A new book highlights the effects on consumerism on children and raises questions and objections to research firms which recruit kids to test products, and to sell them in return for incentives.
The truth, widely known in the marketing world, is that children are wonderful salespeople and conduits to other children. Young people know this too, write authors Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn in the book.
This world of consumer kids is not just about shopping and advertising, but about playgrounds, streets, bedrooms, the friendships children make and the new technologies they embrace, they write.
Mayo is chief executive of the Consumer Focus, a consumer watchdog group which is backed by the U.K. government. Nairn is a professor of marketing at EM-Lyon business school in France. Their book is titled Consumer Kids: How Big Business Is Grooming Our Children for Profit.
One of marketing methods probed in the book is the use of brand ambassadors. Usually such people are already avid users of a product and are often seen as actively promoting the product even without incentives from the company. Researchers, on behalf of companies, usually recruit such people to promote the products among peers – clarifying to them that they are indeed promoting -- and giving them incentives to win free merchandise, product previews and even token cash awards.
One research company highlighted in the book is called Dubit Unlimited. The researchers explain how U.S.-based toy manufacturer Mattel commissioned Dubit to recruit 7 to 11 year-old girls in the U.K. to market a Barbie MP3 player.
The book describes the case of a young girl named Sarah who received a Barbie MP3 player to sample and give feedback. She was recruited through an online children's chat room to work as a sales agent. The girl is also encouraged to talk to her friends about the products and promote it on the Internet through photos of herself and her friends using it. In return she gets bonus points, which she can redeem.
This is insidious and downright creepy, Mayo told the Telegraph.
There is no doubt children are savvier than ever and that should be celebrated. But we need a debate about how they are being bombarded by big businesses. Children are more vulnerable than both they and their parents sometimes realize.
In a letter in response to the book, Dubit says any work is done with consent of parents and according to U.K. regulations.
The brand ambassador scheme is just one activity young people have designed to improve marketing to their age group - with the explicit approval of parents, schools and the young people, the company says.
Our code of conduct ensures that those involved always inform their peers why they have the product: if they don't like it, they send it back so they are fully in control.
Nairn admits that research through such ambassadors can bear fruit, but also warns of the implications.
The way such things as brand ambassadors are recruited is usually through the internet, and these research companies do some very good research with children, Nairn says, according to Reuters.
But the brand ambassador thing seems to me to be crossing a line. It's interfering with friendships and popularity, which can also spill over into bullying, mental health problems and low self-esteem among children.
The authors note that while children such as Sarah who work for brands are still in a minority, all children are encouraged to want, to buy, to drink, to snack, to collect, to grow- up fast and get spending.