December 31st, 2002

The Parents' Bill of Rights: Helping Moms and Dads Fight Commercialism

By Jonathan Rowe and Gary Ruskin
Mothering Magazine

Paul Kurnit is the president of KidShop, an advertising firm that specializes in marketing to children, and he has plans for our kids.

“Kid business has become big business,” Kurnit says. To make it even bigger, he preaches what he calls “surround marketing” saturation advertising that captures kids at every possible moment.

“You’ve got to reach kids throughout the day ֖ in school, as they’re shopping at the mall, or at the movies,” says Carol Herman, a senior vice president at Grey Advertising. “You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.”

This is what parents today are up against corporate advertisers who seek to entwine themselves with children’s lives. By most measures, they are succeeding. Each week, the typical American child takes in some 38 hours (yes, a full work week) of commercial media, with its endless ads and come-ons. And that’s not counting the ads that commandeer their attention from billboards and the Internet, the omnipresent brand logos, and the advertising that increasingly fills the schools.

The merchandise pushers have invaded the commons of childhood, the free open spaces of imagination and play, and turned it into a free-fire zone of commercial importuning. In some quarters, this appalling situation is seen as success. “There have never been more ways in the culture to support marketing towards kids,” enthuses Kidscreen, a publication for ad firms and corporations that target kids. (That there’s a market for such a publication is revealing.)

Corporate advertisers have contrived to wedge themselves into the space between parents and their children.  They enlist the best psychologists and market researchers money can buy to lure kids to products and values many of us don’t approve of and even abhor. Parents find themselves in a grim daily battle to keep these forces at bay.

On their own, parents cannot contend with the nation’s largest corporations and their weapons of mass childhood seduction. It’s time Washington stood up for parents. It’s time for politicians to recognize that raising children is the most important task of our society.

It’s time, in other words, for a Parents’ Bill of Rights.

Not that long ago, parents actually had control over the front doors of their homes. Sure, a kid might hide a racy magazine under the mattress, but little came into the house without the parents’ okay. Even outside the home and school, for adults to approach kids with the thought of influencing them was considered an antisocial act, and offenders could be put in jail.

The invention of electronic media changed all that. The history of the last century, in fact, could be written as the story of how marketers contrived to bypass parents and speak directly to impressionable children. The front door became a permeable membrane, admitting the advertising industry to its promised land. Children are “natural and enthusiastic buyers,” a child psychologist wrote in the 1938 book, Reaching Juvenile Markets. For advertisers, he went on, there was a “tremendous sales potential.”

Psychologists, who are supposed to help children, were now employed to help ensnare them. No longer were such adults considered predators; because they wore suits, sat in offices, and operated at a distance through the media, they were respectable executives and even “pioneers.” In the 1930s, the medium was radio; sponsors of children’s shows included Ralston cereal and Ovaltine ֖ products that parents actually might want their kids to have and the ads themselves seem almost tame by today’s standards. The young ear is not as impressionable as the eye, and advertisers were still concerned that Mom or Dad might be listening.

Then came television and the beginning of the modern era in the assault on kids. Television is inferior to radio as a story-telling medium; radio engages the imagination, while television numbs it. But as an advertising medium, television is unsurpassed. Children want what they see, and with television advertisers could offer an endless parade of things to want. After Welch’s grape juice became a sponsor of the Howdy Doody show in the 1950s, sales of grape juice to families with young children increased almost five-fold.

With television, moreover, the ads weren’t just between the shows. They could be in the shows as well. The Disney Corporation created a series about Davy Crockett, starring the actor Fess Parker in a coonskin cap. In short order, kids throughout the country were nagging their parents for the mock coonskin caps that coincidentally appeared in the stores. Crockett gear became a $300 million business ֖ roughly $2 billion in today’s dollars.

Increasingly, advertisers had the children to themselves. Few parents sat through the Mickey Mouse Club or the Saturday morning cartoon shows. Even shows for general audiences held untapped possibilities. Since kids are the most impressionable audience in the house, why not enlist them as sales agents in regard to everything the family bought? “Eager minds can be molded to want your products!” enthused a firm that produced “education” materials for schools. “Sell these children on your brand name, and they will insist that their parents buy no other.”

Corporations literally were alienating the loyalty of children away from their parents and toward themselves. Rejection of parental authority became a persistent and embedded theme, even in seemingly innocuous shows like Howdy Doody. Television figures became surrogate parents who pushed consumption at every turn. Dr. Frances Horwich, the kindly “principal” of Ding Dong School, popped vitamins and urged her preschool viewers to tell their mothers to pick the bottle with the pretty red pills at the drugstore.

Perhaps it was not entirely accidental that the generation weaned on such fare would become, a decade later, the “Me Generation” of the 1960s. Advertisers were thinking long term. “Think of what it can mean to your firm in profits,” Clyde Miller wrote in “The Process of Persuasion,” “if you can condition a million or ten million children who will grow into adults trained to buy your products as soldiers who are trained to advance when they hear the trigger words ‘Forward, march.’”

These developments did not go unnoticed at the time. In his landmark book “The Lonely Crowd,” David Riesman observed that corporations had designed a new role for children, as “consumer trainees.” In the process, Riesman said, they had turned traditional values upside down. Earlier in the century, children’s publications had promoted such qualities as self-discipline and perseverance. “The comparable media today,” he wrote, “train the young for the frontiers of consumption to tell the difference between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, as later between Old Golds and Chesterfields.” (The latter were popular cigarette brands.)

Some parents did resist. In the 1950s there often were a few kids in the neighborhood who weren’t allowed to watch TV. But most parents then, as now, were reluctant to deny their kids what their friends had. Moreover, parents themselves were caught up in the commercial euphoria of the post-war years, when a new car or television seemed a just reward for the hardships of the Depression and a world war.

Soon the commercial saturation of childhood became the new norm, and people hardly noticed any more. An entire industry arose to mold young minds to crave products, and to cast parents into the subordinate role as financiers for these fabricated wants. James U. McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas A&M University, is perhaps the most influential advocate of modern marketing to children. “[T]he consumer embryo begins to develop during the first year of existence,” McNeal writes, without a hint of embarrassment or shame. “[C]hildren begin their consumer journey in infancy and certainly deserve consideration as consumers at that time.”

It is not comforting to know, as we cuddle our newborns, that there exists an industry of James McNeals eager to prod them onto their “consumer journey.” Nor is it comforting to know that there are marketing consultants, like Cheryl Idell of Western Initiative Media Worldwide, advising corporations on how to harness the “nag factor” to increase sales. Idell contends that nagging spurs about a third of family trips to fast-food restaurants, and of purchases of videos and clothing.

And what about the naggees in this arrangement? In the writings of people like McNeal, parents exist as deep pockets to be siphoned by kids whose role is to influence purchases. This mentality has become the dominant force with which parents must contend. They encounter it at every turn: They take the kids to a sports event and are barraged by ads. They buy a video for them and find that it is choc-a-bloc with “product placements” ֖ brand-name products that are built into the story.

Parents feel the heavy breathing of the marketers even on their little ones. Teletubbies, for example, is an animated TV show aimed at toddlers as young as one year. The producers portray it as educational. But Marty Brochstein, editor of the Licensing Letter, is more candid, calling Teletubbies a “major big bucks opportunity.” The show has done promotions with Burger King and McDonalds. If that’s education, it’s not the kind most parents have in mind.

The morphing of advertising into life extends even to the schools. Corporations have taken advantage of tight school budgets to turn classrooms and hallway walls into billboards for junk food and sneakers. As for the Internet, it’s a marketer’s dream, a technology that children roam unsupervised, and that offers endless opportunities for getting into children’s minds. “Kids don’t realize they’re reading advertisements,” says Lloyd Jobe, the CEO of Skateboard.com.

Marketers know exactly where to find children, too. The collection of children’s personal information, and the invasion of their privacy, has become commonplace. American Student List LLC (http://www.studentlist.com/lists/main.html), a list broker, sells a list of “20 million names of children ranging in age from 2 to 13,” along with their addresses, ages, genders, telephone numbers, and other personal information.

For advertisers, it all has been a bonanza: Market researchers estimate that children ages four to twelve influence some $565 billion of their parents purchasing each year, and McNeal calls children the “superstars in the consumer constellation.”

For kids, however, the role of consumer “superstars” has meant an epidemic of marketing-related diseases. American kids are fatter than ever, and rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes are soaring. Teenage girls have become obsessed with their bodies, due largely to the images of physical perfection that barrage them in fashion magazines and ads. More than half of all high school girls say they were on diets during the previous month. Likewise, eating disorders are now the third leading chronic illness among adolescent girls.

Drinking is a problem, too. A study by the National Institute on Media and Family found that the more a beer company spends on advertising, the more likely seventh- to twelfth-graders are to know about that beer and to drink it. Perhaps not coincidentally, alcohol is a factor in the four main causes of death among young people ages 10 to 24: car crashes, other accidents, homicide, and suicide.

The merchants of death are adept at using marketing to undermine the good influence of parents. Tobacco marketing is especially successful at counteracting parents who encourage their children not to smoke. Each day, another 3,000 children start to smoke; roughly a third of them will have their lives shortened due to smoking-related illnesses.

Added to all this is the production of misery and dissension in the home. Our children are being coached and prodded in the arts of petulance and nagging, by those whose sole purpose is to turn them into conduits for their parents’ money. As the anthropologist Jules Henry once noted, advertising has become an “insolent usurper of parental function, degrading parents to mere intermediaries between children and the market.”

A survey by the Merck Family Fund found that 86 percent of Americans think that young people today are “too focused on buying and consuming things.” Business Week, no enemy of corporate America, perhaps put it best: “Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important, today’s marketing-driven culture is instilling in [children] a sense that little exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is something you buy at a shopping mall.”

You might think our representatives in Washington would show some concern, but politicians in both major parties seem reluctant to stand up to commercial predators. Back in the late 1970s, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed an end to advertising to children too young to grasp that ads aren’t necessarily true. In response, Congress stripped the FTC of any authority to enact rules against advertisers who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of impressionable youth. J. Howard Beales III, chief of consumer protection in the current administration, is an economist perhaps best known for his scholarly defense of R. J. Reynolds and its infamous “Joe Camel” ad campaign. And David Scheffman, the new head of the FTC’s bureau of economics, also worked for the tobacco industry.

Parents deserve a little more respect. Their job is hard enough without the marketing culture treating them as cannon fodder. The technology of seduction has increased tremendously in sophistication and reach, and corporate seducers have gained new legal rights too. Yet the means forparents to contend with these intrusions, and to talk back to the intruders, have scarcely grown at all. In many respects they have diminished.

The time has come to right the balance. The government can’t do parents’ job for them, but it certainly can give them the legal rights they need to stand up effectively to corporations that target their kids. Parents should not be second-class citizens. They should not feel under siege by a culture designed to shake them down for money, and to usurp the function of instilling values in their kids.

The time has come for a Parents’ Bill of Rights.

Jonathan Rowe is director of the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert http://www.commercialalert.org, whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere and prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy.

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