George Orwell called it “the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket.” David Cameron promises to clamp down on its efforts to influence children. Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, met last month with the industry's standards authority to discuss practice in relation to children. The Home Office commissions a report on the premature sexualisation of children for commercial gain. Advertising, it seems, is most of interest to politicians - and by extension to those whose votes they seek - when it is aimed at children.
It is right for us to be concerned about the impact of selling power on the least analytical and discerning members of society - although the sudden moral panic from politicians who have long bowed before the market might seem to have more to do with the proximity of a general election than with a conversion of manners and morals. However, using the vulnerability of children as the means of turning them into consumers at an age when they are tender in experience and ardent in desire, is immoral and should be a cause of concern to us all.
But however vexatious their 'pester power' might be, children are subject to their parents and will reflect the values of the adults they see around them. Our own attitudes towards advertising must be examined. The psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, author of the Home Office report, writes that unless these exploitative issues are addressed we will “miss an important opportunity... to broaden young people's beliefs about where their values lie".
However, unless we have a clear perception of where our own values lie, we can be neither exemplars nor pathfinders for our children as they seek a way through the advertising and marketing jungle. No amount of lobbying, indignation or prohibition will make much difference unless we are determined to let our own lives speak.
We are the most advertised-to society in history. On 15 February 2010, the think-tank Compass published a paper, 'The Advertising Effect', in which it describes us as seeing an average of 3500 brand images a day. From billboards at bus-stops to screens in the Post Office; from web pages to television, we are bombarded with images and messages ranging from the simply informative to the cynically manipulative. It seems that TV advertisement breaks will soon be supplemented by product placement within dramas and films. The message offered is that no category of aesthetic or emotional experience is to be permitted to remain beyond the reach of the market. It is hardly surprising that we are an increasingly unhappy, insecure, indebted and wasteful society.
Consumer capitalism depends on the creation of endless desires and the purpose of advertising has less to do with imparting information about products and services than with holding us in a state of permanent dissatisfaction. Our hearts have been taught to be restless until they rest (temporarily) in the latest gadget, fast car or status bestowing lifestyle accessory.
We have learned to long for things for which we have no need and had never even though of acquiring until the relentlessly rapacious marketing machine plugged into our insecurities, all but extinguishing the flickering light of conscientious discernment. We have acquiesced in the carefully nurtured and insidious anxiety that to be without certain artefacts or attitudes is to be unstylish failures who cannot keep up with the game.
It is this, as much as child-targeted marketing, which builds the school in which children learn to persecute their peers who lack the latest thing in mobile phones or trainers. It is also the source of much age-inappropriate behaviour from youngsters who are increasingly subjected to sexual imagery exploiting the anxieties about personal attractiveness which are common to all adolescents. It sells them the delusion that “being sexy” after the style of a manufactured celebrity is the key to fulfilment. The delusion is shared by many whose years should enable them to protect children from such cruel nonsense.
There is a clear conflict between the values of a cohesive and ethically mature society and the all-pervasive market. Simon Barrow, in his Ekklesia article 'Learning to hunger for justice' (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/11285), wrote of “re-shaping our desires” as a condition of re-orienting our lives towards wholeness. This does not require hair-shirted asceticism nor a puritanical disapproval of pleasure. But it does demand discernment, self-control and the kind of dignity which is rooted in something immeasurably deeper than consumerism and the diminishing returns of acquisition.
Clarity about the nature and motivation of advertising is essential if we are to live well and be free from the tyranny which would have us believe that conformity is to be identified with community. An uncritical submission to the self-interest of the market cannot be the mark of those who follow the way of the man whom Simeon, as recorded by the Gospel writer, described as “a sign of contradiction”.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger