A WELL-KNOWN American behaviourist JB Watson once proclaimed: “Give me a child from any milieu whatsoever and tell me what I should make out of him, a scientist, a craftsman, a politician or even a criminal and I will achieve this goal.”
His disciples who meanwhile, have become fewer and fewer are still waiting for the result of his theory on manipulative education.
Pavlov and the early Soviet education theorists were filled with optimism that they could achieve a politically desirable educational goal by establishing a system of conditioned reflexes.
As a result, advertising and its influence on children’s behaviour takes on public and political discussion to such a pronounced extent.
In 2003 two overweight teens in the US sued McDonalds for not warning them that their chicken burgers were fattening.
Their parents believed that fast-food posters showing happy, smiling caricature of chickens in sneakers using a spin-dryer to get fit persuaded their children to rise up en masse and start abusing poultry.
All this hysteria aimed at proving the potent persuasive power of advertising and its effects on children.
Advertising is universally present and it is salient, one is affected by it and can only evade it to a very limited extent.
The numerous stimuli and their intensity automatically results in emotional reactions of sympathy or antipathy. The everyday psychology of the layman has always been characterised by the idea, the desires or even the fears that people could be influenced according to a stimulus-response model.
The central psychological assumption of most social discussion is that advertising aims at influencing and leading astray, especially for children who are intensive consumers of television and are therefore intensively exposed to advertising.
Since the deregulation of television in the late 1980s, the line between television and commercials has got fuzzier.
This prompted former US Vice-President Al Gore to attack Hollywood for contributing to the “paediatric Epidemic” of smoking. He remarked: “We know that popular culture has an enormous impact on our children’s habits and as more and more children start smoking, smoking in the movies is way up as well.”
JB Watson’s disciples argue that psychologically children are easily influenced and helplessly at the mercy of advertising because they are not able to differentiate between advertising and television programmes.
As a result the world has bashed away at advertisers and called on governments to take care of their kids by wrapping them in a protective shroud of regulation and censorship.
However, in scientific psychology the manipulation theory of human behaviour has failed. Changing behaviour is an extremely complex matter, which cannot simple be altered by special conditioning strategies.
All information processing – and that includes advertising – is based on complex motivational states and framework conditions. An advertisement can be looked upon as a brief, but exaggerated and highly emotionally charged burst of information, usually directed at a specific group.
Everybody is exposed to advertising, yet most people are not in the targeted segment of the population for much of the advertising they see.
Polarisation of opinion is therefore a precondition and brings with it an effective, emotionally charged aversion to advertising.
There is no one who has not at some time been enraged about a certain advertisement or commercial spot and all forms of aversion to advertising stem from this effective feeling.
Therefore is the layman’s everyday comprehension that advertising influences behaviour valid. Since we are discussing advertising effects on children maybe a more appropriate question should be what do we really know about our children?
Research has revealed that television and TV advertising is only a matter of peripheral importance to the daily routine of children between the ages of six and 15 years.
The time budget for children involves 87,6% of their time spent on school playing, reading, sport, music, homework and meals at home 11% on watching television leaving 1,4% on advertising.
An observation of children’s behaviour while watching TV shows that they rarely concentrate on watching what is happening on the screen. Besides television they are often engaged in a lot of other activities, therefore the majority of children are only reached by TV advertising for a minimal period of time.
The real socialising agents continue to be their parents, the extended social environment and school. The crescendo of protest over the effects of advertising could be nothing more than an abdication of parental responsibility.
After all what happened to that good old-fashioned notion of parents and grandparents telling children that consuming particular breakfast cereal will not turn a child into a genius? Research has also shown that 33,6% of children as young as six years old are able to question the credibility of advertising.
As they get older they differentiate more in their judgment. This means that children learn at an early age that nearly all advertising functions with a specific exaggeration factor.
The research results clearly disprove the assumption that children are at the mercy of advertising due to the assumed lack of cognitive orientation and judgment patterns of advertising.
At a considerable earlier age than layman psychology accepts, children develop advertising competence together with functioning orientation and judgment systems for an independent and critical way of handling commercials.
The result of the research shows that compared with their parents’ generation children today live under radically different social, political and macroeconomic conditions. The psychological profile of children is not identical with the picture adults have of them.
Therefore, positive child rearing should neither be governed by the very set negative prejudgment of the children of today nor by applying the standards which were relevant for one’s own development.
Children lose their naïvety much earlier than the case for previous generation. They are concerned with adult problems, adult criticism and also with problems of their own further development at an early age.
In a society with mass communication and that includes advertising and a lot of children not only take information about products and brands but they are also able to remember of this kind of information when it is specifically presented for children as offering more or less attractive alternatives to their own quality of life.