Blog post

Are the values we instill in our children leading us towards a sustainable future?

This is a guest post by Tim Burns, Head of Waste Watch.

In 2009, the children’s marketing sector was worth £100bn – and it’s still growing. A significant portion of this total is spent on food marketing, predominantly promoting energy dense, low-nutrient food and beverages – typically unhealthy for children, but marketed to exaggerate health claims – and messaging (often with the help of celebrities) to suggest popularity, performance and mood.

There is worrying evidence of the impact advertising can have on children’s dietary behaviours. One study, for example, showed that children exposed to junk food advertising ate 45% more junk food than children not exposed during the trial[i]. Furthermore, the Hastings Review found evidence that advertising can have an effect upon the nutritional knowledge, food preferences, purchasing behaviour and diet of children.

But can marketing influence beyond behaviours to our values and identity?

All people hold a variety of values or guiding principles which influence their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours and shape their cultural identity. The importance with which we hold different values, can be increased or decreased by the environment around us, for example by the messages we receive whilst online or by witnessing the behaviours of our friends. Whilst values are relatively deep-seated within adults, young people who are still developing tend to be a lot more open to shifting values.

Waste Watch recently explored this idea through a new report: Addressing the social and cultural impact of marketing towards young people. We did so through the lens of food marketing, but found that the results and concerns about the impacts of marketing towards young people were universal, and likely to be self-reinforcing across sectors, including through the marketing of food, clothing and gadgets.

Evidence suggests that increasing marketing, both explicit and more subtle through the use of ‘stealth marketing’ techniques, may be harming both our children and the environment. The materialistic values that underpin consumption of goods and services are linked to lower well-being, and families on lower incomes may be particularly susceptible. This is especially worrying, given that the UK came bottom of 20 countries in child wellbeing in a recent UNICEF report. More materialistic values also appear to lead to higher consumptive habits and less concern about social and environmental issues.

So what can we do about it?

Whilst addressing the commercialisation of childhood is often seen as an impossible battle, it is also one that is supported both by parents and government. David Cameron has publically advocated for a tightening of policy on both commercialisation and sexualisation of children which commenced with last year’s governmental review by Reg Bailey. We have seen little evidence since, however, of policy action and support to address the cultural and social impact of increasing marketing in the lives of young people.

Our report presents a number of recommendations, including:

  • furthering the evidence base and shifting the burden of proof onto the industry;
  • building co-regulation across advertising;
  • reducing marketing in public spaces, especially at school;
  • tackling concerns about digital and stealth marketing;
  • ensuring healthy food is accessible to deprived families; and
  • building awareness of the impact of marketing upon the cultural values of young people.

Waste Watch, PIRC, and other organisations inspired by Common Cause want to broaden the debate about how advertising strengthens potentially damaging values, especially amongst young people. We are planning to hold a stakeholder event later this spring to connect organisations working on social and environmental issues to work and campaign using a more united voice on the links between marketing, cultural values and identity and the associated social and environmental issues.

This will start by asking the question: Are the values we instill in our children leading us towards a sustainable future?

Tim can be contacted at [email protected]


[i] Harris, J.L.  Bargh, J. A. and Brownell, K. D. 2009 Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior. Health Psychology, 28 (4), pp.404–413.

The Cultural Impact of Marketing on Young People

The Cultural Impact of Marketing on Young People

Tim Burns, WasteWatch | April 11, 2012

This report by Waste Watch presents an initial evidence review of the social and cultural effects of food marketing aimed at children, as a contribution to a wider discussion about the impacts that advertising has on our values, attitudes and behaviours.

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