Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blame our culture, not the advertisers

Last night, the forum-based SBS ‘Insight’ program pulled together the usual bunch of extremists, alarmists, academics, professionals, Joe Publics and ‘victims’ to thrash out issues surrounding the ‘tween market’. As expected, and in my opinion, rightly so, the debate quickly focused in on the ‘sexualisation’ of girls as young as 6 - with the key question being who is to blame for this? And yes, you guessed it, the participants almost unanimously pointed the finger at advertisers.

Is there any truth to this? For me, the only ‘truth’ uncovered last night was that while the general public can grasp why markets are exploited (and that ethics sometimes go out the door), it has a profound mis-understanding of how cultural norms are established and subsequent markets are born. To suggest that advertisers (as in manufacturers and agencies) created this problem is a falsehood.

Ask yourself why, in the first instance, would young girls nag their parents for products such as ‘bralettes’ or ‘bratz’. What created this desire in young girls to unwittingly and unknowingly sexualise themselves? The answer? Every kid is bombarded daily with pop-culture norms that are established via the imagery and discourse our television programs (O.C. Neighbours, Desperate Housewives), pop music (Pussy Cat Dolls, Britney Spears etc), and media promote. Then there’s the Paris Hilton phenomena and the fact that kids just want to be like bigger kids. And let’s not forgot our broader aspirations and values that created the environment for these cultural products in the first instance:

• We believe in freedom of expression – be it speech, sexuality, fashion, music or art.
• We don’t believe in censorship
• We believe in the equality of race and gender
• We believe in choice

Combined, this is what creates cultural norms and the desire to conform, not its by-product of advertising. Rightly or wrongly, a cultural trend is established, a business creates a product to exploit it, and then advertising agencies spruik it.

Should advertisers be more responsible in how they depict kids? Absolutely. Should advertisers stop marketing these products? Maybe. Should advertisers be held responsible for the sexualisation of kids? Absolutely not.

The responsibility for the problem lies in our culture. To affect change, and stop the sexualisation of children, we must first take a long hard look at ourselves.

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