Sugar Babies
Susan Linn's Consuming Kids: the Hostile Takeover of Childhood

In November 2003, The Cat in the Hat earned a whopping $38.33 million its opening weekend in the United States despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. How did Hollywood do it? If the question were posed to Harvard psychologist Susan Linn, she would point to the film's extensive marketing to children, which ranged from limited-edition cereal and Oreos to clothes, jewelry, backpacks, and skateboards. In Consuming Kids (see review, p. 94), her exposé of Madison Avenue's negative impact on our children, she reveals that youngsters influence $600 billion worth of purchases—no mere coincidence. Advertisers themselves spend $15 billion pitching to children. "These days," Linn writes, "the village raising our children has been transformed by electronic media, a ubiquitous, commercially driven force in all of our lives."

LJ: Can you describe the path that led you to write this book?

SL: It's a dirty job, but somebody had to do it. Marketing to children in this country is pervasive, escalating, and unchecked. It has a profound effect on children and families, so parents and other people who care about children have a right to know more about it.

LJ: What did your research entail? I know you went undercover at a recent KidScreen Advertising and Promoting to Kids conference.

SL: I've been immersing myself in marketing literature for the past five years. I think it's important for people to understand how marketing experts characterize children and families in their trade publications, as well as how they write about the process of marketing to children. I found the web and databases such as Lexis Nexis and Factiva to be particularly helpful. In addition, I read books on marketing to children, as well as journals in psychology, marketing, and education. Since each chapter [of the book] covers a different aspect of children's lives, I also interviewed researchers and experts on topics ranging from underage drinking to childhood obesity. People were very generous in sharing their work.

Because of my work with the coalition to Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, people often send me articles about various aspects of this topic, and that was helpful in keeping up with current developments.

LJ: Many LJ readers would be interested in hearing about your work with the late Fred Rogers.

SL: I appeared on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from time to time as a puppeteer ventriloquist and worked with his production company, Family Communications, to produce videotapes about difficult issues for children, including a whole series devoted to helping first- to third-graders grapple with racism, prejudice, and diversity. He was a mentor and a wonderful model for using television and video to help children grow and develop.

LJ: You make reference to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and his interpretation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World that "what we love will ruin us." How does this relate to the problem of food marketing and childhood obesity?

SL: Eating foods high in fat, sugar, calories, and salt is pleasurable. Most of us love to eat candy and French fries, and the commercials and media programs that sell these products to children are often appealing and entertaining. Kids like to eat junk food. And—in the case of childhood obesity and its attendant problems—it could literally kill them.

LJ: In your book you call attention to the American Library Association's literacy campaign with World Wrestling Entertainment [WWE]. For libraries looking for "hooks" to get kids and teens into libraries, what is the harm of using popular culture figures, such as WWE wrestlers?

SL: The wrestlers are icons for WWE and, therefore, the behaviors and values it celebrates. Even as these stars promote literacy, they are also promoting the behaviors depicted on WWE programs, that is, violence and bullying. I think that schools and libraries need to consider seriously whether they want to endorse the antisocial behavior the WWE celebrates.

LJ: How does eliminating marketing to children differ from censoring the media?

SL: I believe strongly in freedom of expression and that people have the right to create any kind of art or media programming they choose. However, I believe—at least when it comes to children—that commercial speech should not be protected under the First Amendment. I'm not concerned about the content of media; I'm concerned about how and whether media and products are marketed to children who do not have the cognitive capabilities or the life experience to defend themselves against it.

LJ: You state that people seem more worried about government regulation than corporate control on the freedom of speech issue. What threats do corporations pose?

SL: At this point, three corporations control most children's programming on television. Corporations—such as toy companies—are now creating programming on television. It's virtually impossible to get a children's program on the air unless it features characters that can be licensed for sale as toys, food, clothing, and accessories. Isn't that limiting freedom of expression?

LJ: What impact do you hope the book will have?

SL: I hope that Consuming Kids will shine a spotlight on the marketing industry and its practices as they relate to children and, in doing so, contribute to an end to marketing to children. Among people who care about children, there is growing concern today about childhood obesity, violence, precocious and irresponsible sexuality, materialism, and eroding parental authority—all of which are being marketed to kids on a daily basis. It needs to stop.