Speak out!

I like North Stradbroke Island. Under the smoke of Brisbane lies this beautiful island with a lovely rural feel to it. At Straddie you can also swim with dolphins. My kids love it.

During our last camping trip, just as the children had come out of the water after a beautiful close-encounter with a dolphin, four women marched on to the beach, the leader of the pack carrying a bucket full of fish. They walked straight past the please-do-not-feed-the-dolphins sign, into the water, and began to draw the attention of the dolphins.

My children were watching, initially surprised. “Dad, what are they doing?”

“It looks like they’re hoping the dolphins will come.”

“But dad, they are not allowed to feed the dolphins!” My son became angry and suggested to kick the bucket over which was standing on the beach behind the women. Then the dolphins came. Followed by the spectators.

“Dad, tell them to stop!” This was the point where the situation became tricky.

While I was thinking of the social psychology experiments by Latane and Darley about the innocent bystander effect (the probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders) and Milgram (participants administered electric shocks without protesting), I realised that I needed to act soon to save the dolphins and my reputation as responsible parent.

But instead I said: “Ok kids, let’s go.” I started to pack our gear and walked back to the car, feeling really bad and trying to find excuses; it wasn’t my job after all to look after these dolphins and besides, feeding them a few fish more or less wouldn’t matter anyway.

In the meantime a crowd of about thirty people had gathered around.

While I opened the trunk of the car, I noticed the sign. It wasn’t one of those ‘Don’t feed the animals’ warning signs you see in the zoo; this was a friendly educational post with pictures and background information. It said that feeding dolphins changes their normal wild behaviour and turns them into beggars – which puts them at risk. This made a lot of sense of course, but it also triggered something inside of me.

“Maybe I should say something,” I said. This was received with a cheerful “Yes daddy!” by my kids, who suddenly saw a glimmer of hope: maybe dad wasn’t a typical scared grownup person after all!

Fuelled by a sense of righteousness I walked towards the group. But, as I passed the bucket, I noticed it was empty. A little voice in my head said: “You see, what’s the point? The damage is already done. You’re too late,” but as I looked over my shoulder I saw my children watching in the distance, jumping up and down with excitement. There was no way back.

With a loud voice I informed the group that their actions were illegal and that they could be fined, pointing out the big sign. The responses were quite interesting: some people immediately walked out of the water, a few in the direction of the sign. Others – with the bait still in their hands – looked at each other, unsure what to do next. Some chose to ignore my clearly unwelcome message.

On the way back to the camp my action was abundantly celebrated on the back seat. I realised that it had been a close call. A quote from Pam Brown crossed my mind: “Dads are most ordinary men turned by love into heroes, adventurers, story-tellers, and singers of songs.”

3 reasons why marketing to children is unhealthy

“For a young person with creative ambitions, copywriting is one of the coolest jobs around. I got a huge buzz when my ads appeared on TV or in magazines. (…) Who cared if it was all meaningless crap?” ~ Greg Foyster

There is a world between commercial copywriting and my job. A large part of what doctors do everyday, consists of undoing the damage caused by marketing and selling of unhealthy products.

That was the good news. The bad news is: Doctors are not winning.

What the industry says

Marketing to children is a controversial topic. There are people who feel we don’t need more regulation to protect our children from fast food or alcohol advertising.

Instead, parents should make sure their children don’t get exposed to these ads. And if they do – which is hard to avoid – parents must teach their children how to deal with marketing techniques.

The industry states their influence over children isn’t that big anyway, so why worry? Besides, they may say, complaints about advertising are really about the products and companies, and ads in itself are not the issue.

Purchasing power of kids

Although children wield power over their parents’ shopping behaviour, their critical judgement lags behind, and this makes kids vulnerable to marketing strategies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says:

“Research has shown that young children – younger than eight years – are cognitively and psychologically defenceless against advertising.They do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value.

According to experts it takes until the age of eleven or twelve before children understand the persuasive nature of advertising.

Why advertising is unhealthy

Our kids are overweight, drink too much alcohol, and may not live as long as their parents. Unhealthy habits are often taken into adulthood: Obese children are likely to become obese adults and parents. For a dramatic example, have a look at the video below.

Australian children between the ages of five and twelve are able to correctly match at least one sport with its relevant sponsor, according to a report by the Australian Alcohol Review Board. We know that advertising is effective in getting young people to start drinking, or to drink more if they already use alcohol.

3 reasons

Here are three reasons to stop marketing to children:

  1. Advertising teaches children to want what they don’t need
  2. Advertising encourages kids to make unhealthy purchasing decisions
  3. Advertising promotes materialistic values

Although I’m usually not in favour of more legislation, I feel we urgently need regulatory changes to protect our kids.

Journalist and writer Greg Foyster, whom I quoted above, quit his job in advertising and went on to live a basic and sustainable life. His well-researched book Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race is worth a read.