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fredericton 21/01/2012 - 12:46PM

The Brunswickan Film Review on Consuming Kids

Consuming Kids: A Cinema Politica Review 

Lee Thomas - The Brunswickan

Sinister music. A heartbeat. The faded image of a sleeping infant, peaceful and oblivious. Interspersed with these, a quote:

“The consumer embryo begins to develop during the first year of existence. Children begin their consumer journey in infancy, and they certainly deserve consideration as consumers at that time.” - James U. McNeal, pioneering youth marketer.

In the documentary Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, directors Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp present the underside of the child advertising world. It is both eye-opening and, at times, absolutely horrifying.

The 2008 film addresses many aspects of the youth marketing industry, and the audience hears from the perspectives of advertisers, activists, researchers, and health professionals, among others. These interviews are juxtaposed with painfully bright commercial clips, which lie in stark contrast to the bleak reality portrayed by the film.

Though many people might think of advertising as an insignificant nuisance, it is in fact a multi-billion dollar industry with great stakes in the manipulation of consumer behaviour. With more than 52 million children under 12 in the USA, and 16 per cent of the population under 14 in Canada, advertisers have a huge incentive to appeal to this large and economically influential demographic.

The tactics described and illustrated in the film are much more complex and subversive than one might expect. For instance, child psychologists employed by the marketing industry use their knowledge of cognitive function at certain stages of development to create ads that will be most appealing to their target age group.

In trials at one company, children are put through MRI scans to determine which particular series of images will generate the most ideal stimulation in certain areas of the brain. At another, children’s blink frequency is monitored to see if the company’s commercials are, literally, “mesmerising” enough.

“Is it ethical? I don’t know,” admitted Lucy Hughes, a youth advertising corporation representative with a too-large smile and nervous eyes.

“Our job is to move products... (Kids) are tomorrow’s consumers. Build that relationship when they’re younger and you’ve got them as an adult.”

In the U.S., advertising to children is virtually uncontrolled, thanks to deregulation laws passed by Congress during the Reagan administration. Fortunately, Canadian children are partially shielded from the onslaught by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which monitors marketing to children by upholding the regulations set out in the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children.

However, despite our comparatively strict laws regarding child marketing, many of the numerous issues mentioned in the film ring equally true for Canadian children – for instance, the values of rampant consumerism, as anyone who visited a shopping mall last month can verify.

In the U.S., kids’ purchasing influence – their effect on their parents’ spending– accounts for nearly $700 billion, equal to the GDP of the 115 poorest countries in the world.

Nauseating statistics of this nature were plentiful and frequent in Consuming Kids. The film, the first of Cinema Politica Fredericton’s 2012 series, was shown at the Conserver House on Jan 6. Upcoming films will be shown weekly on Fridays at 7 p.m. until April.

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