How the marketing beast is taking away childhood in America

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood
By Susan Linn
New York, New Press, 304 pages.

In 1984, the Reagan administration deregulated advertising on children’s television, allowing networks to create programming for the purpose of selling toys to children. Within just a year, the top 10 bestselling children’s toys were all based on—surprise!—television shows.

Such is the power of the media over young hearts and minds, says Susan Linn in her book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. An instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, associate director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children’s Center, co-founder of the coalition Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, and yes, a parent, Linn’s message is this: The onslaught of commercial media on kids, and the disastrous consequences that ensue, are not as bad as you think; rather, they are far, far worse.

Kids are being rushed through the only childhoods they’ll ever have.
While television is the chief offender, both in its ubiquity and efficiency in delivering corporate-sponsored messages, it is by no means the only bogeyman, Linn writes. Other electronic media—radio, audio CDs, computer software and videogames, and the Internet—are culpable as well, along with print advertising, billboards, clothing, and even other kids (corporations on the vanguard of what’s known as viral marketing now identify “alpha” children—those deemed “cool” by their peers—and provide them with free product samples to show off to friends). In fact, Linn posits, advertising has so thoroughly suffused our culture that most of us—adults as well as children—scarcely notice it anymore. And that’s just the way the industry wants it.

“Influencing choice while creating the illusion that our choices are not being influenced is the whole purpose of advertising,” Linn writes.

And if adults are unknowingly susceptible to advertising’s hypnotic influence, one can reasonably assume that children—who, depending on their age, may not even be readily able to distinguish between reality and fantasy—are nearly defenseless. For that reason, Linn argues, advertising to them is unconscionable, unethical, and, she urges, ought to be (as it once was) illegal.

Marketing professionals will tell you such complaints are overblown. Modern kids, they say, are far more sophisticated consumers than previous generations, so marketers must be ever more creative and persistent in order to connect with them.

But Linn argues that “the industry confuses—or pretends to confuse—the trappings of sophistication with maturation.” An 8-year-old may yearn to look like a miniature teenager, and she may be able to toss off grown-up catchphrases from television like an expert. But she’s only just recently learned to read and it will be years before she is truly ready for the realities of adolescence. Either kids are somehow maturing far more quickly than ever before in history, or they are being rushed through the only childhoods they’ll ever have.

Parents may share some complicity in their kids’ dash to adulthood, but they are unwilling accomplices at best. According to Linn, what really drives the trend are the imperatives of advertising. For marketing conven-ience, the industry tends “to group six- to eleven-year-olds together (or eight- to twelve-year-olds) as a one-size-fits-all target audience for everything from food to clothing and toys to MTV,” she writes. One need not be a child-development expert to know that there is an enormous difference—cognitively, emotionally, and physically—between a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old, or even an 8- and 9-year-old.

On a practical level, what this leads to is the phenomenon, by now well recognized by marketers and childrens’ advocates alike, of kids “getting older younger,” with the products migrating along with their tastes. As an example, Linn cites the runaway success of a line of highly stylized dolls called Bratz, which were introduced by a small (now much larger) toy company, MGA Entertainment, to fill the gap created when the appeal of Barbie dolls started skewing ever younger, finally reaching preschoolers.

“The Bratz hit the market as the brand that was going to bring tweens [10- to 12-year-olds] back to doll play,” Linn writes. “They are hip and sexy—much sexier than Barbie… On the official Bratz website, they are posed to show off their lush butts and melon-sized breasts.”

But now the Bratz are following in Barbie’s footsteps, moving their way down the age range. “The sexy little Bratz are bestsellers for five- to seven-year-olds, who are now going to be getting even older even younger,” Linn reports.

The Bratz example certainly hit home with this reviewer. As an editor atFamilyFun, a national parenting magazine—one that is, editorially at least, intended as an antidote to consumer culture—I have written favorably about Bratz. I’ve stood in MGA showrooms, nodding approvingly as marketers showed me the latest Bratz products. I have given Bratz dolls to my 8-year-old niece (which she happily accepted). But after reading Consuming Kids, I will choose my words carefully the next time I write about these products. And my niece won’t be getting another Bratz windfall, at least not for a few more years.

Selling sex to ever-younger children is the, well, sexiest charge Linn makes against marketers, but it’s by no means the only one. In chapter after chapter, she shows how American corporations sell kids on fast food, violence, tobacco, and alcohol. She details how advertising has crept into our public schools, mostly through Faustian bargains struck by cash-strapped administrators.

Even the unborn are not safe from consumer indoctrination. Linn talks about a book called Oh Baby, the Places You’ll Go! A Book to be Read in Utero that”informs” the fetus about the wonderful Dr. Seuss books that await it in the world outside the womb.

Not that Linn buys it; in fact, she dismisses the entire Baby Einstein-to-Mozart Effect continuum of products as more placebo for parents than means of grooming genius in the cradle. But even if these baby-boosters don’t have their intended effects, Linn wonders about the unintended kind.

‘Pester power’ is a perfectly acceptable tool among advertisers.

Discussing Baby Gourmet, a video series that introduces “little ones to beautiful fruits and vegetables,” Linn allows that the tape “seems to have been created out of the best intentions,” and if directed at age 2 and over, would be no worse than “just one more unnecessary children’s video series on the market. At best, it might be beneficial to kids.” To her, however, the whole idea of media bombardment of infants is troubling. “Until we know how babies respond to television, it’s irresponsible, and potentially harmful, to create video programming aimed specifically at them.”

One wonders why Linn is even that charitable, especially after the chapter in which she details how marketers not only create in children a desire for products, but also, by exploiting family dynamics and kids’ needs for autonomy, teach kids how to wheedle them out of their parents.

Referring to a 1998 study intended to help retailers boost sales by making kids more demanding, Linn writes, “We might hope that ‘The Nag Factor’ was an aberration. It’s alarming to think that people would actually want to wreak havoc in families just to make a buck, but exploiting the nag factor—or ‘pester power,’ as it is also called in the industry—continues to be a perfectly acceptable tool from the marketers’ point of view… If advertising executives have any doubts about ‘pester power,’ these seem to center only on whether it’s effective, not whether it’s ethical.”

Linn’s measured comments on such egregious tactics make her case that much stronger. She also asserts that she is not speaking from a position of puritanical, scorched-earth morality. “I love satire and, as my friends and family know, get a kick out of irreverence,” writes Linn. “I even liked the extremely violent movie Pulp Fiction, which I thought was a funny and provocative commentary on, among other things, the mundanity of evil, but I wouldn’t want a child to see it.”

One suspects that most children haven’t, but the same couldn’t be said of another of Linn’s favorites. “As a show for adults, The Simpsons often serves up good social commentary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great program for kids. The problem? Humor on The Simpsons is rooted in irony and satire, neither of which is readily understood by children… Until the age of about six, children are unable to understand verbal irony even when it’s delivered in a markedly sarcastic tone. Irony and satire in The Simpsons is much more subtle than that.”

Many of the points Linn makes are, or ought to be, obvious. It’s easy to see why 5-year-olds should not be encouraged to act “sexy”; in the face of a childhood epidemic of obesity, toys and ads that equate fast food with fun are certainly counterproductive. Everyone can probably agree that programming and products that glorify violence are at least problematic.

But the commercialization of childhood raises subtler issues as well. Linn shows how our increasingly prepackaged culture is in itself bad for kids.”Play comes naturally to children,” she writes. “They play—often without knowing they are doing so—to express themselves and to gain a sense of control over their world. But play is continually devalued and stunted by the loud voice of commerce.”

Here, Exhibit A is Harry Potter. Upon publication of the first book in the series, Linn writes, “millions of children experienced the world of Harry Potter essentially in silence, the stillness broken only by the rustle of pages turning or the quiet murmur of someone reading aloud.” All that came to an end with the Potter movie and merchandise blitz.

Of course, Hollywood has been turning books into movies for decades. But these days, a movie and the spin-offs it leads to fill in the gaps that used to be filled by kids’ imaginations. Now, what we have are “prod-ucts, products, and more products,” Linn writes. “Puzzles, board games, dolls…computer games…candy, costumes, socks, shirts, boxer shorts, backpacks, calendars, duffel bags, and rolling luggage.”

Thirty years ago, a child might find under the Christmas tree a nameless, stuffed doll, to which she could imbue any personality and history she liked. Today, products such as Bratz—or even the relatively wholesome American Girls dolls—come scripted with ready-made histories, personalities, and play patterns. How many children will feel compelled to imagine an ordinary household broom as Harry Potter’s trusty Nimbus 2000 when the “real thing” is being hawked on television? Even Lego blocks, Linn points out—which are often regarded as an open-ended, brain-building toy—are now nearly always packaged as a kit with instructions that imply a “right” way to assemble them.

So what to do? And who to do it? The last thing Linn wants is to put the onus on parents to counteract the onslaught of consumer messages. “When it comes to mitigating the harms to children caused by advertising the easiest solution is to blame parents,” writes Linn. “It’s certainly what the industry loves to do. Yet how can one family, alone, protect their children from an industry spending $15 billion annually to manipulate them?” Linn suggests that society needs to start thinking about the problem from the bottom up: What’s best for kids? “From that perspective,” she writes, “the answer is simple. Let’s stop marketing to children.”

Linn recognizes that it will be difficult to wean corporate America from such a captive audience, but not impossible. “I can almost hear a chorus of responses…ranging in tone from despair to outrage to condescension,” she acknowledges, preemptively.”It’s anticapitalist! It’s anti-American! What about the First Amendment? Let the industry regulate itself!”

But to her, the principles involved in protecting children from com-mercial exploitation override free-market bromides, and thus have the power to win the day. “Just because marketing to children is a fact of life at this moment in time does not mean it always has to be that way,” writes Linn. “At various points in our country’s history, societal ills from slavery to child labor were all a fact of life. They are no longer.”

In the short term, Linn does offer some strategies for parents who want to keep the marketing beast at bay, at home and in the community. First, she advises, take a close look at our own behaviors. If kids see their parents relying on material possessions for happiness, we can hardly expect them to act differently. And, not surprisingly, Linn insists that setting limits on television watching “is the single most effective thing we can do to reduce children’s exposure to advertising.” Outside the home, parents should actively engage their neighbors in dialogue about media saturation, and strive to make schools a safe haven from commercialism.

Achieving significant political or legislative change, of course, will be much more difficult. Still, Linn points out that many countries have enacted effective bans on advertising to kids. Sweden, Norway, and Finland forbid marketing to kids under 12. The Canadian province of Quebec forbids it for kids under 13. And in Greece, televised toy ads are banned from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Meet the Author
“Banning marketing to children may seem to be quite radical,” Linn says,”but it really isn’t.” She’s right. In the face of the evidence collected in Consuming Kids, what’s really radical is that we allow marketing to kids at all.

Gregory Lauzon is a staff writer at FamilyFun.