Targeting Tiny

Kids are at once prime marketing targets, financial liabilities, and cheap labor.

The business sector seems to have children in its crosshairs. If they aren’t reporting child labor in their overseas supply chains, companies are aggressively marketing junk food to kids, denying them health care coverage and teaching them the benefits of dirty energy.

Leading Them Down the Garden Path

Scholastic is a brand that has long been synonymous with educational materials, and it won the hearts of millions by bringing the Harry Potter stories to the U.S. However, the company recently had to recall a fourth grade educational curriculum it developed in collaboration with the American Coal Foundation after a major public outcry.

Scholastic materials are used in 90 percent of American classrooms, and children, parents and teachers alike have come to trust them. But Scholastic has made questionable decisions about partnering with companies that many feel have compromised the quality and integrity of their materials. Are sponsored educational materials developed for learning, or are they just ads disguised as schoolwork?

The United States of Energy champions coal as an essential energy source, ignoring the issues that come with it, such as greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste, and mountaintop removal. This book discusses the different energy alternatives, but does not steer students to ask any questions about which one might be harmful, or consider any consequences due to production.

The materials went out to 66,000 fourth grade teachers and were used for three years until child advocacy groups kicked up a fuss and The New York Times criticized the sponsored materials. After expressing enthusiasm over the partnership and hoping to expand it to fifth grade materials, the CEO of Scholastic released a statement declaring they would no longer produce or distribute the title beginning May 2011.

This isn’t Scholastic’s only partnership misstep. Advocacy groups have also protested a previous campaign encouraging kids to drink SunnyD, a sugary, fruit-flavored drink, to earn free books. Scholastic, you’ve disappointed us so.

What Do You Mean You Use Child Labor?

Apple makes stunning products, even their packaging is elegant. However, they build many of their products overseas, requiring them to utilize foreign suppliers, and the computer giant has uncovered some very ugly practices in their supply chain. In addition to health and safety violations and negative environmental impact, Apple has found that their suppliers have employed child labor.

Apple’s Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report showed that the company discovered 49 underage workers across nine facilities, and 42 underage workers in another facility. Apple has pledged to make “social responsibility a fundamental part of the way we do business, we insist that our suppliers take Apple’s code as seriously as we do,” but what is their responsibility regarding third-party contractors? As a condition of doing business can they compel them to meet certain criteria? It is a question that many companies that use third-party labor struggle with.

In this case, Apple split the baby. For the first nine facilities, the company mandated that the suppliers must support the underage workers’ return to school. They also demanded that those facilities change their recruitment practices and age-verification procedures. Since these suppliers have indicated that they would comply, Apple has chosen to continue to do business with them.

As for the remaining facility with 42 underage workers, Apple instituted the same requirements, but later decided the supplier was non-compliant. Apple has since voided its contract with this supplier.

But should Apple have terminated its business with all of these suppliers? Isn’t using child labor until being forced to stop indicative of a less-than-ethical supplier? This has been a recurring problem.

Sweets to the sweet

Food marketing is big business, but the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) limits the amount of time companies can market junk food to children on television. However, marketers have found a new avenue around that restriction – the web. Obesity experts are concerned since much of the food being marketed to kids is sugary, high-calorie snacks and drinks, and companies are finding multiple, innovative ways to attract kids.

Companies like General Mills (, McDonald’s ( and, and Kellogg’s ( have developed multimedia games, online quizzes and cell phone and tablet apps designed to lure young internet users. In the past, companies had to sell parents on their products. Now, they can largely bypass the parents and appeal directly to kids.

The Atlantic’s Marion Nestle quotes Advertising Age statistics that show that over half of parents surveyed believe their children should be able to go online on their own by age six, and can use a cell phone for games by age five. The New York Times says that hundreds of thousands of visitors are hitting these sites each month, and about half are under the age of twelve.

Many say it’s the parents’ job to run interference, but it’s difficult when the messages are coming from all directions. The obesity problem in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions, and experts trace much of the issue back to childhood eating habits. With children influencing household spending while inundated with images and games of sugary foods, parents are losing the battle.

Federal agencies have decided to step in. The Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control, and United States Dairy Association all partnered to propose new nutritional standards for food marketed to children ages 2-17. Foods either had to contain certain nutritional elements (no sugary drinks or fatty food allowed), or they could not be marketed. So, companies could choose to continue to produce fattening food with limited avenues of marketing, or produce more nutritional food that falls within the guidelines of marketing to that all-important age group.

To date, those guidelines have not been passed, leading to speculation that the companies are fighting these regulations behind the scenes. A decision should be made in the next few months. Just as they forced Joe Camel into retirement, will the Keebler Elves and their brethren receive their marching papers, or will they find themselves promoting healthier fare?

Don’t Come to Us for Help

The redesign of America’s healthcare system has caused so much anger and distress that politicians are literally at each others throats, health care lobbyists are working overtime, and the public doesn’t know what will come next or how it will impact them.

In early 2010, President Obama signed into law health care reform legislation. One of the major provisions of the bill was that insurance carriers must offer insurance to children with pre-existing conditions. In response, several major U.S. insurance carriers announced that they were dropping individual child-only insurance plans just days before parts of the health care law were to go into effect. WellPoint, CoventryOne and Aetna, Inc., among others, announced their intention to discontinue offering the plans in several states.

Insurance companies began to fall like dominoes, and within a few months there was hardly a child-only plan to be found anywhere. Insurance companies claimed that the new legislation allowed families to avoid paying insurance premiums for their children until they were sick, and then signing them up for insurance, potentially costing insurance companies millions.

Other scenarios include parents who work for companies that don’t cover dependents and need insurance just for their children, or parents who are out of work and decide to just cover their children because they can’t afford a more expensive family plan. Children with or without pre-existing conditions were still covered under a family plan that includes an adult, and children with existing child-only plans were not immediately affected.

In early 2011, states started to fight back, passing their own legislation that levied harsh punishments on insurance companies who refused to offer child-only plans. Many companies, realizing they would lose more revenue due to the state sanctions, grudgingly reinstated the plans.  Others instituted enrollment at certain times of the year. What’s up in the air is how much premiums will cost families.

Child-only plans represent a small percentage of insurance business, yet many children in the U.S. still aren’t covered. Taking this step to make it that much more difficult to insure children left many insurance critics with a sour taste in their mouths.

A Better Future?

The good news is that many of these companies are voluntarily making changes, some due to public pressure, some due to company conscience, but changes nonetheless. In some cases government or governing agencies are stepping in and mandating compliance. Are children disproportionately targeted by businesses to increase profits or minimize financial risks? Children are a booming market so the temptation will always be there, but it’s up to the public to keep it from being a dog-eat-puppy world.

image: thejbird

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.