Thursday, February 24, 2011

Child's play?

There is always hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in equal measure whenever the government makes a pronouncement on some aspect of the private sector, especially when it raises the spectre of regulation, and such has been the case with the Bailey review into the sexualisation of childhood. Now I thought it was commercialisation of childhood that was keeping Cameron awake, but this is less headline-worthy and doesn’t feature the word “sex” so the tabloids won’t be interested in it. So we are introduced to the concept of sexualisation, which I initially took to mean something quite different, but in fact refers to the likes of the “paedo bikini” from Primark, or some generic pop star writhing and gesticulating on X-Factor before an audience of impressionable Tweens, who presumably went straight out into the street and started to mimic the movements.

I confess to being in a quandary. On the one hand, I do genuinely disapprove of rubbing inappropriate content in the faces of children, the more so since becoming a parent, and I do think childhood is far too precious a thing to be sacrificed on the altar of consumerisim. I also get wound up by admen (and women) who protest “Not our fault, gov, society’s to blame, we just reflect the culture of the time” pointing to Page 3 as evidence. This also happens when anyone suggests that drinks marketers are somehow partly responsible for alcohol abuse (as binge-drinking is now termed). “Alcohol abuse has nothing to do with low prices – its causes are cultural.” All well and good – I have read a theory that we in the UK have a “Northern European” approach to drinking which has more in common with the Scandinavians (from whom, of course, many of us are descended) than with the peoples of the Med. I don’t know if Norway and Sweden are full of pissheads, but as a theory it is intellectually appealing. But, surely, if booze were more expensive, people would drink less of it, because they would have less? We had the same arguments at the time of the tobacco ban. And they didn’t wash then.

But there’s a bigger question here – should we in the creative industries have a sense of moral responsibility? Can we change society for the better? I don’t think anyone actually disagrees with the assertion that kids and sex don’t mix, so how have we come to this repair? Well, it ain’t the advertising, because I’ve not seen any ads promoting inappropriate content or behaviour to kids. But there is a wider marketing malaise. It’s the ease with which they can access content aimed at other people. It’s generic pop stars writhing on X-Factor, it’s naked cover stars on lads’ mags on the bottom shelves in newsagents. It’s pop songs with suggestive (or just plain lewd) lyrics. And of course it’s the papers with their kiss ‘n’ tell cover stories and reality TV bollocks.
So what action could we take to address this? It’s not content that’s the problem, but accessibility. So how do you stop people from accessing content they shouldn’t? Not, I would assert, by removing it from them. People respond to incentives - carrot and stick, and all that. You need to change behaviour over time. Don’t knock kidulthood – promote childhood. And who is best-placed to achieve real behavioural change? That’s right – the marketing industry.

The way the debate is going, or rather being conducted by the government, it looks like further regulation might be on the cards. Even stricter guidelines on marketing to kids, perhaps a blanket ban on advertising on kids’s TV? Gesture politics. The Kid’s TV sector is in enough trouble already, after the junk food ad ban. Like it or not, TV production companies depend on advertisers for funding. We are not going to stop kids watching TV – and why should we? It’s educational, a source of entertainment and one of the few things that commands their attention for more than ten minutes (sometimes even as much as twelve). As a parent of two little boys, I will defend kids’ TV, particularly the BBC output (much of which comes from independent ProdCos), to the hilt. Given that we are in danger, as the Evening Standard put it, of becoming entirely reliant on “guns, booze and betting” for our economic prosperity, it would be sad indeed if such a vibrant sector was sacrificed on the alter of cheap political point-scoring.

So, pre-emptive action, anyone - not just another code of conduct, but real engagement with the issue and the audience? A May Day Alliance for childhood?


At 3:32 PM GMT , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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