In 2006, a commercial began to air on cable television that showed happy babies gurgling through their year-one milestones. “A baby’s first smile of recognition,” a voiceover says. “That first rollover. The first step, and first word are miracles of a baby’s life.” Over graphics of a growing brain, a narrator announces that the first five years of development are critical and tells parents to “seize this small window of opportunity” to reach another milestone with their children: learning to read. The commercials direct parents to a toll-free number to buy Your Baby Can Read, a five-disc set that costs $200.
A number of educational experts considered the product a scam—babies don’t learn to read from watching DVDs because babies can’t learn to read. Prominent among the critics was Susan Linn, a 63-year-old child psychologist and founder of the watchdog group Campaign for a Commercial--Free Childhood. In April 2011, she complained to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the product’s advertising claims. For Linn, those claims aren’t just false; they’re dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 watch no television. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood points to numerous studies that show spending time in front of television and other multimedia screens as an infant reduces school performance, increases incidence of disorders like Attention Deficit Disorder, and contributes to health problems like obesity later in a child’s life. More important for Linn is what children watching television don’t do: They don’t learn from a three-dimensional, tactile environment, they don’t interact with their parents, and they don’t discover how to be creative. “Babies learn kinetically, through hands-on exploration of the world,” Linn says.
The advertising strategy for Your Baby Can Read changed a few weeks after the complaint, but it was hardly what Linn and her colleagues hoped for. Friends and fellow advocates from around the corporate-responsibility world—the people who tend to notice ads—e-mailed to say that when they searched on Google or Yahoo for Susan Linn’s name or for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an ad for Your Baby Can Read was displayed on top of the search results. The ad read, “Your Baby Can Read Works.”
Your Baby Can Read had used Google’s AdWords program and a similar one on Yahoo to buy ads that display anytime Susan Linn’s name and the name of the campaign are searched. (No one at the campaign used Microsoft’s Bing, so they don’t know if that search engine had a similar ad.) Linn had never thought much about Google or AdWords and was outraged that a company could buy her name—and, she felt, her influence and implicit endorsement. “The default shouldn’t be that you can be a tool for advertising against your will,” she says. “Especially for a company you find morally repugnant.”
Linn’s biggest weapon is her reputation. She and the campaign have a good relationship with the press, and when she files a complaint, it usually gets attention. News articles that mention her name lead to a spike in Google searches; the longer the FTC fight dragged on—it remains unresolved—the more clicks Your Baby Can Read was poised to get.
The campaign wanted to disassociate itself from the ad right away, but contacting Google was harder than expected. Shara Drew, a program coordinator and the organization’s Web master, had to create an AdWords account just to get a phone number for the advertising department. She reached a sales rep who tried to sell her a counter ad on Your Baby Can Read. “She didn’t see anything wrong with the ad,” Drew says, “and said it wasn’t breaking Google’s policy unless it says Susan Linn’s name in the ad.”
Throughout the summer, while the ad remained up, Linn and the other campaign members complained to their most influential friends, some of whom had contacts at Google. Drew also filled out an online complaint form but never heard back. The campaign met with the FTC about its case against Your Baby Can Read and mentioned the Google ad to officials there. Because Google won’t comment on its accounts, the campaign can’t be sure which tactic was most effective, but by September the ad was gone. It was gone from Yahoo searches, too.
Google’s AdWords policy on proper-name searches is only a single line: “We do not monitor the use of proper names in AdWords ads or keywords.” Yahoo and Bing have similar policies. Many ad campaigns are set up by filling out an online form, which means a company like Your Baby Can Read never has to speak to a salesperson at Google. If an ad violates an explicitly stated policy, certain words in the ad’s text will prevent it from being published. If it doesn’t, it goes up.
Privacy advocates say that Linn’s case raises an issue that they haven’t encountered before but expect to see again. Most court rulings on challenges to Google’s policies have allowed the ads under the free-speech rights of companies because they encourage competition—across the Web, firms advertise when people search for their competitors. But Linn is an advocate against companies, and one of the companies with which she is wrangling used her as an advertising tool. In the future, other companies could do the same and could potentially, through AdWords, intimidate, silence, or undermine the work of anti-corporate activists. Marc Rotenberg at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, says his organization has seen corporations use their online presence to try to drown out critical content, but not in this way. “I’ve never heard of a situation where AdWords were used to compete with the speech of an individual,” he says. “If this is done in a way that’s intended to suppress or direct political speech, that’s a really bad thing.”
Linn, who grew up in Detroit, began her professional life not as an activist but as a ventriloquist. She started studying ventriloquism at age 6 with a sock puppet she called Sidnafer Dragon. By the time she was 17, she had developed her most famous puppet, Audrey Duck, and entered Boston University’s theater department. She left after two years to join the Clearwater troupe led by the folksinger Pete Seeger, which performed shows about the environment while sailing up and down the Hudson River in New York, before deciding to work for and with children.
She returned to school, earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Harvard University’s education school, and began to perform as a ventriloquist in local and national theaters, on children’s television, and for videotapes she produced. Linn invented a job for herself as a puppet therapist at Children’s Hospital in Boston, using puppets to counsel children with serious illnesses. Puppets like Audrey Duck provide a psychological screen that helps children express feelings that make them uncomfortable or that they think will get them in trouble. Other therapists had used dolls in this type of therapy, but Linn’s experience as a performer made her especially suited for the work. “Her puppets are like alter egos,” says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist and civil-rights advocate with whom Linn has worked. “I don’t know anyone that uses puppets the way Susan does.”
Her reputation for working with children got her onto the long-running PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—beginning in 1971, she was an occasional guest in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Then, as now, she didn’t have the kooky energy one might imagine of a puppeteer turned child advocate; Linn, much like Fred Rogers, instead exudes the calming influence of a therapist. Short, with dark hair and a reassuring smile, she is an adult who takes the travails of childhood seriously and can turn pain and sadness into a rainy-day kind of happiness. In one memorable episode, which aired in 1971, Audrey Duck visits Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood after one of the characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe buys a new television. Audrey becomes upset because her own television is small, and she’s afraid her friends won’t want to visit her house. Linn reassures Audrey that her friends like her for her personality, not her possessions. Afterward, when the other characters ask whether she wants to watch TV, Audrey decides she’d rather do something with her hands: She wants to make cookies. “The seeds of the work I’m doing now were there,” Linn says. “I think that, probably aside from love and friendship and kindness, creativity has always been important to me. Even then, it was clear to me that there were ways that too much screen time would destroy explosive imagination.”
When Linn began working with shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, children’s television was new and its reach still limited. The Federal Communications Commission monitored and regulated all television, and networks had to meet broad guidelines that limited commercials during children’s shows and imposed requirements that some programs be educational. Harvard helped develop and produce educational programming like Sesame Street. PBS aired other shows, like Reading Rainbow and 3-2-1 Contact, mostly designed to get preschool-aged children ready for school and to supplement learning for kids who had already started. Advocates believed a limited amount of educational television could be good for children over 2. “There was a lot of hope for media for children,” Linn says. “There was a great creative flowering and a burgeoning communications culture.”
Even then, advocates saw a need to curb corporate influence on children’s programming. A group in Newton, Massachusetts, Action for Children’s Television, sought to remove commercials from children’s shows and improve their quality. In 1977, working with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group urged the FTC to ban all advertisements for children under 8—who don’t understand the concepts of selling and persuasion and, according to most evidence, are unable to distinguish commercial content from regular programming. The group also called for a ban on commercials pitching high-sugar foods to children under 12.
After the FTC adopted the ban on high-sugar foods, including cereals, a three-year fight with Congress over the ban ended with a defunded FTC that lacked the ability to regulate marketing to children. Then, Ronald Reagan’s administration deregulated television altogether in 1984, spawning cartoons like Strawberry Shortcake, He-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that were essentially long commercials for toys. Advertising aimed at children exploded and became protected by legal rulings that expanded the free-speech rights of companies. Linn got a taste of this when she was working with Poussaint in his media program at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. The program provides a number of services to children, including counseling to those with mental-health problems. In the mid-1990s, Linn and Poussaint developed a pilot for a show designed to teach coping skills about a diverse soccer team in South Boston. The pilot for Willoughby’s Wonders won two New England Emmys, but the show struggled to get financing. An offer of funding came from McDonald’s, on the condition that the teenagers in the show work at the fast-food franchise. Linn and Poussaint declined, and the show never aired.
Shortly after the failure of Willoughby’s Wonders, PBS imported the Teletubbies series from Britain. Teletubbies featured four brightly colored creatures from outer space that talked in a nonsense language and had televisions in their stomachs and protruding rings in their heads, which made it easy for toddlers to hold on to the doll versions of the characters. On television, a toddler face looked down from a bright yellow sun and watched the Teletubbies’ antics. It was one of the first television shows designed to catch and keep a baby’s attention.
Although PBS would claim, at times, that the show was aimed at 2-year-olds, some promotional materials marketed it as educational for toddlers as young as a year old. The proliferation of commercial content targeted at young children sparked a shift in Linn’s work, and she became more of an advocate than a performer. In 1999, she wrote an article in The American Prospect with Poussaint about Teletubbies, warning that the show’s entrance into the American market augured a bad future for children’s television. Their warning was prescient: “The success of Teletubbies means that, in an industry known for copycat programming, we can look forward to a whole raft of other programs geared toward babies.” By the mid-2000s, products like Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, and BabyFirstTV were being marketed to parents as educational for infants younger than 2. Baby Einstein, a Disney brand, earned about $200 million annually.
Linn would later launch a fight against Baby Einstein—a fight that would force her to sever her ties with the Judge Baker center. In 2000, she had founded the Campaign for a Commercial--Free Childhood after she organized a protest against the Golden Marble Awards, an industry event that celebrated the best advertising for children. The campaign resided within the center, where she and Poussaint still worked. Linn organized rallies, conferences, and letter-writing campaigns against companies that advertised to children and shows that she felt exploited kids. Her targets included Nickelodeon, which had been an early contributor to the campaign, for airing junk-food advertisements. Poussaint says it cost him regular consulting gigs with the children’s network and cost the group its donation. “Susan’s non--compromising, but I don’t say that in a bad way,” Poussaint says. “She will not bend or be bought. She will not be bought.”
Linn’s battle against Disney’s Baby Einstein began with an FTC complaint in 2006 for false advertising claims, which led, in 2009, to Disney refunding its Baby Einstein customers and to The New York Times writing a series of articles critical of the product. The Times called the refunds a “tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.”
Linn was quoted in the articles. Disney then accused the campaign of failing to maintain the confidentiality agreement reached as part of the settlement and put pressure on the center. Poussaint says he and Linn were chastised in front of the Judge Baker board, and Linn refused to back down. The center cut the campaign loose in March 2010, and Poussaint moved his operations to the Harvard Medical School, causing the center to cancel a gala at which he was to be honored.
The campaign maintained most of its funding, however. From its new home in a sterile downtown office building, Linn filed the complaint against Your Baby Can Read.
Even before the AdWords debacle, Linn and other advocates had turned their attention to the Internet. “We can’t think about TV anymore,” she says. “We used to be able to keep advertising in its place, and now it’s everywhere. No generation of parents and children have ever had to cope with it on this scale.” Sites like McWorld and Nickelodeon exist as interactive children’s entertainment packages, designed to advertise to children across platforms, many of them on devices small enough for children to hold in their hands. A September 2010 analysis by The Wall Street Journal found that the 50 most popular websites for teens and children installed 30 percent more tracking tools than did the most popular adult sites.
For Linn, these sites—like the Google ad on her name—are a result of the advertising saturation that began in the 1980s. The children who grew up watching shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are now adults, and they are accustomed to a world in which the rights of companies take precedence over rights to privacy and commercial-free spaces. “There’s this sense that it’s just normal for companies to have rights that trump our rights,” she says. “Like the right to force someone to be a tool for advertising against our will. That’s never been possible before.”
Linn is only half right, says Berin Szoka, a founder of the libertarian-minded think tank TechFreedom. “It’s never been true that we’ve had the right to stop anybody else using our name,” he says. Szoka says the only difference now, with the Internet, is that we’re more likely to hear about, and see, the methods companies use to get our attention. “A lot of this hysteria is based on a phenomenon we typically see when we talk about panics around new technology,” he says. “What unsettles people is that these interactions are taking place in an environment that is different, that’s outside of the norms that govern interpersonal interaction.” In Szoka’s view, we’ll become as accustomed to advertising online—even if it’s more targeted and more personal than it ever has been before—just as we got used to the ways in which radio and television changed our lives.
The free-speech rights of corporations explain why Google and other search engines tend to take a hands-off approach when it comes to defining their ad policies: If Google interfered, it would be accused of favoring some companies over others. Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology says that’s why there are new concerns raised every time a new Internet product is introduced. “This is a new environment,” he says, “and no one’s entirely clear where the legal parameters are right now.”
The biggest battles are over trademarks—the legal means that allow one business to distinguish its products from those of a competing business. Google permits companies to buy ads on searches of the names of their competitors, but about 20 companies have over the years argued that buying their names for advertising purposes violates their trademark rights. Most of those cases lose because courts rule that companies buying the ads have free-speech rights to go after their competitors, but these lawsuits are really about companies using the tools available to them to try to control their online presence. Individuals are more and more concerned with controlling their online personas, too, but have fewer ways to fight—individuals, for instance, can’t trademark their names. Advocacy groups like EPIC and the Center for Democracy and Technology often protest how companies use the information many of us offer up freely when we join social-networking services like Facebook or use services like Google’s e-mail system, Gmail. Advocates argue that those companies routinely violate our privacy by scanning our information, mining data to target ads, and, sometimes, using our social connections to increase advertising’s reach. Facebook, for example, recently settled a class-action lawsuit after it allowed companies to use the names and pictures of some users in ads that were targeted at their online friends. That possibly violated already established law against using someone in an endorsement without his or her explicit permission.
An ad like the one Your Baby Can Read took out on Susan Linn’s name pushes the privacy debate into a new realm. Most people likely don’t know that their names can be bought for advertising purposes. There are legitimate free-speech reasons for allowing companies to buy ads on proper names; politicians, for example, often target other politicians in ads, and that’s as true online as it is off. From Google’s perspective, trying to disallow proper-name ads might cause more problems than it solves, because it would face challenges over the speech rights of advertisers. It would also cut into the business Google gets from people-finder services, like whitepages.com and Intelius, which advertise on almost every proper-name search.
In the increasing push to monetize the Internet, proper names are used for business purposes every day. The question—especially as ads become more localized—becomes whether private citizens have a right to guard how their information and identities are used. That’s especially true if private citizens raise their profiles by exercising their free-speech rights—becoming advocates, like Linn, against a big company, speaking out against a political campaign, or signing an online petition.
When she first learned of the Your Baby Can Read ad, Linn says she felt violated. “I experienced it as one more escalation of commercial intrusion and one more freedom being eroded,” she says. Suddenly, the advocate who couldn’t be bought was being bought against her will. Linn’s not launching a new campaign against Google. But she does see her experience this summer as part and parcel of the work she does and the message she wants to send: Advertising, whether it’s aimed at children or adults, carries costs, and the scales have tipped so far in favor of corporations that individuals bear almost all of them. Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, a website that covers tech, says Linn’s perception is why these privacy fights keep escalating. “We probably are well overdue for updates on how we deal with privacy, and not just privacy on the Internet but privacy in general,” he says. “You have to strike that balance between why we have public information and trying to protect privacy in an age when suddenly information that—even though it was public, was hard to get to—is now much more easily accessible.”