Midway through the new documentary film, Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist from the University of Maryland, offers a startling comparison: in one important way, marketers who target children are akin to sexual predators.
"These marketers are very similar to pedophiles," Brody says. "They are child experts. If you're going to be a pedophile or a child marketer, you have to know about children, and what children are going to want."
Out of context, that analogy might sound overstated, even incendiary. But in the context of the worrisome revelations made in the film, it rings disturbingly true.
Consuming Kids—produced by Northampton's Media Education Foundation, and scheduled to premiere at a March 27 benefit at the Academy of Music—examines the aggressive ways corporations target children, and the devastating effects their campaigns have on our kids and our culture.
Written and directed by Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp, the film includes interviews with some of the leaders in the fight against the hyper-commercialization of American society, including Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (and author of the 2004 book that shares its title with the documentary), Gary Ruskin, co-founder of Commercial Alert, and Enola Aird, founder of activist group The Motherhood Project.
Together, they present a frightening look at an industry that will go to extreme lengths to get its commercial messages to kids, with no qualms about the effects on the children (and, it's important to note, no impediments from our hands-off government).
It's a world where a newborn is viewed as a buyer-in-training, as the film's opening image—a quote from "pioneering youth marketer" James U. McNeal—makes clear: "Children begin their consumer journey in infancy, and they certainly deserve consideration as consumers at that time."
America is in the midst of a baby boom; federal statistics released last week report there were more than 4.3 million babies born in the U.S. in 2007, more than the number born at the peak of the post-World War II boom.
And those babies, Consuming Kids points out, represent the "ultimate prize" for marketers. American kids, the film notes, spend an astonishing $40 billion a year of their own money; more astonishing, they influence another $700 billion, mostly spent by their parents. (That includes the money they get mom and dad to fork out for checkout-line candy through a concentrated campaign of whining and tantrums—a phenomenon not lost on savvy marketers, who've studied how many times a kid needs to ask for something before a parent gives in, and even coined a name for the phenomenon: "the nag factor.")
And if only the problem were limited to the supermarket checkout line. Kids today are assaulted from all directions by commercial images, brands and other marketing come-ons; an American child encounters more than 3,000 commercial messages over the course of one day, according to the documentary.
They come from both established sources—TV, radio—and sources that didn't exist a generation ago, like the Internet. Kids can go online to play games with Chester Cheetah, SpongeBob and various other product-shilling characters; while logged on, they're also often asked for personal and demographic information that companies then use to refine their pitches.
Even school is not an ad-free haven. More than 11,000 schools in the U.S. carry Channel One, a kids' "news" program that includes commercials; others are turning to BusRadio, a commercial station available for school buses (the company pitches its service as a disciplinary tool; frustrated bus drivers can control rowdy kids by threatening to turn off the radio if they don't behave). Some cash-strapped districts are selling ad space on stadium scoreboards or the sides of school buses. Others are turning to Field Trip Factory, which organizes free class visits to stores like PETCO and A.C. Moore.
"There's a brand in front of a child's face every moment of every day," Linn says in the film.
"[Marketers'] goal is to insinuate their brands into the fabric of children's lives," Linn says. And, as anyone who's ever witnessed a preschooler whose fantasy life begins and ends with Disney can attest, the marketers are achieving that goal.
According to research cited in Consuming Kids, babies as young as six months old can identify brand logos. That's why it's virtually impossible to find Diego-free disposable diapers or Elmo-less sippy cups in the baby aisle at Target: marketers don't want to waste any time getting their brand before a future consumer (formerly known by the quaint name "baby").
"So babies start out life with the notion of consumption. And that's not an accident," Linn says. "What they want is cradle-to-grave brand loyalty. & They talk about owning children for life."
At one point in Consuming Kids, interview subject Juliet Schor—a Boston College sociology professor and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture—finds herself at a momentary loss for words.
"It's, um & " she says, pausing a beat before landing on the right word, "creepy. It's just absolutely creepy, the way children are being dissected and put under the microscope by marketers."
Creepy indeed. Marketing to kids has become an industry all its own, with conferences and journals devoted solely to selling to children. Corporations hire (apparently shameless) child psychologists, anthropologists and other children's experts to advise them on the most effective ways to pitch their products to kids, with the ads fine-tuned for various developmental stages.
In an interview in the film, "youth marketer" Nick Russell explains that kids are especially useful in focus group research, because, unlike adults, who tend to be guarded, children are more open in their responses. Kids' open, sincere reactions represent a goldmine to marketing firms, who will film kids (presumably with parental permission) as they cruise the cereal aisle in the supermarket, play at the park or attend a birthday party, with the goal of seeing what brands and messages catch their attention most effectively. Some firms even orchestrate play groups or slumber parties where they record children's reactions to specific products.
"There's stuff [kids] can't take their eyes off of. And that's not an accident," Schor says. "They've gone over and over with extensive high-tech testing devices to find the precise configuration of characters, colors, music, words, and so forth that kids can't resist."
As Consuming Kids makes plain, the most effective means of marketing to kids are exploitative. It begins very young, when kids are encouraged to bond not with a generic teddy bear or stuffed puppy, but a Care Bear or Scooby-Doo. Kid-friendly characters have always been around (think Mickey Mouse), but today these characters carry a lot of responsibility, hawking an endless stream of licensed toys, clothes, lunchboxes and other products (think Dora the Explorer).
"These [characters] are constants in [children's] lives. These are things they have figured out, they feel they understand, and that they feel comfortable with and, indeed, in their own way, love," Michael Rich, a pediatrician from Children's Hospital Boston, points out in the film. For corporations to exploit that love to sell Happy Meals is, as Schor so aptly put it, creepy.
Indeed, much of kid-directed marketing plays on children's fears, insecurities and aspirations. As Schor notes, toy advertisers used to be criticized for depicting their products in unrealistic ways (remember the disappointment of finding your long-desired Evel Knievel Super Stunt Cycle didn't zip around the rumpus room with quite the gusto he displayed on the commercial?) Today's ads are symbolic in nature, offering the promise that if kids wear the right sneakers or drink the right soda, it will make them cool, or popular, or sexy (yes, sexy—witness the tarty Bratz dolls and belly shirts marketed to six-year-olds).
"It will define them as an individual," Schor says. "What you buy is what you are." Kids are being trained to be insatiable consumers who define themselves, and others, by what they have—or don't have.
Meanwhile, the marketers who are shoveling these cynical messages to kids seem remarkably unrepentant. In perhaps the most infuriating moment in Consuming Kids—and the competition for that distinction is stiff—Lucy Hughes, vice president at a firm named Initiative Media (and co-creator of "the nag factor" ) admits that she is sometimes asked whether what she does is ethical.
"Well, yeah, is it ethical? I don't know," Hughes says, a grating, toothy grin on her face. "But our role at Initiative is to move products."
Hughes' facile dismissal of the notion that her work might carry with it some social responsibility is troubling. But it's not especially surprising, given the political climate under which she and other corporate executives have thrived.
Ours is a government that places the interests of big business over those of its smallest and most vulnerable citizens. While this has a lot more to do with the money corporations funnel into the campaign coffers of accommodating lawmakers, officially, politicians wax verbose about the beauties of a free market and accord to corporations "rights" that time and again trump the rights of the individual.
Ironically, today's kids' advertising free-for-all is the result of an earlier attempt to regulate the industry, Consuming Kids notes. In the 1970s, the FTC proposed a ban on advertising to kids under the age of eight; because research showed that young children can't understand the persuasive intent of advertising, ads directed at them were inherently deceptive, the argument went.
That, of course, didn't sit well with the big toy makers and sugary-cereal manufacturers, who successfully leaned on Congress to kill the proposal and instead strip the FTC of its authority to regulate advertising directed to children. Things got even worse during the deregulation-happy Reagan era; by the mid-'80s, the documentary notes, the 10 top-rated kids' shows (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, My Little Pony) were all thinly disguised ads for companion toy lines. That trend continues today, with kids' movies and programs like Hannah Montana that come with extensive product lines.
According to Consuming Kids, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't regulate advertising to kids. The government has passed other child-safety regulations, such seat belt and bike helmet laws, Schor notes. But, she adds, "Somehow we think it's OK to make children fair game for marketers who just want to profit from them, irrespective of the impacts on their health and wellbeing."
But what about parents' responsibilities, some will ask. Indeed, families can take measures to limit their kids' exposure to ads, by turning off the TV or resisting the urge to buy that minivan with the backseat DVD player. ("We're raising a generation of children who are never going to have the experience of having to amuse themselves, or having to calm themselves down," Linn notes. "They're always going to need a screen, and that's exactly where the marketing industry wants them.")
But given how media-saturated our culture has become, it's unrealistic to think a parent could shield a child from the constant onslaught of ads she faces every time she leaves the house. "We have a $15 billion industry that's working day and night to undermine parental authority," Linn notes.
And whether or not the government will step up to get them in line, the marketers have a social responsibility, insists Brody, the child psychiatrist. "Shame on them," he says simply. "This is our future. And they know this is wrong."
Consuming Kids will premiere at Northampton's Academy of Music on Friday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m.; the screening will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Adriana Barbaro, Susan Linn and Enola Aird. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors and students. Proceeds will benefit arts enrichment programs in the Northampton schools and the Northampton Arts Council's KidsBestFest. For more information about the event, go to www.academyofmusictheatre.com.