Parents are obviously another primary market for computer hardware,
and for particular kinds of ‘educational’ software. Households with children
are significantly more likely to possess a PC than those without. These
days, ‘good parenting’—like ‘good teaching’—is widely seen to require
this form of technological investment. Yet as potential consumers, parents
are less easy to target than teachers. Promotional material is accordingly
more dispersed: it appears in newspaper advertisements, catalogues and
direct mail shots; in television commercials and specialist magazines; and,
of course, on the World Wide Web. As with the schools’ market, the
blurred. Consumer magazines and ‘online’ supplements in newspapers,
for example, depend for their existence on advertising revenue, however
hard-hitting their reviews may appear; and it is not always easy to tell the
difference between the advertorials and the editorials.
In her research on the marketing of computer hardware and software in
Australia in the mid-1990s, Helen Nixon (1998) points to the emergence
of a new range of specialist magazines aimed specifically at the family
market, with titles like Computer Living, Family PC and Parents and
Computers. As Nixon shows, these magazines and the advertising they
carried featured prominent images of ‘happy techno-families’; and they
played particularly on parental anxieties about their children’s education.
Parents were routinely exhorted to make good the deficits in their own
knowledge, and thereby ‘catch up’ with their children. Computers were
represented as an indispensable tool in the drive for educational success:
‘they would give children an “educational edge” on the competition and
help them “move to the front of the class”’ (cf. Seiter 1993).
As we shall see, these discourses are still apparent in a good deal of
marketing and consumer advice material aimed at parents. Catalogues
and other promotional material produced by companies like Tiny (one
of Britain’s biggest retailers) continue to feature images of happy smiling
families and children’s enraptured faces bathed in the light of the screen—
and they are still almost invariably white.
Nevertheless, in post-millennium Britain, there are strong signs that the
promotional era is already over. Within the mainstream press, most
advertising now focuses very directly on price, as major retail outlets like
Time and PC World compete to offer the most enticing limited-period ‘special
offers’. As the restrictive local-rate telephone charges for internet access finally
begins to disappear in Britain, there is a similar price war between internet
service providers. Computer advertising on television is also increasingly
characterised by the ‘hard sell’: the happy techno-families who used to gather
at the PC World store a couple of years ago are now subjected to harangues
about how many gigabytes they can buy for their money.
At the same time, the promotion is reaching out to new markets. A
new magazine called Click It!, which comes from the same stable as the
long-running Family Circle, provides some indication of how things are
changing here. While claiming to be ‘the family-friendly Internet
magazine’, Click It! is targeted almost exclusively at women: men barely
feature here, and the space given over to children is also very limited. In
many respects, it is hard to distinguish this magazine from any other
leisure-oriented title for women, with its ‘departments’ on fashion, food,
home, travel and entertainment. It contains advice about clothes shopping
online, websites about dieting, finding romance via lonely-hearts sites
and ‘virtual beauty’. Like many family-oriented computer publications,
the magazine proclaims its avoidance of ‘techno speak’; and its traditional
feminine appeal illustrates how the internet is now becoming a much
more universal leisure medium.
In general, therefore, the family no longer seems to carry quite the
ideological charge—and the marketing appeal—which it did a few years
ago. Interestingly, consumer magazines like Parents and Computing are
no longer published; and while titles like PC Home and Internet Advisor
can be found, these publications are explicitly directed at the ‘whole
family’, rather than dealing primarily with parenting.
There may be several explanations for this shift. On one level, one
could conclude that the ideological battle has already been won. Parents
no longer need to be persuaded that they should buy a computer in the
first place, merely that they need to buy this particular computer because
it will give them better value for their money. On another level, however,
it may reflect a recognition of the complexity of purchasing behaviour.
Particularly for parents on limited incomes, the need to work or study at
home, or the wish to pursue a particular hobby, is often as important a
consideration as the desire to educate or entertain one’s children. The
purchasing—and, of course, the subsequent use—of computers in the
home reflects a balance between these different priorities (Silverstone
and Hirsch 1992). In this respect, addressing consumers simply or
primarily as ‘parents’ may not be sufficiently persuasive.