Honey, I Sold the Kids

In her new book, Consuming Kids, ventriloquist-turned-child-psychologist Susan Linn tries to build a movement to regulate marketing to children.

You say there has been an explosion of marketing to children. What do you mean?

The proliferation of electronic media that happened in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s has made kids more vulnerable then ever. Radio, TV, videos, CD players, computers, movies -- you can be accessed by marketers everywhere now, and the changes in technology make it possible for the advertising industry to bypass parents. In 1978, after there had been all this activism in TV in the ‘70s and they had managed to get regulations for children's TV, they decided that programming for children under eight could once again be deregulated. The sugar industry, the meat industry, all these industries just descended on Congress. And Congress took away the Federal Trade Commission's power to regulate programming for kids in 1980; then, in 1984, children's TV was deregulated. My daughter was born in 1987, so we hit it at the height of the escalation.

What do you mean by “bypassing parents”?

The advertising industry does everything it can to come between parents and their children. And they really relish it. The whole notion of “tweens” -- I went back in my book to research the history of that word -- goes back to latchkey children. In the ‘80s everyone was worrying about latchkey kids. The problem got all this press. And advertisers started exploiting latchkey children because they were home alone. They knew that many kids were home alone, without parents. There wasn't adequate childcare, so children were watching all this TV. The amount of money spent on advertising during after-school programs, I mean, it went from nothing to millions of dollars -- and this is just during the late ‘80s.

But there are still some regulations that are supposed to protect children from marketing, at least children's TV that's not on cable. Are the existing regulations on the books only and not really enforced in spirit?

Well, the Children's Television Act limits the number of commercials on regular TV, and some of the cable stations are voluntarily going along with that. There is still the host-selling law [the prohibition of direct incorporation of commercials in TV shows, such as touting a product during a sitcom] I think in programs really geared for children you are not supposed to do product placement -- except sometimes the whole program is product placement.
And, yes, these regulations are enforced, in that a host can't say on a show “buy this product.” But when the host actually is the product, you know, it's very complicated. There's still a regulation that you can't sell a product from the program on either end of the program, but you can sell it 10 minutes later. Advertisers know they're still getting their products to kids.

Is marketing to children continuing to skyrocket?

It's continuing to escalate; children are marketed to every waking moment of the day, and they are marketed to even within the toys they play with. Some companies even advertise on baby paraphernalia -- sheets for a baby's crib are branded!

How can you advertise to babies?

Reading to babies is really important. It is a great way to get children hooked on books and the baby associates all these warm cuddly feelings, snuggling with the mom or the dad, with reading. And isn't that wonderful. So parents want to read to their young kids right away. It makes them better parents. So advertisers came up with the idea of creating books that look just like product packages. If you look at a Fruit Loops book cover and the front of a Fruit Loops cereal box, there's no difference, it's hard to tell one from the other. It's the same with the M&Ms counting book -- it is the M&Ms candy wrapper. So now these babies are getting all these warm snuggly feelings not just for reading, but for M&Ms. No wonder we have a child obesity problem.

Is there research showing a causal relationship between children seeing product images at a young age and later behavior?

There is no research like this to my knowledge. It is very hard to get funding to do research on the impacts of marketing on kids right now.

Why is that?

Because who's going to fund it? Most of the research done on advertising and marketing to children is done by the advertising industry itself, and it's all proprietary. One of the things I would like to do is have the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] or some government agency use its subpoena power to get these research findings and other documents the way we have legally demanded documents from the tobacco industry. In fact, the lawyers who help prosecute the tobacco companies are now working on legal approaches to the obesity epidemic, taking on the food industry.

But if we don't have enough research on marketing to children, how do we know it is bad for them? Clearly, there are more ads -- but why is that a bad thing?

Marketing to children has a negative impact on virtually every aspect of children's lives, including values and behavior. And what advertisers want from children is fundamentally antithetical to democracy. Democracy functions with a population that is able to think critically, that acts and isn't just reactive, that doesn't base all decisions solely on emotions

How to people lose their ability to think critically from being marketed to?

One of the things that psychology has taught us is the concept of the “good-enough parent.” The “good-enough parent” holds the baby securely enough so the baby is safe and loosely enough so the baby can generate movement. The baby can gesture and the mother responds to that gesture with appreciation and loving noises; this is the baby's first experience of making something good happen in the world. The baby begins to differentiate between herself and the world and to learn the difference between what's inside and what's outside. One of the ways that a parent might not be “good enough” is if he or she holds the baby too loosely, so that it's not safe for the baby to experiment with these gestures. But it is also not good to hold the baby so tightly that the baby is constricted and never has the opportunity to generate anything… When parents say, “do this,” “sit up,” “do this,” “smile,” they are bombarding kids with stimulation and commands so that the kids cannot create their own activity and learn from that. Well, that's what's happening with the marketing industry: There is not room for creative gestures and learning is stunted.

So is the fear that the marketing will make children sort of brainwashed?

For me the child is vulnerable to marketing in all aspects of their well-being. From messaging materialistic values, to normalizing violence, to promoting unhealthy eating and sexual behaviors. Let's just look, as an example, at child obesity. A poll from Advertising Age shows that of 1000 advertisers polled, 77% believe there is a link between advertising and child obesity. The WHO [World Health Organization] sees a link between advertising and child obesity. The British Food Commission did a review of literature and found a link between marketing and child obesity. I mean, do you believe in child obesity? Then you believe marketing harms children.

But you say it is also bad for families.

The messages in commercials exploit the struggle between kids and parents. Parents are told by child-development specialists to pick their battles. But which battle are we as parents supposed to pick? The food battle? The TV battle? The video-game battle? The R-rated movie battle? The precocious, sexualized clothing battle? The materialism battle? I mean, it's just endless and it causes all kinds of stress in families.

You went to an advertising conference to learn from the inside how to examine the attitudes and ethics within the industry itself. Can you talk about that experience?

It's cradle-to-grave branding. As Mike Searles, president of Kids “R” Us, says, "If you own a child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come.”

What are some of the tactics being used by marketers in this “cradle-to-grave” marketing?

Viral marketing started as an Internet technique. A marketing person would go into a chatroom known to be used by kids and use it as an opportunity to tout a product. But now it's done with live kids as well. Marketers will pay someone to go into a neighborhood and keep asking for the coolest kid until they finally get to that kid. The marketing industry has names for these cool kids -- the “influencers,” or “alpha kids” -- and they'll give the kids products to distribute to their friends.

But there are real people doing the advertising. Don't they care about kids?

The Golden Marble Awards used to be given during the Advertising and Promoting to Kids Conference. It was the advertising industry's celebration of marketing to kids. For some reason I had the idea that people who marketed to kids felt that, well, it was the way they had to earn their living. I didn't think they were enjoying it, or that they would celebrate it. It was very stupid of me. So in 2001 we held a counter-conference in the same hotel. While they were holding their conference on marketing to kids, we were holding our conference in the Grand Hyatt on the harms of marketing to kids, and then had a protest. Now they no longer hold that awards ceremony!

In your book you say that advertisers are knowingly harming kids, completely disregarding kids' well-being for profit.

Yes. Harris Interactive just did a poll of youth marketers and found that 90 percent of them say their colleagues are marketing under the radar in ways that kids don't even notice; a majority think there's too much marketing to kids; a majority think marketing to kids begins too young. Interestingly enough, none of them think that their own company is doing anything wrong.

What have other countries done to protect children that we haven't?

The Province of Quebec has no advertising to children under 13. In Sweden, it's under 12; Norway has the same thing. In Greece they have no ads for toys between 7 A.M. and 10 P.M. New Zealand bans junk-food marketing. Most countries have more regulations then we do. The BBC won't have its children's TV shows partner with junk food anymore.

Why is the United States so far behind?

Because I think that as a country, right now, we value the market more than anything else.

More than kids?

Yes. One of the reasons I wrote this book is, we may decide that as a country we value corporate profits more than we do the well-being of children, but let's at least have the discussion of why we're doing it.

So what are the solutions?

I got a call yesterday from a Senator's office mentioning reinstating some of the regulations. This has to be a public, collective effort of regulation. These are our children.

Alyssa Rayman-Read, a former American Prospect Writing Fellow, now studies the connections between religion and social policy as a Union Scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York and works at the Foundation for Child Development as their Communications Associate.