Pester Power and New Media

The impact of online advertising aimed at minors


This article is part of a divulgative and investigative journalistic project developed from the collaboration with Greenpeace ItaliaVersione in Italiano
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The year 1952 marked a watershed moment in the history of television advertising: Mr Potato Head, an advert featuring a toy as the protagonist, was aired for the first time. The campaign represented a revolution in the history of small screen advertising, as explained to CNN by Paul Kurnit, the advertising executive who oversaw campaigns for giants of the international toy market such as G.I. JOE and My Little Pony: “The idea of targeting television adverts at children had never been done before”. This was a radical departure from previous campaigns, that ran mainly in newspapers, and preferred to attract the attention of parents, instead of addressing the children directly. 

(Dis)educated to consumption 

Since then, the phenomenon of advertising targeted at minors has evolved rapidly, becoming a central element of modern life.This has prompted increasing focus on the ability of advertising to manipulate children’s minds over the last 70 years. 

This phenomenon has been named Nag Factor (or Pester Power). The interest of advertisers in children is explained by the psychologist James Mcneal in his book “Children as Consumers of Commercial and Social Products”. According to his research, minors are increasingly important for advertising agencies, as future consumers, and because they are links to reach their parents, who, faced with persuasive techniques, are unable to resist the demands of their children.This teaches minors about consumption as a cornerstone of their social being from an early age, and pushes children into a spiral of compulsive purchases, influenced by the perception that these goods might enhance social status or ensure membership of a particular group. 

This approach lays the foundations of Overconsumption, which causes personal and family expenditure to exceed the natural needs of the consumer, by promoting unnecessary products as indispensable. 

This mechanism is fostered by the current corporate structure, which is directly supported by the advertising system. As a result, children under the influence of advertising will reject the rational explanations of their parents, who are forced to satisfy this ‘need’ despite its place on the priority scale. This process mainly concerns the leisure and food markets, causing a sharp increase in the sale of highly polluting products such as carbonated drinks distributed in plastic bottles, which are also harmful to the minor consumers’ health. 

Priority to smartphone

An example of this trend is the vertical climb of smartphones to the top of the family consumption scale: while a telephone with internet access was previously perceived necessary only for people of working age, today it represents a priority for every single member of the family unit. This obviously applies also to minors, who experience a large slice of their social life online. Nudged by social networks to keep in touch with their friends, and by services such as Amazon for the purchase of goods. Smartphones are seen even by parents as a priority for minors.. 

According to Statcounter data, companies such as Samsung, Motorola and Xiaomi, )who represent 70% of the South American market) have started specializing in the production of low-end, low cost smartphones(priced between 100 and 200 dollars). Even so, they are seeing significant spending for families, which in turn increases the working time required by parents to support these purchases as well as the wifi connection and line contracts required to run those phones. 

This addition of smartphones as a priority for the family budget means that advertisers have another tool for targeting consumers. Not only through the purchase of physical goods through e-commerce, but also through subscription to platforms like Twitch and YouTube, which are additional ways for Google and Amazon to profit. 

In this way the attention and the time spent by minors online is monetized, and this is often fostered by children’s need to recognize themselves in a community. 

The increase in the use of smartphones as a necessity also has an impact on the environment -the production of smartphones caused the creation of 3 million tons of electronic waste in 2014 alone, a figure that has grown significantly over the last six years (UN University study). 

YouTube Kids: the wild west of advertising for minors 

According to BankmyCell data, the smartphone market will grow from 6.4 billion to 7.5 billion devices in use by 2026 globally. In Latin America internet access via mobile reached 69% in 2019 and is expected to reach 80% by 2026. 

This has given the advertising industry a new way to target minors. Despite a supposed age regulation of 13, YouTube and Facebook represent a massive opportunity for marketing agencies, who access user data tracking, to target individuals with products aimed specifically at them. 

This ever-increasing pervasiveness of online services, also increases children’s exposure to manipulative advertising messages and boosts the phenomenon of Pester Power.The Community Guidelines for social networks or the attempt by Youtube to create Youtube Kids, an advert-free platform for kids, are largely ignored by content creators, whose proceeds are derived entirely from the monetization of videos through adverts.

In 2019, YouTube was hit by a scandal that resulted in a $190m fine for repeated violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. New rules were implemented but have done little, if anything, to curb the practice. 

Where internal regulation of platforms has failed, decisive legislation is needed. A serious underestimation of the risks to minors accessing the internet has led to delays in real action. However awareness is now spreading, and measures are being taken. 

In many South American states, a fundamental role in this legislative renaissance has been played by the creation of advertising self-regulation bodies, promoted directly by the producers themselves and gathered within the CONARed (Rede Latino-americana de Organismos de Autorregulamentação). 

Their purpose is to defend the freedom of commercial expression through self-regulation and the consumer’s right to receive truthful advertising information, based on a preventive, corrective and precautionary role. They are paying particular attention to misleading advertising, the verification of promises made through advertising and the use and possible manipulation of minors by advertising, structuring their work for the creation of ethical and fair advertising while still considering the need to preserve their earnings. 

The weak results of the self-regulatory organizations 

At a national level, the (indirect) lobbying of these organizations has allowed legislative bodies to take significant steps forward regarding the laws inherent to advertising regulation, especially in the fields of protecting minors against manipulation. One of the most virtuous examples is the Ley Orgànica de Comunicaciòn promoted by the Ecuadorian Parliament in 2014, where, in addition to a general regulation of advertising products present in traditional media and New Media, there is a particular attention to adverts aimed at minors. These are regulated in Articles 63 and 64: above all article 63, regarding the participation of minors in advertising, specifies the prohibition of creating unrealistic expectations towards the advertised product, and aims to thwart the possibility that these cause pressure on parents to lead them to purchase unnecessary products. The article’s purpose is to lessen Pester Power and the possibility of generating a sense of inferiority in children who have not yet purchased this product. By observing these articles, which appeal to the Code of Ethics promoted directly by the Ecuadorian CONAR, extremely advanced legislation can be found in the defense of the rights of minors and to the risks of advertising overexposure both in traditional and more recent media. Consequently the interest on the part of the legislative bodies for the development of the new media sector grows, and the trend is analyzed with ample reference to the most recent sociological theories on the subject. This has promoted other countries’ to attempt to regulate the area, although the Chilean bill proposed in 2017 was closed due to the change of legislature before it could be discussed in Parliament. 

Despite these setbacks, the legislative effort promoted by the countries of Latin America demonstrates an increasing awareness of the negative effects that advertising can have on minors: the constant extension or drafting of new laws that directly affect New Media are finally managing to put a stop to the exploitation by marketing agencies, which for years have taken advantage of the total thoughtlessness on the part of platforms that have failed to regulate these phenomena. Only through an accurate government action can this be stemmed,and by teaching children to recognise and reject advertising. 

This is similar to the work by children’s services in cities, to actively ban tobacco, alcohol and junk food ads near schools and universities. Pester Power is a dynamic that develops mostly online, but has evolved over time, starting from offline advertisements posted in public spaces. Campaigns to stop the spread of high-impact billboards near educational places have been present since the 1980s, in every corner of the world, from Jakarta to Los Angeles. Now that we know the dangers, attention must be paid to protecting minors from online environments as well. 

Articolo di Luca Bagnariol