Ana Lúcia Villela is promoting healthy childhood development in Brazil by implementing the first citizen-led mechanisms to regulate the advertizing industry. Ana Lúcia is thus empowering society to honor children and to protect them from the harmful effects of an increasingly consumerist culture, such as childhood obesity and materialism.
A nova ideia
Throughout her life, Ana Lúcia has been committed to the field of childhood development. She is concerned with creating an environment where children can thrive and she has identified consumerist culture as one of the first obstacles to surmount in order to make this vision a reality. Ads have been proven to lead to over-consumption amongst children: Girls are maturing sexually earlier than they would otherwise; kids are gaining weight, socializing less and overvaluing things over experiences. Ana Lúcia is therefore developing mechanisms to control the commercialization of childhood.
In 2005 Ana Lúcia created Projeto Criança e Consumo (Children and Consumerism Project), which is housed within the Alana Institute. This is the first project of its kind in Brazil to spark a debate about the effects of ads on childhood development and to challenge the legal frameworks that allow the advertizing industry to thrive by targeting a young audience. She is working tirelessly to ensure that kids can soon begin to enjoy commercial free childhoods. In order to do so, Ana Lúcia has created channels of communication to give the public access to news and information about this topic and equip them with the tools they need to take action once marketing abuses are identified. She is also working with influential decision-makers (i.e. in government and big advertizing companies) to change their approaches and introduce new norms to regulate the publicity industry.
As a result of her work, Ana Lúcia has successfully entrenched this issue in Brazil’s social and political agenda. She has not simply focused on changing the minds of media and communications professionals; she is creating crosscutting alliances by involving academics, students, public servants and large businesses in the debate. The Alana Institute has secured important legal victories that have increased regulatory norms for ads targeting children; the institute has championed hundreds of legal cases; and has disseminated more than 500 news stories about the topic in 2009 alone, thus incentivizing the public to report thousands of abuses by the advertizing industry. With the support of the News Agency for Children’s Rights–ANDI network, Ana Lúcia plans to spread this initiative beyond the five states where she currently operates to reach all of Latin America. She clearly sees the entrenchment of a commercial free childhood as merely one step to guaranteeing healthy childhood development, and she intends to broaden her horizons once that goal has been achieved.
According to a study entitled “Kids Power” (TNS/InterScience) 83 percent of Brazilian children are influenced by advertizing, 72 percent are particularly attracted to products associated to famous people, 42 percent are influenced by their friends’ consumption habits, and colorful packaging affects 35 percent of children. In other words, children are extremely sensitive to marketing efforts. This sensitivity is exacerbated in Brazil, as children there watch more television than in any other country, including the U.S. The average Brazilian child between the ages of four and eleven spends about five hours per day in front of the television and approximately 85.5 percent of kids between six and twelve years old watch TV on a daily basis. They spend more time watching shows than interacting with their families or attending classes.
What is more, the messaging in ads targeting children teaches them that there is a direct relationship between happiness and acquiring certain goods or services. Unlike adults, children interpret messages literally and are usually unable to discern persuasive metaphors from reality. They are also often incapable of discerning advertizing from other sorts of television programming. The influence of commercials has been proven to contribute to materialism, eating disorders, and precocious sexual behaviors, addictions to tobacco and alcohol, and household tensions, among others.
Obesity is one of the most telling consequences of the commercialization of childhood. Nowadays, 30 percent of Brazilian children are overweight. It is telling that 50 percent of advertizing targeted at young audiences sells food products, and more than 80 percent of those ads are for unhealthy goods, rich in sugar, sodium and fat. There is no doubt that advertizing is one of the factors contributing to the upward trend of childhood obesity.
To make this situation even worse, there are no laws in Brazil that regulate ads targeting children. It is neither the state nor an organized civil society that controls advertizing decisions, but rather the National Advertizing Council of Self-Regulation (CONAR). CONAR is made up of big advertizing companies, their owners and representatives from communication companies. Until now, the main justification for self-regulation has been that an external effort to regulate the sector would be an infringement on free speech and would be perceived as an act of censorship.
In a country like Brazil that is experiencing such drastic economic growth, it is important that this growth be accompanied by a renewed commitment to the social development of its future generations. However, Brazilian society tends to ignore the overall needs of children and has yet to make long-term investments in healthy childhood development. Ana Lúcia seeks to reverse this trend and put children back at the center of Brazilian society.
After working for ten years to promote healthy childhood development through the Alana Institute, Ana Lúcia realized that any successful attempt to honor children’s needs would have to directly address the hidden problem of consumerism and its harmful effects. Thus Projeto Criança e Consumo (PCC) was founded in 2005. Driven by the notion that limitless desires of consumption are detrimental to a child’s healthy development, Ana Lúcia has developed a three-pillared approach (i.e. legal, educational and communications-based) to turn the vision of a commercial free childhood into a reality. She has chosen to take a diversified approach to tackle the harmful effects of consumerism by creating a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and social workers, among others.
The Projeto’s Legal-Institutional Program keeps track of the activities of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government; supports bills related to introducing advertizing regulations in Brazil and monitors businesses’ marketing tactics. In addition, the PCC receives complaints and reports from consumers when an advertizing company goes too far and it undertakes legal actions against them. In order to expand the number and diversity of actors involved with this issue, PCC also establishes alliances with competent organizations and decision-makers. Since 2005, the institute has led 105 legal cases against companies that disseminate advertizing campaigns that are harmful to children’s rights. Every month, Ana Lúcia and her team receive more than 90 complaints from citizens through the program’s web platform and through a strategic partnership with the Public Ministry.
Projeto Criança e Consumo also has an area of research and education that is establishing itself as Brazil’s first scientific and cultural reference center on the issue of consumerism. It produces and disseminates educational curricula for teachers. One of its most successful initiatives has been the InFormation Program developed in partnership with the ANDI network to increase the pool of knowledge about children and consumption by engaging senior undergraduate students. The program offers selected students interested in writing their final thesis about children, consumption and media, a R $350 (US$150) scholarship to help them develop their research. For the past two years, this national competition has resulted in the support and dissemination of 24 academic theses on this theme. At the end of 2008, the institute also promoted another contest in partnership with a leading educational magazine (Revista Nova Escola da Fundação Victor Civita) that selected and published the three best educational activities that dealt with questions of consumerism in school.
In order to further disseminate information about the topic of advertizing regulations, Ana Lúcia found that it was crucial to develop an area of communications and events, within Projeto Criança e Consumo. This department is responsible for tracking news relating to this issue on a daily basis; suggesting article topics to the media; developing communication campaigns; and organizing such events as the International Forum on Children and Consumption. This event is already in its third edition and is increasingly recognized as a leading forum worldwide. It has generated an important debate in the media, most specifically about CONAR’s regulatory mechanisms and children’s advertizing.
Beyond contributing to daily behavioral transformations by educating the public about the commercialization of childhood, Ana Lúcia’s approach has also found allies in organizations such as CONAR, government bodies, and companies who agree that is necessary to control ads targeting children and teenagers. Thanks to her efforts, new rules and restrictions have been introduced. For example, in 2008, the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) presented a new regulatory proposal to prohibit ads targeting children for products that are high in fats, trans-fats, sodium and sugar. In the legal sphere, Ana Lúcia has also made considerable advances. In 2008 bill 5921/01 which deals with the prohibition of ads targeting children was voted on and approved by the Commission on Consumer Protection in the Chamber of Deputies. This bill influenced TV Cultura (a public television channel) to remove all commercials targeting children from its airwaves. The Commission of Economic Development, Industry, and Commerce passed this same bill in 2009. As a result, Brazil’s 24 biggest food companies decided to sign a document recognizing the harmful effects of children’s advertizing and made a commitment to discontinuing the dissemination of such ads. The Alana Institute has also been working with the federal Ministries of Justice, Culture, and Education among others.
Ana Lúcia’s Projeto Criança e Consumo is already operating in five Brazilian states. Within the next few years, she plans to expand throughout Latin America in partnership with the ANDI Network. Ana Lúcia is increasingly participating (and sometimes leading the way) in national and international networks. She has chosen to focus on turning her vision of a commercial free childhood into a reality, but she sees this goal as merely one step among many others to create an environment where children can thrive and develop healthily.
At the age of eight, after losing her parents in a plan accident, Ana Lúcia began to feel the affect that environments—not just material but also emotional—have on a child. She became “obsessed” with this insight and decided to write her thesis in teacher’s college about how to create an optimal environment that stimulates a child’s full and healthy development. Ana Lúcia, of course, focused on the impact of ads on children’s health.
With the money she inherited from her parents, Ana Lúcia created the Alana Institute. Initially, it focused on increasing the quality of life of low-income families and their children, in a community of 25,000 people on the eastern outskirts of Sao Paulo. This project, now entitled Espaço Alana, allowed Ana Lúcia to understand the social realities of low-income children. This experience made it all the more obvious to her that a child’s environment has deep consequences on his/her development. She saw innumerous examples of the harmful effects of childhood consumerism in that community, despite their low socioeconomic standing.
Ana Lúcia became increasingly convinced that this issue could only be addressed through a systemic and diversified approach involving the media, communication agencies, governments, the private sector, and all of society. Through Projeto Criança e Consumo (now the Alana Institute’s focal program) Ana Lúcia is strengthening her life-long commitment to children’s development.