I was struck by the claim that one in five parents in the Money Programme ‘Cost of Kids’ survey admitted to buying new gadgets after pressure from their children, with much of the resulting expenditure ending up on credit cards. The example was consumer electronics companies recruiting our kids to get us to buy gadgets that we don’t need at prices we can’t afford, and only they know how to work. But more worrying is the evidence that pester power, or the ‘nag factor’ as it’s known in America, could be costing us more than money. By encouraging them to ask for the wrong kind of food and drink it’s costing some of our children their health.

From the forum - "the trick to keeping costs down is to think differently and keep things natural"

Marketing first woke up to children in the middle of the 20th century, particularly their power to influence adult purchasing. It began to aim products directly at them rather than having them make do with modified versions of adult products. In many ways this has been a good thing. Taking account of children’s needs in designing products such as holidays, cars or clothing makes a lot of sense. But in other areas, such as fizzy drinks, pre-sweetened cereals and fast food, the effect has been to promote fun and taste well beyond any sense of nutritional value. The vast majority of the food advertising seen by children is for such high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods. Any parent who wants to do the best for their children’s dietary habits has a struggle on their hands as a result.

Advertisers deny deliberately setting parents at odds with their children. Industry codes of practice explicitly forbid such tactics, and pundits argue that pestering has much more to do with age than ads. But there is plenty of evidence from consumer research that parents are uncomfortably aware of ceding to demands stimulated by child-directed advertising. One recent study in Sweden revealed that parents actively avoided supermarket shopping accompanied by their children because of the stress it caused. And a widely-used UK market research report on marketing to children underlines the importance of ‘influenced purchasing’.

Opponents in the pester power debate are not shy of throwing contradictory research findings at each other to support their respective positions. But how good is the evidence, and which way does it point? To answer this question OU Business School and our partners in the Institute of Social Marketing recently reviewed a selection of key research articles evaluating the effect of food promotion on children’s attempts to influence purchasing by adults. We only looked at studies meeting strict quality and relevance criteria. They covered children in different parts of the world (US, UK, Saudi Arabia and India), and used a variety of methodologies. Yet they all concurred that food promotion does indeed stimulate demands from children for HFSS foods, increasing conflict in the supermarket aisles and leading in many cases to exasperated expenditure on less healthy products.

The food advertising industry, pointing to its record of self-regulation in the UK, claims that tightening further the rules on advertising to children is disproportionate. It argues that advertising is only one of a number of factors guiding what children want to eat, and that its effect is negligible compared to, say, the influence of parents, schools or peers. But even if advertising on its own only accounted for 2% of the variation in children’s food choice and consequent obesity (as has been suggested by some researchers), the cumulative effect will leave a significant number with health problems.

Against this kind of controversy, Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, has spent a year consulting on a number of different options to tighten up regulation. On 22nd February 2007 it issued new rules banning HFSS food ads from programming likely to be popular with under 16s by the end of the year. While this looks like good news for any harassed parents out there, it has been greeted with dismay by health campaigners for not going far enough (many wanted a total ban on such ads pre 9pm). Industry bodies are not happy either, criticising the definitional criteria for HFSS foods as inconsistent. Furthermore, Ofcom’s announcement included a commitment to reviewing the effectiveness and scope of the new arrangements in autumn 2008, which seems rather early in the day to be looking for conclusive results. You may be sure that this controversy will not be over till the, er, fat lady sings.

Further reading