Section three - The impact of commercialisation on children

3. The impact of commercialisation on children

If advertising had no impact on children, $447.5 billion would not be spent globally on advertising as a whole in a year.[1] The impact of the commercial world goes beyond influencing children’s consumer behaviour, whether intentionally or not. Many studies and observations have been made into how the commercial world affects all areas of a child’s life. These include their physical health, mental health and emotional wellbeing, values, educational development and relationships.

Nearly three-fifths of parents with children under 18 believe that advertising seen by children can be harmful to them.

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union


Physical health

Childhood obesity has become a matter of grave concern in the developed world. More than 2.3 million children in Britain are estimated to be overweight or obese, which has contributed to many under-12s already showing signs of high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.[2] In Ireland 19% of children are overweight, with seven per cent being classified as obese.[3] Sedentary lifestyles, whether through preference for computer games, fear of the outside world or lack of outdoor play areas, plus a love of junk food have largely been blamed. One study has found that for every additional hour of television a child of two-and-a-half watches, 13% less time is spent doing weekend physical activity, nine per cent less time doing activities involving physical effort, and 10% higher consumption of soft drinks and snacks; leading to a five per cent increase in body mass index.[4]

Whilst health professionals and governments rightly argue that parents need to ensure their children eat healthily and take exercise, the World Health Organisation has concluded there is a ‘probable causal link’ between persistent unhealthy food and drink marketing and weight gain and obesity. In a study carried out by Yale University in 2008, it was found that children significantly prefer the taste of food with popular cartoon characters on the packaging compared with exactly the same food without the cartoons. The effect is particularly strong for energy dense, nutrient poor food.[5] It is not surprising, then, that both the UK and Irish governments have prohibited the use of licensed characters and celebrities in advertisements for unhealthy (high in fat, sugar and salt) food and drink.


Mental health and emotional wellbeing

As with the obesity statistics, an unhappy picture of children’s mental health has been painted. One in ten children suffers a mental health disorder in the UK[6] and one in 20 in Ireland.[7] Whilst some doubt a causal link between commercialisation and mental health problems, there is an association between high media use, materialism and dissatisfaction, leading to poorer self-esteem.[8] Certainly within all age groups, those who place a high emphasis on material goods and wealth report higher levels of stress and anxiety, lower satisfaction with themselves and poorer relationships with others.[9] Several explanations are offered for the cause of this but many centre around the importance of a sense of belonging to enhance wellbeing. If belonging is based on what a child owns but they (or their family) cannot afford to (or will not) buy it, they may lack that sense of belonging[10] or even experience feelings of inadequacy, leading to less confidence.[11] The Advertising Association argues that ‘most children seem to be able to balance the pressures of consumerism with their sense of value and self worth’ and of course children do have resilience – but just how much ‘pressure to consume’ is it fair to inflict on children?

Another key area of concern is the emphasis placed on physical appearance by the media in general. Children in the UK report that having the right clothes is the third most stressful part of being a child. Half of girls believe that it is important to be attractive to the opposite sex and the UK is the country where girls find it the hardest to feel beautiful when surrounded by the images projected by the marketing industry.[12] Toys such as Moxie Girlz, aimed at girls aged six to 15, link slimness to other aspirational traits – ‘I am smart, clever, slim’ proclaims the packaging of the Lexa doll. Whilst factors other than external stimuli contribute to poor self image and associated manifestations such as eating disorders and self-harm, academic Jean Kilbourne argues that ‘advertising does promote abusive and abnormal attitudes about eating, drinking and thinness’.[13] However, how do marketers get it right, between not promoting overeating and inactivity, yet not promoting an ideal of unhealthy thinness?



Linked to emotional wellbeing are the values we hold, especially about what we think will make us happy. The very purpose of marketing is to manufacture want, whether for a particular brand of everyday necessity or for the image that is associated with a particular brand. Whilst parent’s role-modelling of consumer habits has been found to have the greatest influence on young people’s habits, children do develop their own values and adopt those of wider society.[14]

The development of materialism tends to occur in children around the ages of seven to 11, when they begin to understand how others see them. The desire to accumulate can develop as compensation for feelings of insecurity or unhappiness, and/or through socialisation in the quest to belong (through owning the ‘right’ things). This, Barrie Gunter of the Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester, and Adrian Furnham, of the Educational Psychology Unit at University College London, argue, can lead to a value system of self-centredness, ambition and greed.[15] In one study 61% of children reported wishing that their parents gave them more money to spend, and 59% of ‘brand-aware’ children reported being dissatisfied (in general) compared with 47% of less brand-aware children.[16]

Fr Christopher Jamison, a leading Roman Catholic monk, comments that: ‘Having saturated the world of our material needs, consumerism is now taking over our need for cultural goods such as music, entertainment and even moral purpose… Disney stories carry all sorts of moral messages such as good triumphing over evil, but that is not the story that matters as regards activating my greed. The story that touches my greed is that Disney is educational and helpful so we go on buying Disney products in order to be a good and happy family… This is the new pilgrimage that children desire, a rite of passage into the meaning of life according to Disney. Where once morality and meaning were available as part of our free cultural inheritance, now corporations sell them to us as products.’[17]


Understanding and educational development

The media and commercial goods do provide developmental and educational opportunities for children and indeed most schools function with their use. Many books, games and toys are created with a developmental or educational aspect, and many positive messages are sent out through children’s media. However, these positive values are also used as their selling point, for example by brands such as In the Night Garden and Baby Einstein. However, parents don’t necessarily agree that the media give children a good idea of what the world is really like


The media (advertising, films, TV and the internet) gives your children a good idea of what the real world is like

Net agree: 39%

Net disagree: 51%

Don’t know: 10%

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union

In the research that has been carried out into the effects of media on children’s educational development and performance, one recent study found that 22% of boys and 13% of girls have trouble developing speech and understanding others because of a television being on either most or all of the time.[18] Another study has found that the more television a toddler watches, the poorer academic measurements he or she will have at age ten.[19]

As an educator with over 30 years of experience, Sue Palmer has witnessed an ‘alarming escalation’ in developmental disorders in children at school. Whilst some of this may be due to better levels of diagnoses, she has also seen a coincidental increase in the proportion of children who were just ‘distractible, impulsive or badly behaved’ due to the unintended side effects of technological and cultural change.[20]



‘Pester power’, the persistent nagging from a child to buy things, has the potential to put stress on the parent/child relationship. Purchase requests made by children can result in disappointment when parents or guardians refuse. Refusal can lead to arguments and disappointment and arguments increase when refusals increase. Such family conflict can lead to a lower opinion of parents. This makes life particularly difficult for families who have recently gone through divorce where, according to studies, ‘adolescents tend to place more value on material objects, perhaps to compensate for disruption.’[21] Whilst somewhat ambivalent about the existence of the commercialisation of childhood, the Department for Education[22] found that ‘parents consider that their authority and capacity to manage their children’s behaviour is compromised by (among other things) children’s desires and increased expectations which they see as fuelled by marketing’.[23] However, pester power is not a result of advertising alone – children’s interactions with each other also spur the desires for certain products, for which children will then ‘pester’ their parents.[24]

Nearly half of parents feel that media does not disrupt family life but are more uncertain about the impact of the media on their children’s relationships with peers.

The effect of the media disrupts our family life

Agree strongly: 7%

Agree: 26%

Disagree: 49%

Disagree strongly: 9%

Don’t know: 9% The effect of the media makes it harder for children to create good/strong relationships with people of their own age

Agree strongly: 9%

Agree: 31%

Disagree: 39%

Disagree strongly: 4%

Don’t know: 18%

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union


So whilst marketing to children does not of itself damage family life and friendships, its shiny packaging can add stresses to the everyday negotiations between children and adults, and between children.


[1] Zenith Optimedia



[4] Pagani, Fitzpatrick, Barnett and Dubow, Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Television Exposure and Academic, Psychosocial, and Physical Well-being by Middle Childhood. 2010.Archive Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. 2010;164(5):425-431.

[5] Roberto, Baik, Harris and Brownwell, Influence of Licensed Characters on Children’s Taste and Snack Preferences. Health Promotion International, 2008.



[8] Agnes Nairn and Jo Ormrod, Watching wanting and wellbeing: Exploring the links. A study of 9-13 year olds. National Consumer Council, 2007.

[9] Commercialisation of Childhood. Compass, 2006

[10] Alison J Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture.

[11] David Piachaud, Freedom to be a Child.

[12] Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, Consumer Kids.

[13] David Piachaud, Freedom to be a Child.

[14] Barrie Gunter and Adrian Furnham, Children as Consumers. Routledge, 1998.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ed Mayo, Shopping Generation.

[17] Christopher Jamison, Finding Happiness. Phoenix Press, 2009.

[18] Jean Gross/YouGov, 2010.

[19] Pagani, Fitzpatrick, Barnett and Dubow, Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Television Exposure and Academic, Psychosocial, and Physical Well-being by Middle Childhood. 2010. Archive Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 2010. 164(5):425-431.

[20] Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood.

[21] Agnes Nairn, Business thinks family. Family and Parenting Institute, 2008.

[22] When it was the Department for Children Schools and Families

[23] The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing: Report of an Independent Assessment

[24] Barrie Gunter, Caroline Oates and Mark Blades, Advertising to Children on TV Content, Impact, and Regulation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.

[25] Jean Gross/YouGov, 2010.