Kids as commodities

By Verna Noel Jones, Special To The News
May 21, 2004

Does it seem as if your kids are nagging you more than ever for brand-name toys and food products? It's not your imagination. In fact, in 1998, researchers at Western International Media purposely studied ways to teach corporations how to get children to nag more effectively.

This is just one of a multitude of amazing and often terrifying facts shared in Susan Linn's timely book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.

Lynn is an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center. She has dedicated her life to speaking out about the negative effects of media and commercial marketing because a growing body of evidence shows it hurts children's physical, mental, social and emotional health.

Now she has written a take-charge book that - through riveting personal stories, research data and child development theory - shows precisely how the $15 billion advertising industry is hijacking your kids.

Linn lays out solid and persuasive evidence as to how our kids' lives are invaded from the time they are babies, when companies jump-start brand loyalty by "imprinting" characters through things such as decorated bedding and diapers, books, backpacks and television shows.

Such commercial exploitation directly competes "with parental values for children's hearts, minds and souls," she says. One big danger is the erosion of children's play, which is crucial for the development of creativity and the ability to think critically.

Corporate advertising has also crept into the school system, says Linn. Consider Channel One, a 10-minute news program that also contains two minutes of commercials. It's now fed into 12,000 middle, junior and high schools and seen by some eight million students.

Take note, too, of the school choirs that now perform Disney concerts, and classroom materials and gymnasiums replete with brand names. The acceptance of this advertising implies that the schools endorse these products.

Linn learned firsthand how marketers target kids while attending the fifth annual Advertising and Promoting to Kids conference in New York. This conference included the Golden Marble Awards, given to advertisers essentially for being the best at manipulating children for profit. A 1998 article in an industry newsletter Selling to Kids reported this: "Teens are more difficult because they are an oppositional subculture, interested in shutting out the adult world. However, there are enormous opportunities for the marketer who is able to understand both the reality and fantasy of teen life."

The Western International Media study, designed to show companies how to help kids nag more effectively, defined various parent types to help corporations fine-tune their marketing.

There are the Kids' Pals, parents who just want to have fun; the Indulgers, who give in to their children's every desire; the Conflicted, divorced or single parents who buy things out of guilt; and the Bare Necessities, parents who actually remain uninfluenced by kids who beg.

In short, Linn builds a strong, well-documented case showing that marketing products to children is out of control, unchecked and escalating. "When children are unprotected in the marketplace," she says, "they become commodities to be bought, sold or traded to facilitate profit. Unfettered commercialism strips children of their value and their values."

The book closes with numerous resources and concise ideas as to how parents and private foundations can get involved to stop advertisers from continuing to manipulate children. To begin, Linn says that schools should become commercial-free zones, and public media should be funded so that it offers kids programs that aren't connected to product licensing and food advertising.

The author also suggests that the government ban marketing of any kind to children under a certain age, as is done in other countries. Sweden, Finland and Norway ban marketing to kids under age 12; Quebec, to kids under age 13.

Consuming Kids is an important and startling book that should be read not only by parents, but by policymakers as well.

As Linn writes: "Marketing to children undermines democratic values by encouraging passivity, conformity and selfishness, threatens the quality of public education, inhibits free expression, and contributes to public health problems such as childhood obesity, tobacco addiction, and underage drinking."

Verna Noel Jones is a freelance writer living in Aurora.

Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.










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