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News and notes from the UK
  1. I D Wacogne
  1. Ian Wacogne is a consultant in general paediatrics at Birmingham Children’s Hospital

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    When I did resident on-call, every now and then a colleague would discover me in front of children’s TV on a Saturday or Sunday morning, usually consuming a hurried on-call breakfast. The excuse “It was on when I came in” wore a bit thin, but fortunately now I have another, much better one should I need it. I’m doing market research. It is the same thing that a previous boss would claim he was doing when he read the local newspaper—a rag of doubtful value and variable accuracy. “This is part of my job” he’d say, and believe. “This is our constituency—a fact we forget at our peril. This is what the people who pay our wages think. Or what they are being told to think.”

    Back to the weekend morning, and if you haven’t tried this recently, you should. Watch television as an anthropologist. Count the adverts and examine their strange internal logic. Look at the link between the adverts and the programme content. Find out what our children are being told to think. I’m told that the best way to advertise to children is to pitch the message just beyond their level of understanding. My guess is that this somehow appeals to both their and their parents’ sense of premature ability, or it confuses the child while appealing to the parent, or maybe it just confuses both. I do know that after about 20 minutes of watching I’m at least 10 IQ points the poorer.

    The next thing to do is to pick up a teen magazine. As I’ve said, it is market research, so you have a perfect excuse. Look at the seamless segue between content and advertisement. Look at the lifestyle articles telling our teens what they should be buying and where, how they should look and feel, what they should do and when. Actually, it is on this last issue that I find the single redeeming feature of some of these magazines. The problem pages often offer such sensible, down to earth, useful advice that I’m left wondering whether the agony aunts and uncles inhabit a different planet to the rest of the content providers.

    How is this excuse for how I spend the occasional 20 minutes on a Saturday morning at all relevant to being a paediatrician? Well, it must be part of our role as child advocates to see that young people at least have a fighting chance of interpreting this deluge of information in a sensible manner. Our response could be to bring up our children in isolation—in a hut in the Scottish Highlands or Australian Outback. We could deny them access to television, magazines, and no un-vetted book written since, say, 1950. Then we could release them into the world at 18 and see how they got on, secure in the knowledge that at the very least they’d had a wholesome childhood.

    The other alternative, if we accept that the world that we live in is riddled with the media and, by association, advertising, then we could try to teach them a little bit about what we’re beginning to understand about how advertising works. Media literacy sounds like a wishy-washy concept, but it is a powerful idea. Discussing with a 10 year old, for example, “Why are the people in this photograph smiling?” Yes, it might be because they’re happy, but it might also be because they’re being paid to smile, and that this helps you interpret the essential falseness of the photograph. Extend this to why the people in the photograph are thin, or holding cigarettes, and you can see the power.

    It is easy to get carried away with this, but it is also very easy to fall into an advertising trap ourselves. If it weren’t, if we were completely media savvy, then why would the otherwise extremely sensible and money conscious pharmaceutical companies take us out to dinner? I don’t think I was a particularly stupid child, but when I was 10 and saw an aunt smoking John Player Special cigarettes, I did think that they must have been a great brand if they were named after a formula one racing car. It took me a few years to figure out the many falsehoods in that assumption.

    You wouldn’t take a child outside on a rainy day without making sure they were wearing a coat, would you? Why, then, would we allow a child out into a world populated with anorexic models, cigarettes, guns, fallible rock stars, soft drinks, and fast food, without comparable defences? The mental environment has become very complex, and our children need some sort of protection in order to be able to survive. Now, you’ll excuse me please, as my favourite cartoon is about to start ...

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