The brands have turned us into a nation of addicts

In the seething, elbowing, cursing, foot-aching maelstrom of the Merrie Christmas shopping experience, a piercing cry goes up from along the aisle. You look over and there is a harassed, desperate woman - occasionally a man - on the edge of losing it completely with a child who is having a tantrum. The tot, or schoolchild, is furiously demanding something on the shelf. It is too expensive, or it is too full of sugar or fat, and the parent is trying to say no. Childless shoppers often look disgusted at the lack of control. Anyone with kids will roll a sympathetic eye.

For, mostly, the parent will give in, and it's hardly surprising. On one side, a £30bn child-orientated market, armed with the latest multimedia weapons to lure, catch and keep the inner life of a small son or daughter. On the other side, a busy, guilty, stressed individual parent trying to avoid an embarrassing scene. Who do you think is going to win?

Everyone, it seems, agonises about the condition of modern childhood. Ministers pile new demands on the national curriculum, aimed at making them better-informed citizens, multi-lingual, numerate and with a sense of history. Asbos and parenting classes are used as the sticks and carrots for failing families. The clergy do their utmost to get the kids back into a Christian framework. Conservatives try to restore traditional marriage, as a way of giving today's children the kind of upbringing that some - some - enjoyed in the 50s. On all sides there is a ferment of interest in the childhood question.

Some of that is useful, some less so; but it omits the biggest influence on modern children, which is not the school curriculum, the lectures of the faithful, panics in the press, ministerial initiatives or even family ethos. No, the biggest influence is marketing; the power of brands that invades the minds of the youngest. If you think that's a bit of an exaggeration, try this finding by the National Consumer Council: 70% of three-year-olds recognise McDonalds but only half of them know their own surname. Or how about this, from the same research: the average 10-year-old has internalised 300 to 400 brands?

For many families, Christmas is not the season of goodwill, still less of charity or reflecting on higher things. It is the ultimate festival of pester-power. It is the time of the year when our shopping mania reaches its climax, so the whole country seems to resound not to the sound of sleighbells or carols, but a chorus of "gimme, gimme, gimme ... wanna, wanna, wanna" - the klaxon of consumerist kids.

With pitch-perfect timing, the left-of-centre thinktank Compass is about to publish a report launching its campaign on the Commercialisation of Childhood. It tells us what we already know, but with clarity and urgency. And in short, it's that while sugary foods rot our children's teeth, our sticky-sweet commercial culture is worse. It's rotting their minds and their values.

Come off it, some will say: we have always had toys and sweets being marketed to children. What about those Meccano sets, Dinky toys, plastic dolls and Roses chocolates aimed at the children of half a century ago? Somehow, despite all that, most of us managed to grow up with decent values.

What has changed is the sheer volume and ubiquity of the marketing, not its essence. Now that, according to Ofcom, nearly 73% of homes have multi-channel television, the advertising hit on children is tremendous. One researcher, Sue Palmer, estimates that the average child in Britain, the US and Australia now sees 20,000-40,000 television adverts a year. Can't you just record and fast-forward? Not really, because so many shows and films are now saturated with product placement, from the enthusiasm of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Pizza Hut, to this year's PG-rated Pink Panther film, which apparently featured over 30 brands, including Adidas, TGI Friday's and Virgin. It's absolutely everywhere.

Then there is the internet. We are talking about more than the pop-up ads. Marketeers are muscling into instant messaging and chatlines with disguised adverts, purporting to be friendly messages. Walmart's website Toyland asks children to pick items they'd like from a conveyor belt and then to enter their parents' email addresses so the list can be sent on and the company can "help pester your parents for you". The traditional Santa's list, this isn't.

Other brands encourage children to show off the latest gear to their mates. The teenage chat website, Dubit, suggests children should be "talking to your mates about it", "wearing or using the gear at certain public events such as concerts", and "stickering your town or school". The Bratz Boyz Secret Date Collection offers champagne glasses and "tons of date night accessories" to pre-pubescent children. According to Palmer, herself a former headteacher, it all "leads to the premature sexualisation of little girls, with five- and six-year-olds arriving at schools in sexy thongs and lacy bras and pre-teens plastering themselves with make-up to attract 'boyz'."

Of course we can combat these rotten values by talking to our children, and offering them better ways of spending their time and money. But, as with the parent in the shopping aisle, we are up against a highly sophisticated marketing economy that never sleeps, but attacks through magazines, sexualised music, billboards, cinema, mobile phones and radio, as well as the TV and internet. It reaches and shapes the playground peer group far more effectively than we bleating, flapping, nagging parents. Who wants to be cool? Everyone.

The consumer culture is our culture. It isn't just a growth, or a fad, or something outside the front door. It is becoming who and what we are. Compass also cites a professor from Nebraska who has been observing the ultimate triumph of the brand culture, the growth in children actually named after them. He found 300 girls called Armani, others named L'Oreal, and even a poor boy named after the sports channel ESPN.

Compass wants to start a national debate and it's one we should all join in. Not only are children being made miserable by a philosophy which suggests you can find happiness only through endless material consumption, but this commercialisation is shaping all our futures. People brought up as super-consumers and brand addicts will carry this unsustainable culture into the next half-century. There is an answer. When the big companies complain they already have too many constraints on their marketing power, it is time for the rest of us to say: you ain't seen nothing yet.

Jackie Ashley