by Eirini Glyki

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.” Jimmy Carter, former U.S. president

Building a Consumer Society

In the beginning of the 20th century a social change took place: workers were included in the consumer class, which until then was comprised of the upper and middle classes. In the 1940s, businessmen and economists started to fight for more working hours and increased wages, aiming at achieving more production and economic growth. Marketers and advertisers pressured workers to spend more and work started to be considered an end goal in itself. People focused on producing and consuming unlimited goods rather than enjoying leisure.

After the Second World War, even the labour unions pressed for more working hours and it was then that leisure started becoming consumer orientated. In Europe consumerism trends spread after the Second World War and the social spectrum started being organized more by consumer-connected status than social class. Families started to transfer funds from the family budget to purchases in order to achieve their desirable status.

The 1970s saw consumerism gaining a lot of ground by adding children to the consumption process. During the 1980s corporations started to directly target children through their marketing campaigns as the adult markets became saturated.

Illustration by Alejandra Bize

Marketers Exploit Fears and Aspirations

Today’s marketing game manipulates the psychology of modern families by exploiting their fears and aspirations. Since the 1980s advertisers have been working on finding the most effective ways of attracting childrens' attention. This can vary from supermarket adverts placed at the height of a child’s position in the cart, to product marketing in bright, colourful packaging that will immediately grab the child’s attention, to using music and video to attract children through the internet and television.

Up until now television was the best transmitter of advertising aimed at children; by 1988 64 % of television toy advertisements were for toys related to children's television programs. The head of Disney explained to the magazine “Advertising Age” in 1989 how the Disney Corporation's activities all reinforced each other: "The Disney Stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television shows. The television shows promote the company." These practices have been continuously applied up to the present day.

Since the 1990s, the effect of the Internet revolution became visible and children have been constantly bombarded with advertisement links through their computers. In May 2009, there were 16 million Internet users globally from two to eleven years old. According to the director of the international web design company Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive, "This is a medium for advertisers that is unprecedented... there's probably no other product or service that we can think of that is like it in terms of capturing kids' interest."

Companies’ advertisements target children with the prospect that they will grow up to be lifelong consumers of specific products. As a result of this strategy, the companies’ target audience is constantly decreasing in age. Children as young as four years old are being targeted by advertising, making parents and teachers unable to intervene, or in some cases, unaware of their child’s exposure to advertisement. Modern-day children are constantly exposed to stories not coming from parents, teachers, peers, books, or films but from marketing and advertising. Childhood memories are no longer connected with places, people, and emotions, but with products, and their advertising jingles and slogans.

Marketing and advertising have also been linked to the increase of health issues amongst children. The constant promotion of images of what beauty and perfection are supposed to be has been connected to the increase of low self-esteem amongst children, resulting in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Eating disorders among teenagers are disturbingly common and even girls as young as six are worrying about their weight. In the United States, a recent survey reported that about 42 % of first to third-grade girls, want to be thinner and 81 % of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat.

Furthermore, the increase of obesity among children has been connected to the marketing and promotion of unhealthy food. In one study, advertisement for unhealthy food on the Internet was found to account for almost 50 % of all the food advertisements being surveyed on children’s and the food industry’s websites. The fast-food industry spends about $660 million US dollars of its annual $4.2 billion advertising budget (about 16 percent) on marketing to children and teenagers, and more than half of that is spent on toy giveaways included in children’s meals.

In a recent European Commission survey, 96 % of respondents consider that food advertising and promotion influences children’s eating habits, with 53 % considering that it has an important role (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Self-reported data on the impression of the increase in obesity in European countries (EU25). Source: European Comission

Children are naïve about advertising and can easily be manipulated and exploited by marketing to want and demand products. One study by Professor R. Fox at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that: “..children watching athletes in television commercials thought that the athletes paid to be in the advertisements to promote themselves rather than the products. They believed children in advertisements were real rather than paid actors and they often confused advertisements with news items. Generally children did not understand the commercial intent and manipulation behind advertisements.”

Ban on Ads Targeting Children

In 1991 Sweden banned all advertising to children under 12 after a Swedish Consumer Agency report concluded that "The results of studies that have attempted to distinguish between different degrees of understanding or levels of awareness, all indicate that it is only after the age of 12 that children develop a fuller understanding of the purpose of advertising."

Marketing and consumerism are turning children into consumers, not citizens, promoting an unsustainable living model connected to selfishness as opposed to actively caring for the society and the environment. Modern families live in a historical period where they have the opportunity to enjoy all the advancements of mankind; however their lives, filled with pressure and anxiety, aimed at instant gratification, do not seem happier.

Read more about this subject in the Worldwatch Europe publication, From Consumer Kids to Sustainable Childhood, which will be released 15 November 2012.


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