The youth market is huge; estimates vary between $1.5 and $2 trillion annually. That’s an awful lot of money being spent by, and on behalf of, children. A concomitantly large amount is spent on marketing to children and young people; in the US, for instance, something approaching $17 billion annually.
Some countries regulate marketing and advertising to children; in Norway and Sweden, it is illegal to advertise directly to children under the age of twelve; in France, broadcasting of any type aimed at children under three is illegal. Presumably, the governments of some countries see this as a contentious area, one that requires intervention.
In the UK, we have guidelines for marketing to young people (there’s Check, for instance, an initiative of the Advertising Association in partnership with Turner Media Innovations) so clearly there is a perception in the industry, as well as at government level, that this is a vexed subject. It is assumed (and most of us would agree) that children are more vulnerable to persuasion than adults, and that the ethics of marketing to the young are a matter of some concern.
The most frequently expressed worry of child and parental advocates relates to glamour and sexuality. This may reflect traditional attitudes to the place of children in culture, but it’s also a response to a trend in that segment of our society where the line between culture and market is thinnest and most blurred. Youth culture is almost impossible to disentangle from the youth market; and youth is central to the myth of the commercial market.
Youth culture is sexy; our model of glamour rests on a notion of youth as the defining criterion of attraction. As a result, the market tends to base its promotion of glamour on a youthful template to which all of us are encouraged (tempted, perhaps) to aspire. Watching mature adults attempting to look like glamorous adolescents may make us giggle; watching young children do the same thing is fundamentally disquieting for many of us.
The ‘sexualisation of everything’ is not primarily a sin committed by marketers. There are wider trends that contribute to it: the twentieth century opened with Freud, Havelock Ellis and others telling us that sexuality was intrinsic to personal development; the mid-century rush for personal freedom, illusory or not, was predicated on sexual ‘liberation’; the rise and rise of the porn industry, and the depiction of sex as a tenet of artistic licence, mean that images of sexuality are never far away.
At the same time, the place of children and young people in our culture is changing. They are much more visible in modern culture; they also exert a much stronger economic influence than in traditional societies. Family decisions are dictated by considerations of what young people want, and are entitled to. The relationship of young people to sex is also changing; children in western cultures are reaching puberty at an increasingly early age; their exposure to adult entertainment, both via family viewing and independent access to media, is growing exponentially. The nineteenth-century dream of childhood innocence has faded into obscurity.
When a story like the Jimmy Saville scandal breaks, our cultural confusion over children and sex becomes apparent. We are all outraged over the exploitation of vulnerable young people by manipulative adults in positions of power and influence. We are happy to see the perpetrators of such crimes described as monsters (after all, that means they are not like us, doesn’t it?). We even allow ourselves a bit of moral hand-wringing over the broader issues.
So, hand in hand with the breathless reports of yet another celebrity being arrested for allegedly having sex with someone under the age of legal consent, we see stories about advertisers having their corporate wrists slapped for producing ‘sexy’ images of adolescents. It is clear that the two types of story are connected, at some level. But few commentators want to try and articulate that connection; it’s as if some taboo were in danger of being broken if we did.
First, we have to recognise that if we sexualise our culture, it’s a pretty comprehensive process. It means, for instance, that crime will inevitably intrude on sex, and vice versa. It means that sex is an inescapable part of our commercial lives, as well as our private behaviour; if commerce is sexualised, then sex is by definition commercialised. In these circumstances, how can childhood and youth escape the process?
Second, we need to understand what we have done by promoting youth culture to the apex of our aspirations. Celebrity, and the attention economy, mass popular culture, and relatively irresponsible acquisition; these may be inevitable outcomes of an increasingly juvenile public outlook. But the public domain is bereft of self-analysis; it has no explanation for how and why we came to predicate so much of our lives on sex and youth.
To the extent that analysis exists, it is largely both tidal and polemical: tidal in the sense that we only hear opinions on these topics when their dark sides intrude on the body politic; polemical in the sense that objective discussion is drowned out by the voices of interest groups which, however well-intentioned they may be, refuse to see a bigger picture.
If we think these developments are by definition bad, and we need to do something about them, we are already in the camp of the dissenters; that’s fine, if we are content to let beliefs sway our actions. If we think they are either good or neutral, and we have to learn to live with them, then we need to explore how we can live comfortably with them. Neither of these positions is objective, however; and neither allow us to understand our predicament. Blaming the people on the other side of the telly may inadvertently tell us something about the power relations involved in the farrago of public sexuality, but it leaves us as spectators of our society rather than participants. The question is: is there a consensus culture we can all sign up to, and if there is, are we living in it now? The answer to that question is vital for the future of our children, actually for all of us.