A British Government-appointed consumer watchdog has found that large companies are paying thousands of children to test and promote food, drink, gadgets and video games to their classmates.
Ed Mayo, the newly-appointed "consumer tzar", writes in a book titled 'Consumer Kids' that the companies that are recruiting school kids for market research include toy and gadget manufacturers Mattel and Nintendo, as well as snack companies Tizer, Wrigley's and Coca-Cola.
AdvertisementThe book, scheduled for publication next week, reveals that over a third of a million children, some as young as five, have been recruited to conduct market research for large companies.
It even says that most of the children get paid, and that some schools have been earning themselves up to 4,000 pounds a year for surveying the kids on the companies' behalf.
Jointly written with academic Agnes Nairn, Consumer Kids underscores how companies have "groomed" children to become sophisticated consumers, by using the internet and viral marketing.
It reveals that the involvement of children in market research is overseen by specialised marketing companies, which recruit "brand ambassadors", who are paid to help promote a new drink, toy or gadget to their classmates.
They have to test out products, show them off to their friends, host parties where the brand is promoted, and give feedback to the company.
There is no suggestion that any of such activities are against the law.
"This is insidious and downright creepy," the Telegraph quoted Mayo, the chief executive of Consumer Focus, as saying.
"There is no doubt children are savvier than ever and that should be celebrated. But we need a debate about how they are being bombarded by big businesses. Children are more vulnerable than both they and their parents sometimes realise," he added.
Barbie makers Mattel, video game giant Nintendo and soft drink maker Coca-Cola said that their move should not be treated as controversial because the children's ages were thoroughly verified, and the permission of parents were sought if they were under 16.
Robin Hilton, director at a specialised marketing company called the Dubit, said that the research was invaluable for many institutions, not least public-sector bodies, such as the anti-drug campaign Frank, who sometimes struggled to connect with young people.
"Kids want to be involved in campaigns, we allow them to do just that - there is no pressure put on young people to take part, nor would we every ask a young person to be underhand or represent something they were not already a fan of," he added.