am in favor of disallowing psychological research to improve marketing to ANYONE, unless advertisers and marketers obtain prior consent from the individuals they wish to “study.” If advertisers and marketers do not currently operate within the guidelines of a “Human Subjects Review Board,” then they should be made to do so, just as all the other types of researchers do.

ZT: Or do you believe that they should pass disclosure laws requiring marketing researchers to inform the public about any research that may be done along these lines?

Roy Fox: This is another way of doing the same system as I noted above. An official “research board” or “ethics board” would require that marketers make certain information available in very clear ways, provide information re: the research project’s possible harm or ill effects, provide information about the purpose of the research, obtain written and signed permission, etc.

The ethics of targeting children is rarely if ever even discussed in the mainstream media which is where many people may get their information. On the rare occasions where it is discussed they rarely if ever do a good job addressing it and often give preferential treatment to those that downplay it or acknowledge some potential problems but present it in a manner that minimizes this.

This shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider where the mainstream media gets their funding.

They get their money from commercials or the people that are targeting children with advertisements; which means that they have a blatant conflict of interest.

If most people took the time to think about it I’m sure they would have serious doubts about this especially since this involves targeting children through advertising before they have time to learn to recognize their being manipulated by them; unfortunately many people don’t take the time to think things through because they rely on the commercial press for their information and instead of considering it they provide an enormous number of distractions to keep their viewers jumping from one subject to another without considering the details of any of them.

The assumption that there would be positive effects seems to be based on the assumption that ads provide accurate information that helps consumers make informed decisions, which is clearly not true. The only other possible argument which I can think of would be if children learn how to recognize how and when they’re being manipulated. This could be a positive result but it would make the ads ineffective and if this was done then the advertisers wouldn’t even waste their money on it. In order for this to take place there needs to be an effort to teach the children to recognize this and we clearly can’t trust the commercial media to do this since they don’t even discuss it at all.

Unfortunately with the increasing commercialization of public schools it is becoming more difficult to rely on many teachers who now rely on corporations that provide funds. This takes place even when teachers have the best of intentions as numerous studies have shown. This should be all the more reason why we should return to a system that obtains funding without direct influence, or perhaps any influence from corporations.

I would certainly agree that it should be the parents responsibility to educate their children about this and that the schools could help as well if they know how to educate children about it; unfortunately as much of the research into the subject indicates the advertisers are also making this case and at the same time they’re trying to make it harder for the parents to do this. When they’ve been criticized in the past they have attempted to put all the blame on the parents without addressing the possibility that children are spending much more time watching TV and commercials so they’re trying to tempt those children at the same time they try to blame the parents for not doing their job.

At the same time the corporations that are buying these ads are rigging the system so that parents often have to work longer hours to keep up since the cost of ads and other bureaucratic expenses have been going up while manufacturing expenses have been cut so that parents have to work more to keep up and they don’t have as much time to spend with their children.

This is a double whammy!

This means that in the short term it should be the responsibility of anyone who cares and wants to do what they can to expose the advertising scams that corporations have been running. In the long run it could and should include both the education system and the media; although in the case of the media it won’t happen without reform. But that doesn’t mean many alternative outlets can’t do their part and more can be done to inform a larger percentage of the public how unreliable and biased the commercial media is and where to find outlets that are more reliable.

The use of the criticism in their ads can be a double edged sword if more people know how to recognize it. Advertisers have been learning how outraged people are with ads so they criticize them in a humorous manner to make it seem like it is the other advertisers that are doing this implying that the ones pointing this out aren’t. They also turn the saying “kids are getting older younger” into a joke in many of their ads and make it seem like kids are running businesses. One of the most blatant examples of this is the “Suzie’s Lemonade” commercial for Verizon. Many people that don’t think about how advertising to children might impact them might think this is funny or cute; but those that know better are often outraged by the tactics they’ve been using. This is part of an attempt to indoctrinate children into a corporate ideology from an early age by drilling the same messages over and over again. This ad does nothing to discuss the fact that the most effective way to get lemonade to the consumer doesn’t involve child’s lemonade stands at all and that this is adding on a lot of expenses that won’t improve society. In fact it will make it worse.

The attempt to make it seem like a lemonade stand is good for children to learn a good work ethic may seem good but it doesn’t accomplish the goal at all and when it is over hyped it certainly does more harm than good. There are plenty of more effective ways to tech children a good work ethic without teaching them to increase marketing waste. Simple things like chores or if they want to learn how to earn money something that benefits the consumer would be a good thing to teach them. Shoveling snow or cutting grass benefits the customer and if it is encouraged with reasonable discretion and child labor laws then it could teach children to provide a worthwhile service from an early age. If on the other hand they teach children to sell lemonade to people that only buy it because they think it is cute they’re teaching children to start scams from an early age.

Ironically the people that use this cute example of how hard working people create successful business' also spend an enormous amount of time complaining about subsidies that pick winners and losers when they don't like the choices that are being made. One of the more blatant examples is when they complain about the subsidies that have been provided for solar which are small compared to oil; but it is a developing technology that could use the help and would provide a long term benefit for society by helping to protect the environment. These people that criticize this are often much less likely to complain about oil subsidies which are for profitable companies that don't pay for the environmental damage they do. the same could apply in the real world when children really do have lemonade stands; they're routinely subsidized by their parents; they often provide the ingredients and help children get started as part of their education. Real lemonade stands don't make money or enable them to grow. Not that I'm saying that parents shouldn't help their children learn a work ethic but lemonade stands aren't the most effective way to do this although without better options some of these fund raiser that they often do are much better than the simple ones portrayed in the commercial and they're for a good cause without all the hype. Ironically these probably could be even better if they had more support from the community which is currently being taught by an enormous amount of propaganda that community programs are socialists which is bad for communities somehow.

As the old saying goes we would be much better off if the government put a high priority on funding these social programs and the military had to hold bake sales to fund their wars based on lies.

What the future holds for advertisers whether it is for the selling of products based on deceptive methods or the selling of candidates based on propaganda that is designed to prevent the potential voters from considering the truth about many of the most important issues depends on how well people learn how to recognize these scams. In the short term there doesn’t seem to be much if any hope of getting any help from the commercial media or the political establishment to help people recognize this unless you consider what they’re currently doing reverse psychology, which to some degree it is even if it isn’t intended that way.

My questions about whether or not they should disclose their research and ask whether or not they could use the research for this purpose seems like a no-brainer to me and I'm sure it would to many others as well if they thought about it. The only way they seem to justify it often seems to be by avoiding even considering the question. Roy Fox's response rings a bell and I'm quite certain I heard them before or something similar to them either from his book or one of the others on the subject, perhaps Susan Linn's book "Consuming Kids." Once again the only way they avoid justifying this is to avoid, or at least partially avoid, considering the question. Clearly it has been raised before but the vast majority of the public hasn't even heard about the discussion.

This should be another indicator that we need an alternative press that will do a better job informing the public about many of these issues. At least one version of this alternative media outlets should be partially if not entirely under the control of the academic researchers that address many of these issues. This is, to some degree, already available in academic journals that are now available on-line; however the vast majority of the public isn't aware of them. One way to fix this could involve simply doing more to let many people know where to find these sources. Unfortunately without media reform this may have to be done at the grass roots level which would be much slower than it could be. With media reform this could be done much more effectively and quicker and many of our most important problems could be solved more effectively with a better informed public.

Whether we turn this around depends on whether or not other alternative institutions or individuals carry out the educational efforts that the establishment refuses to do at least for now. If this leads to a major reform of the system then perhaps the system can be used to help educate children about these indoctrination methods instead of using them to indoctrinate them unwittingly.

If this isn’t done then ideological fanatics like Mitt Romney could wind up making all our decisions for us or we could wind up with a more moderate version that does a slightly better job pretending to address the concerns of the public without actually doing so. It isn’t hard to seem a little more sincere that Mitt Romney and many politicians manage to do that but none of them seem to be trying to educate the public about this issue and those that do continue to be shut out by the commercial media.

Recently I noticed that MSNBC hired Robert Gibbs as a contributor. Politicians are routinely hired by the commercial media.

For some reason they never hire someone like Roy fox or Sudan Linn.

Could the reason for this be that they suspect that if they did these people would blow their scams wide open?

The following are a few more comments about Roy Fox’s work researching Channel One

More Bang for the Buck: Teaching Teachers and Harnessing Literacy through Media

.... Unfortunately, various sorts of media have been used for education purposes in far less altruistic ways as well. In the early 1980’s, there was a push to increase public school students’ knowledge of current events. This led to the creation of a program in 1989 called “Channel One,” a TV station that broadcasted exclusively into middle school and high school classrooms. He characterizes the program as a 10-minute show with “eight minutes of pretty fluffy news programming and two minutes of high-volume, MTV-esque commercials.” Dr. Fox feels that the program has a focus on profit over education, and he thinks it exploits students as well as their teachers. It capitalizes on the notion of “independent” thinking and learning by pushing negative values such as materialism, insecurity and fear of people who are “different”—only for the purposes of increasing corporate profits. About his view of this initiative, Dr. Fox remarks, “If it seems like I’m cynical, well, it’s because I am.”

Dr. Fox decided to study the issue further by conducting research in rural Missouri schools—research that he self-funded because it did not fit current research guidelines of funding agencies. By talking to small groups of students away from their teachers, he discovered that the commercials were startlingly ingrained in their lives. Students were constantly re-creating the commercials in their daily lives—singing the jingles on the bus and re-enacting the scenes on the playground; some students even had dreams in which the products in the commercials became the focus, rather than the dreamer. Schools were becoming “echo chambers” for the messages represented in the commercials. This result was troubling, because of the negative values present in commercials as mentioned earlier. Having such messages reinforced day in and day out creates students who come to adopt those same values as their own. Unfortunately, although Dr. Fox published two books and many chapters and articles on this subject--even testifying against Channel One in the U. S. Senate--the exploitation continues. And although he continues to teach and speak at conferences and other venues around the world about this problem, it amounts to, he laments, “only pebbles thrown at the behemoth.”

Media is an exceptional tool for education, but it can be used both positively and negatively. Dr. Fox’s work is a wonderful asset for helping students of all levels learn the power of media and alternative methods for English Education. With his many insightful projects and progressive work in the educational field, Dr. Fox has indeed gotten the most bang for his buck. His influences on the academic world are invaluable, and future generations will undoubtedly benefit in major ways. Complete article

Roy fox is also the founder of Engaging Cultures & Voices: The Journal of English Learning through Media, an online peer-reviewed journal.

The following are some organizations that have adressed this issue:

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE)

Child Honouring
Shaping Youth

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC); includes hundreds of studies on Charter Schools and marketing to children from peer reviewed scholars.

The following are some articles or bloggers adressing thes issues.

“Electric Youth: Why Susan Linn and her Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood Terrify Child Advertisers“ Boston Magazine

Moms Rising see their article about GeoGirls at Walmart: Just What A Girl (Doesn’t) Need?

San Francisco Just Landed a Blow For Parents…

PhD in Parenting

Food Politics and thier Marketing to kids author tag

"Tricks of the Trade: Selling to Children," by Gary Ruskin first published in Mothering Magazine 1999 Ironically if you look at the ads on this page or go beyond it to the main domain you might find it is dominated by advertisers using these tricks, discretion advised as usual.

The following are books that have written more extensively about the subject or related subjects.

Susan Linn "Consuming Kids" 2004

Juliet Schor “Born to Buy.“ 2004

Roy Fox "Harvesting Minds“ or see my blog review of this book

Roy Fox “MediaSpeak: Three American Voices“

Naomi Klein “No Logo” 1999

Alissa Quart “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers“ 2003

Mark Crispin Miller “Boxed In“ 1988

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