Last October 28th and 29th, 25 citizens of the world gathered at the headquarter of the United Nations to discuss how advertising and marketing impact our cultural rights. This consultation, organized by the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Mrs. Farida Shaheed, aimed at giving a serie of recommendations to the states. Four sessions covered the major topics: cultural diversity and individual freedom, cultural and symbolic landscapes, education and children, and finally artistic freedom and right to access and enjoy the Arts. Here is the summary of the two last sessions. The summary of the two firsts session can be read in a previous post.

Education—”leave the kids alone”

Second day, third session. The discussion is now focused on education and children’s rights. We already evoked the necessity of media education to help children defend themselves from advertising and marketing strategies. Lot of initiatives have already been initiated all over the world. I created such a course four years ago in France entitled “Education to the advertising imagery” (you can download an updated version in English here—every comment, idea and even collaboration are much welcome). Even if media literacy is not enough, the discussion revealed quickly that many schools across the globe, instead of teaching media literacy and critical thinking, are in fact hosting advertising in their own space and collaborating with marketers.

Target Market: Kids, a documentary about Child consumerism in Brazil

The market for children’s products is enormous. Companies invest a huge amount of money to target the young minds with the primary goal of convert them in future consumer but also influencing indirectly their parents (80% of household’s purchases are influenced by children). Under a constant stimulation and without a developed abstract reasoning, children tend to mix fantasy and reality. Product placements in video games (see also advertgames) and TV programs use extensively this cognitive weakness. Many countries have created regulation, especially for TV (for more information see Children as consumers on, but marketing in school is paradoxically quite common.

The big problem is that marketing messages create cognitive dissonances through the advocation of values against those carried by parents and educators. Child consumerism tends to shape children’s early vision of wellbeing and happiness, advocating consumption as a synonym of a fulfilled life. Companies aim particularly teenagers who try to define their identity and their appartenance to social groups. Youngsters usually like advertising—those who refuses to play the marketing game can suffer of exclusion by their peers. The quest of social fame even became recently instrumentalized by brands. They contact popular kids on the Internet and offering them to become their ambassadors. The targeted children have then access to multiple perks but must advertise the brand at school and on social networks. When a pair of trendy sneakers costs approximately 500$, these offers hardly have any opposition, even from the parents.

– But… is this not child labor?
– Well, they are technically not paid for doing this.
– This is child slavery then!

The Alana institute was represented and this organization especially fights for children’s rights in Brazil. There, school commercialisation and advertising appears quite concerning: from school supplies to uniforms, companies have a strong influence on children out of the parental supervision. Another phenomenon is the organization of cultural activities hiding marketing messages. The example of the “McDonald shows” was given: the clown of the brand come into the schools and mix an educational discourse with product and logo placements. The schools tend to host them because it provide free entertainment for the children.

“We are facing a black-market.”

Art contests are also popular: companies ask children to adapt or play with their logos (e.g.  Doodle4Google worldwide or Duratex in Brazil). They give special prices to the best pieces; more than forcing the children to interact with their logo, these contests also discriminate children who refuse to use the logo since the rules discard their work. The presence of advertising and related practices represent a psychological threat for children and are judged as detrimental to the educational process since they fragment the messages and distract the children.

“I began to study school consumerism in 1984, which was a good year to start. […] Our society moved from selling to schools to selling in schools, and now to selling schools themselves. […] Advertising has become the curriculum of our culture.”

In the US, the schools are highly collaborative with the brands. Some are ad-supported and even use brands’ name in their evaluation tests—arguing that the presence of brands is relevant for children daily lives (see for instance the example of K12 tests in Kaplan schools). The gathering and sharing of students’ data is also becoming a potential source of revenue (see the Bill and Melinda Gates’ project for a centralized student database from kindergarten through high school).

In India and Africa, the issue is even more complex and becomes an ethical dilemma. Schools have so few money that they often have to choose between their basic logistic needs and the psychological integrity of the children. When a brand offers a computer, it represents such a huge investment that having advertising as a counterpart appears not a problem at first glance. Food marketing represents also an important challenge since giving free food in schools has been proven to be an excellent solution to increase scholarization in countries of the South.

But food advertising causes other problems. While governments and campaigners fight for improved food quality and healthy life style, food industry advocates for a self-regulation—which not only rarely happens but is also intentionally weak—and continue to aim children disregarding the potential impact on their health. Many studies have warned against the effect of advertising on child obesity, and many country have already regulated ads for sodas and high sugar foods.

Overall, if we acknowledge a trend for regulating advertising for children on TV and billboards, advertising infiltrating schools appears as a major issue. While the school space is basically where educators try to open up children’s mind, engage them and empower their critical thinking for being active citizen in the future, marketing has the total opposite trend by narrowing their minds and force a specific message. As we saw for the case of India and Africa, the issue becomes complex when advertising companies tend to provide what the states cannot anymore. We will see in the last session how this phenomenon is present in the Arts too.

Artistic freedom: down the profit hole?

Fourth and last session: Arts. Our discussions mainly focused on the interference between sponsorship and artistic freedom. First a small reminder:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Artists, as any other human beings, have the right to freely express themselves. Their expression however strongly relies on being able to exhibit their work in museums. This afternoon session started with an interesting fact: there is no ministry of culture in the US. This straightforwardly set the stage. The situation is indeed quite different as the public will suspect: most of the museums are privately funded and their selection for their exhibition is thus constrained by other interests. In the US, corporations are again the major winners. But the issue is present in other country. In Africa, for instance, country of the North have a strong influence on which topics are covered by the Arts and who is financed. Here again, the states having not enough money let those who have it take the reins of the cultural activity.

"Sorry Venus, the brands prefer our billboards to your curves."

“Sorry Venus, brands prefer our billboards to your curves.” Clear Channel advertising in Switzerland

As we saw in third session about public spaces, money and laws tends to dig a gap between corporate and independent messages. This is quite demonstrated in the law enforcement against illegal billboards—almost inexistent—and street artists—being immediately arrested. While many artists challenge this monopoly on public spaces, the discussion revealed a complex picture. “After money and drugs, the Arts represent a trillion dollars unregulated market.” Museum are becoming businesses and small artistic communities cannot survive without access to an audience.

This trend however appears more caused by a collective will than economic factors. Like in education, we assist all over the world to a move from public patronage to corporate support. Arts do not make an exception and demonstrate again how this issue of advertising and cultural right is totally entangled with socio-economics. The special rapporteur, Mrs. Farida Shaheed, closed the session—and thus these two-day of consultation—by reminding everyone of an important point:

“You can’t give up your human rights,
and nobody can take or buy them from you.”

This summarize quite well the challenge our society is currently facing: How to find a balance between humane and financial values?


Small streams make big rivers… I did not thought five years ago when we start interacting with “Les Déboulonneurs” that it can progress that much. These two days were clearly ones of the best I ever had. I am really grateful to have been invited to this consultation and have the opportunity to meet so inspiring people. But this is not the end, this is rather a stimulating beginning. The next step is to provide more ideas and resources for the final UN report. I already started to work on the lack of ethical regulation at the international level concerning neuromarketing and research in advertising. If you want to take part of this, do not hesitate to contact me. We are never enough for defending our basics human rights.

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