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Toddling Consumers

January-February 2005

Corporate America's pursuit of children has never been so aggressive. With an annual budget of $15 billion, about 2.5 times more than what they spent in 1992, marketers now bombard kids with ads everywhere. On television alone, the average child sees about 40,000 commercials a year, and the content of many of these ads is disturbing to say the least, notes instructor in psychiatry Susan Linn, Ed.D. '90, in her new book, Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood (New Press). For example, the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is advertised during shows that the broadcasting industry deems suitable for kids as young as 14, even though it features a character who kills a prostitute after having sex with her. Age-focused marketing on the Internet is just as alarming, adds Linn, who found Jack Daniels Original Hard Cola, an "alcopop," touted on a teen-friendly website as a proven cure for boredom, a drink "that goes great with a burger, in an ice cream float, or poured generously over cereal flakes."

If you think school is a refuge from marketing, think again. In classrooms around the country, Channel One, a daily video program of news and commercials, consumes the equivalent of five instructional days each school year for more than eight million students. In the cafeteria, students see vending machines filled with Coke or Pepsi if one of the soda giants has obtained "pouring rights" from their school. They may also find Frito-Lay posters claiming that Cheetos and Doritos provide the "bread/brain power that the food guide pyramid says you need." For some students, notes Linn, visits to Sports Authority stores now replace physical-education classes, thanks to a company called the Field Trip Factory.

"Comparing the advertising of two or three decades ago to the commercialism that permeates our children's world is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb," writes Linn. "The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists—in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before."

A pioneer in the use of puppets in child psychotherapy, Linn, an associate director of the media center at Judge Baker Children's Center (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), believes that this commercial assault has a negative impact on every aspect of children's lives. Marketing, she says, is a factor in childhood obesity and eating disorders. It's linked to youth violence and precocious, irresponsible sexuality. It discourages creative thinking and contributes to family stress.

"For parents, the fact that children are vulnerable, that their brains aren't developed, that they don't have good judgment, that's cause for concern," says Linn. "But for marketers, it's an opportunity for profit." The advertising industry, she adds, works day and night to undermine parental authority: one flagrant example is "The Nag Factor," a 1998 study conducted by Western Media International to help retailers boost sales by exploiting children's nagging of their parents.

Linn also condemns the way some corporations market to children under the guise of performing "good works" for the community. World Wrestling Entertainment, for instance, sponsors a program for schools and libraries to promote respect, education, achievement, and leadership. The same WWE, Linn notes, glorifies bullying on its TV programs and sells trading cards that feature a hero laughing as he holds a decapitated woman's head.

Linn's criticism doesn't stop there. "The thing that appalls me the most is marketing to babies," she says. This practice, which furthers manufacturers' quest for literal cradle-to-grave brand loyalty, escalated after Teletubbies debuted in the United States on public television in 1998. The program, featuring humanoid creatures with television sets embedded in their tummies, was touted as educational for one-year-olds, says Linn, despite a lack of research on television's impact on babies. The PBS show continued to exploit the very young via toy promotions with fast-food companies; when Linn questioned these practices, she received a Teletubbies exercise video accompanied by a press release claiming that "the Teletubbies are taking the lead in the fight against obesity in children."

Certainly, parents can reduce children's exposure to advertising by setting limits on television, monitoring computer use, and so on. But they can't fight this battle by themselves. "Marketing to children is a societal problem that cannot be fixed by one individual, or even one individual advocacy group, working alone," writes Linn. "Its solution lies in collaborative efforts to influence public policy, similar to efforts that led to movements to gain rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, and laborers, and to protect the environment."

There are signs that a movement to stop the commercialization of childhood is already underway. Senator Tom Harkin has introduced a bill to reinstate the Federal Trade Commission's power to regulate marketing to children. Unfortunately, this movement may be coming too late for some people. "I talked to a mother," says Linn, "who said her baby's first words were Elmo, Nemo, and Coke."