By Farooq Sulehria
The US is the world’s leading exporter of children’s TV fare. For instance, Sesame Street was reaching 115 countries and had 500 internationally licensed products some ten years ago. The problem with the Disney channel is not only that it stirs desires and converts children into consumers. For one thing, they don’t develop reading habits. In addition, TV addiction also has consequences for children’s health
In 2002, children in the USA aged four to twelve made an estimated thirty billion dollars in purchases using their own money. Direct expenditures by children rose from $ 6.1 billion in 1989 to $23.4 billion in 1997. This does not include teen-spending. According to a survey, the average 12-19 year old spent $104 per week in 2001. Reportedly, American teens in 2001 spent $172 billion (Schor 2006: 93).Children have become far more influential in family shopping decisions. American children influenced $300 billion of adult purchases in 2002 (Ibid: 94). Six to twelve year olds are reported to visit stores 2-3 times per week. Time spent by children has gone significantly up. In many cases, they go on their own (Ibid: 93). This no coincidence. From the mid-1980s on, market strategists have been targeting children. Not just in the USA, across the West children have become victims of marketing strategists. However, parents in countries like Pakistan should not ignore it. Children glued to TV screens, watching cartoon fare mostly from the US, is becoming a common sight these days in almost every urban household in Pakistan. With the disappearance of playgrounds in the country, children have not much of a choice either. Similarly, housewives coping with daily household chores find a convenient babysitter in television. The TV as babysitter does not merely offer entertainment. It also converts them into future consumers, catching them young.
I realised it last year when my two-year-old daughter would recognise Disney/Donald Duck merchandise in the stores and would insist upon buying the items. We did not have a TV at home. But my daughter got to know Donald Duck & Co through YouTube. There is no escape from global TV. She made me realise that global children’s networks have to be seen as being in close collaboration with the global toy market. Early indications were already there: But it is no coincidence that the US media are targeting children. They learnt long ago that children are excellent consumers. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 2.5 million watches with the Mickey Mouse character were sold in the US (Thussu 2000: 171).While rightwing researchers and media scholars keep dismissing concerns that media advertising has any ill effects on viewers, progressive theoreticians have argued that TV is central to the expanding demand for new toys—children are most likely to buy merchandise featuring their favourite television characters and the products advertised on the channels they watch with rapt attention. Urban dwellers with young children across the globe will easily identify themselves with this.
But it’s not merely an observation. Within a fortnight of its release, Disney’s The Lion King had sold 2.88 million tickets in 11 countries. Similarly, The Rugrats, an animated film based on a serial aired by Nickelodeon, grossed $90 million in worldwide sales. Harry Potter, targeting teenagers, broke all previous records (Ibid: 171). Further empirical evidence is provided by the Global Disney Audiences project.
The Global Disney Audiences Project, published as Dazzled by Disney , analyzes the reception of Disney products internationally. The project included questionnaires and interviews to assess audience reactions to Disney in eighteen countries (1), plus individual national profiles outlining Disney’s marketing activities and the specific contexts for the reception of Disney products. Thus, the study examines both how extensively and intensively Disney products are marketed, and also how local audiences interpret these products.
Researchers from around the world were recruited to participate in this project. 1252 respondents representing 53 separate nationalities voluntarily responded to questionnaires. A subset of these respondents submitted to in-depth interviews designed to elicit a greater understanding of how Disney is perceived by users and non-users alike.
The research found that people generally tend to underestimate their exposure to Disney products, selectively reporting only a few examples until confronted with a specific list of the many Disney products and services that are available.
While the respondents generally felt most positive (or ‘liked’) Disney products at a younger age, by and large they still like Disney products as young adults and continue to come into contact (or consume) these products. Further, they generally imagine a future in which they will introduce their own children to Disney products. In this way, most of respondents incorporate Disney into their life cycles, treating the products as naturally attractive to children, enjoyable enough for adults, and important parts of the happy childhood that all parents want for their children (Wasko et al: 2001 330).
The study also found that 98 percent of the respondents had seen a Disney film, nearly 82 percent were familiar with Disney books, and around 79 percent had experienced Disney television programs and merchandise (Ibid 330).
One of the strongest findings of the study was the commonly shared understanding of what Disney means. Whether or not respondents liked Disney, they generally agreed on the core values represented in the company’s products…over 93 percent of the respondents agreed that Disney promoted fun and fantasy, while over 88 percent agreed on happiness, magic and good over evil. Other terms that ranked very high (in the 80 percent range) were family, imagination, love/romance. In other words…Disney represents a kind of symbolic ubiquity – the core values and ideas that it promotes are understood similarly everywhere. Unsurprisingly, these are the same values that the Disney company itself reinforces in its marketing campaigns (Wasko et al 334).
The Dysnification of the media has converted children world over into potential buyers of Hollywood cartoon merchandise. US-branded toys from the store at the nearby market at any metropolis the world over. Understandably, the toy company Mattel has licensing arrangement with Walt Disney, Fox and Nickelodeon (Ibid).
In this context, a research was conducted in Norway to determine how advertisement plays with the values and wants of younger children. The study was conducted among children and parents at two day-care centres in two different towns. Both towns had a similar social structure. In one town the residents had access to satellite television (and were hence exposed to commercials) while the other did not. The study revealed that parents in the town exposed to satellite television were under stronger pressure to buy children’s toys compared to the other town (Sinha 2006: 96).
Not surprisingly, in Sweden and Norway, sponsorship of programmes for children below the age of 12 or advertisements aimed at kids below the age of 12 is prohibited. Similar restrictions have been in place in Greece, where advertising of toys on television is banned between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. In Germany and Denmark certain toys are banned. Austria and Belgium have also regulated advertisements aimed at children. In both countries, no such advertisement is permitted five minutes before or after any programme specifically meant for children (Ibid: 95-96).
However, restrictions will prove useless in the face of an aggressive proliferation of children-specific channels. The more these children watch the channels, the more characters they will identify with. Hence, more identifiable toys will be staring at them from shop windows.
Children’s channels began to appear in the 1990s with the globalisation of the media. Of the 87 children’s channel worldwide in 1999 (33 of them in English), 50 were launched between 1996 and 1999 alone (Thussu 2000: 169).
In France only, with 11 million children under 15, there are at least 11 kids-specific channels. In the US, there are 24 (Sinha 2006: 53). The four major global players in children’s television fare are also US-based: Nickelodeon (Viacom-CBS), Cartoon Network (AOL-Time Warner), Disney and Fox Family Worldwide (though Fox is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). Already by 1999, Nickelodeon was reaching 137 million households in 137 countries (Thussu 2000: 169-170).
The US is the world’s leading exporter of children’s TV fare. For instance, Sesame Street was reaching 115 countries and had 500 internationally licensed products some ten years ago. Most of children’s television fare is animated, and thus hardly requiring any cultural interpretation, and it therefore has universal and long-lasting shelf life. Hence, generations of children have grown up watching the same Disney classics and at least desiring, if not buying, Disney merchandise (Ibid).
However, the problem with the Disney channel is not only that it stirs desires and converts children into consumers. For one thing, they don’t develop reading habits. In addition, TV addiction also has consequences for children’s health. One wonders what sort of worldview these generations will have when they become adults (2).
1. The research was conducted in the following countries:
Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus , Denmark, France, Greece, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, the USA
1. A small part of this essay has appeared before in The News
Schor, Juliet. B. (2006) The Commodification of Childhood: Tales from the Advertising Frontlines. In Stephen Pfohl, Aimee Van Wagenen, Patricia Arend, Abigail Brooks and Denise Leckenby (eds) Culture, Power, and History. Boston: BrillSinha,
Sushil Kumar (2006) Globalization of Indian Broadcasting. New Delhi: Raj Publications
Thussu, D K (2000) International Communication: Continuity and Change. London: Hodder Arnold
Wasko, J, Phillips, M, and Meehan, E R. (2001)Dazzled by Disney.London: Leicester UP
Farooq Sulehria is working with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen (www.internationalen.se). Before joining Internationalen, he worked for one year,2006-07 at daily The News, Rawalpindi. Also, in Pakistan, he has worked with Lahore-based dailies, The Nation, The Frontier Post and Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from Punjab University, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications in Europe and Australia.