In October 2014 I opened the UK’s first payday loan shop just for children, Pocket Money Loans. The London-based store offered kids an advance on their pocket money at interest rates as low as 5,000% percent APR, (a substantial 853% less than market leader wonga.com). I like to think of it as a kind of fun-sized introductory offer to the world of consumer finance — a baptism of debt.
Located on a busy high street in North London, the shop looked like most other payday loan outlets, with computer-generated cartoons and rounded fonts announcing catchphrases like “Payday Loans 4 Kids” and “Get out of debt with a loan.” Inside, children could hang out in the branded play area and load up on free sweets before applying for a pocket money advance at the counter, bouncing high enough on the provided trampoline to read the small print on their credit agreements.
I should probably say now, before you despair of human civilisation altogether and sombrely march headlong into the ocean, that this was not a real company. It was an art project; my attempt to take our consumer debt culture to its logical conclusion and channel the excesses of consumer credit into a single, appalling sham business.
The reaction to the shop was interesting. While most people realised it was piece of satire early on, those who believed it was real were generally unsurprised that an industry as ethically bankrupt as payday lending would stoop to something as low as this. It was a strange feeling, all the same, to receive hate mail from people I agreed with. Yes, it is immoral to advertise loans to children. But the point is that I’m not the only one doing it.
I think it’s quite clear that payday lenders operate without a shred of ethical decency. They function among us as legal loan sharks, encased behind a veneer of cheerful graphic design. Justifying their extortionate rates, they claim that they only offer very short-term loans, which are supposed to be paid back within a few days or weeks. But in reality they don’t want us to pay them back on time. Their entire business model relies on the majority of their customers failing to repay, to rack up late fees upon late fees, compounding interest upon interest. Like an exponentially growing financial parasite, feeding off the customer’s solvency until it fully overpowers and destroys the host.
Into this predatory business model are added a cacophony of diabolical marketing techniques. Regularly deceitful in their obfuscation (a “Peachy Loans” radio advert announced their interest rate of 1,918 percent APR as “nineteen eighteen percent”), they also deliberately use and target children throughout their advertising as a way to influence parents while cynically grooming a new generation of loan-hungry customers.
With very few exceptions, almost all consumer credit companies employ child-friendly imagery in their marketing. From cartoon monkeys and brightly illustrated piggy banks, to string puppets and kangaroo mascots, with sing-along jingles and company names like ToothFairy Finance and MyMate, “the friend that lends” (at 1,362 percent APR, who needs enemies that lend?), these companies not only attempt to snare children, but the imagery also helps give adults the impression that these loan sharks are friendly, affable types who wouldn’t do anything like attempt to bleed us for everything we’ve got.
In the wider consumer economy, children face a barrage of commercial messages from almost every brightly lit object their eyes are drawn to. Marketers targeting them bring to bear vast resources and research budgets, with child psychologists helping corporations bypass the conscious minds of children to inspire unquestioning desire. Neuromarketers even place toddlers inside MRI scanners to see which areas of their brains light up in response to certain combinations of sounds, colours, or textures.
What chance does a young brain have against such an unrelenting marketing arsenal? When advertisers are challenged about the ethics of these techniques, they’ll tell us that children aren’t so easily persuaded. So then why do it? Is there another profession on the planet that plays down how effective it is?
As a result of the child advertising onslaught, we have lately also seen a new genre of consumer created for the benefit of corporations, the “tween.” Initially, this term covered the age group of eight- to twelve-year-olds, but more recently it has expanded to begin at six or even age four.
The momentum of child marketing has always been towards “age compression,” where products that were previously the domain of older kids are advertised to younger and younger age groups. This process effectively robs children of their childhood as it pressures and cajoles them to “grow up” and act mature beyond their years.
With age compression on one side and the adult fetishisation of youth on the other, both young and old are being pushed towards an unattainable ideal. This creates a perfect free-fire zone for advertisers, who can extract enormous profits from consumers young and old who are unable to feel comfortable in their own skin.
If we are coerced into defining our personalities through products, and we then become unable to afford them, we face the prospect of annihilation. What choice do we have, then, but to go into debt to buy the things we can’t afford? It’s not just debt from nefarious high street lenders; readily available credit pours through every crack in our finances. Our pre-approved overdraft or credit cards are always there to pick up the slack, and to turn our temporary scarcity into an abundance for financiers who have more than enough already. With austerity in the UK and elsewhere continuing to disembowel welfare programs, and with the neoliberal consensus forcing the state to retreat further from the spheres in which it once protected the less fortunate, it is left to the market to fill the gaps in social need. Payday loan companies have turned the safety net into the net of a fishing trawler, ensnaring those who struggle at the bottom and processing them into bone meal to feed an insatiable economy.
The built-in requirement of capital to grow profits year upon year does not account for the long-term wellbeing of either society or the planet. Modern capitalism has a habit of selling out the future for short-term gain. By propping the economy up on a foundation of consumer debt, we only postpone the inevitable realisation that a system requiring exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet. But that is the disaster we’ll leave to our children to deal with.
Words and artwork Darren Cullen.
This article appeared in Issue 1 of Hate zine, in September 2015.