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LONDON (Reuters) - Global brand powerhouses like Mattel, Nike and Wrigley's use research companies who recruit children as young as seven across Europe, America and developing economies to sell their wares, a new book on consumerism says.
Child recruits, or "brand ambassadors," are paid with free gadgets, toys, video games or mobile phones after being groomed into perfecting the art of the hard sell by putting pressure on their peers to acquire the latest products.
"Who's your child working for?" the book, entitled 'Consumer Kids' asks in its introduction. The question is designed to scare, of course, but the authors say it should not be dismissed as scaremongering, because the answer may be truly frightening.
"It's quite shocking," said Ed Mayo, co-author of 'Consumer Kids' and chief executive of the British government-backed Consumer Focus campaign group.
He is describing the story of Sarah, a bright and busy little girl, who at age seven has been recruited by the specialist youth marketing firm Dubit through an online children's chat room to work as a sales agent for the Barbie Girls MP3 player, made by the U.S. toy firm Mattel.
Her downpayment, unsurprisingly, was a Barbie Girls MP3 player -- and the more she talks about it to her friends, and the more photos she posts across the Internet showing herself and her mates playing with it, the more bonus points she gets.
Using interviews with around 3,000 children and 300 adults, Mayo and co-author Agnes Nairn, a professor of marketing at EM-Lyon business school in France and RSM Erasmus University in the Netherlands, show how children are bombarded by slogans and images that "play on their dreams and exploit their vulnerabilities."
"The rise of consumer kids is not unique in the UK, or indeed in the UK and the USA. Every European country has a similar story to tell. Even in China, the newest consumers are the 312 million children under the age of 15," Nairn and Mayo write.
The authors readily admit that there is much about the commercial world that is positive, intriguing and inspirational for children. They also insist they are not harking back to a bygone era where children were less demanding and less active in the consumer world.
But they are angry and fearful at the way in which what they describe as "child catchers" increasingly use technology to bypass parents and "groom" children into becoming "brand ambassadors" -- often before they can even spell ambassador.
Nairn points to the enormous rise in the number of children who have private access to televisions and computers in their own room, coupled with personal mobile phone accounts.
Almost a third of British children aged 5 to 16 have internet access in their bedrooms, and 80 percent have TVs.
"The way such things as brand ambassadors are recruited is usually through the internet, and these research companies do some very good research with children," she told Reuters.
"But the brand ambassador thing seems to me to be crossing a line. It's interfering with friendships and popularity, which can also spill over into bullying, mental health problems and low self-esteem among children."
Nairn and Mayo say their book is designed to warn parents and carers, but also to prompt a debate about what modern societies view as acceptable levels and modes of engagement for children in the consumer world.
Their wish appears already to be coming true.
Dubit, which recruited 7 to 11-year old girls across Britain in 2007 on behalf of Mattel to market the MP3 player, and now boasts a research panel of 37,000 young people across the board, has already issued a statement in response to "Consumer Kids."
It defends its work as a "responsible and ethical approach to helping educate young people about being consumers and entrepreneurs" and welcomes the prospect of a wider debate "to ensure that the opinions of young people are valued."
"In each of the campaigns we run through this project, products stand on their merits. We do not tell people what to think, nor do we promote products in ways which make them seem in any way more attractive than they are," Dubit's Managing Director Ian Douthwaite said in the statement.
"If our ambassadors don't like products, they don't promote them, and that is as it should be."
Reporting by Kate Kelland. Editing by Paul Casciato