Branding Kids for Life
If you are the parent of a newborn, beware. Fourteen to eighteen months from now your child will be programmed to nag for a new toy or snack every four hours, "branded for life" as a Cheerios eater or a Coca-Cola guzzler and placed in the loving care of a market researcher at the local daycare center.
That, at least, was the view of early childhood development presented by the 400 children's-market honchos at the third annual Advertising & Promoting to Kids Conference, held in New York City on September 13-14. Conference-goers attended sessions on topics like Building Brand Recognition, Marketing in the Classroom and The Fine Art of Nagging ("40% of sales of jeans, burgers and other products occur because a child asks for the product"). They cheered winners of the Golden Marble Awards for best breakfast-food and video-game commercials.
The marketing confab was held as the government released a report documenting the growing commercialization of public schools and also as the Federal Trade Commission blasted media companies and the advertising industry for deliberately marketing violent films and products to children. Although kids have been targets of marketing for decades, the sheer amount of advertising they are exposed to today is "staggering and emotionally harmful," says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who studies media at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Linn and other child psychologists, educators and healthcare professionals led a protest outside the Golden Marble Awards to draw attention to the effects of the $12-billion-a-year kid-ad industry, including the epidemic of obesity in children and increasing violence in schools. "It's appalling that creativity is being rewarded in the service of manipulating children," Linn says. "We hope this is the beginning of a national movement to challenge this."
In fact, this fall has been a good one for grassroots opponents of corporate commercialism. The Madison, Wisconsin, school board voted in August to terminate its exclusive beverage contract with Coca-Cola, making it the first school district in the country to cancel an existing marketing deal [see Manning, "Students for Sale: How Corporations Are Buying Their Way Into America's Classrooms," September 27, 1999]. The board cited "overwhelming public opposition" as the reason for its decision. That action came hard on the heels of successful campaigns to stop proposed school-marketing deals in Oakland and Sacramento, California; Philadelphia; and the state of Michigan, where a cola contract involving 110 school districts was shot down. In October the American Dental Association passed a resolution urging its members to oppose the marketing of soft drinks and junk food in schools, and the American Psychological Association, under pressure from many of its members, agreed to form a task force to examine whether it is unethical for psychologists to advise companies that market to children. Meanwhile, ZapMe!, the in-school marketing company, abandoned its educational business after failing to convince enough schools to accept its offer of free computers in exchange for delivering student eyeballs to advertisers.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase in local resistance to all forms of corporate marketing to kids," says Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, in Oakland. "The issue has finally hit critical mass with the public." Hillary Rodham Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon. Citing a "barrage of materialistic marketing" aimed at young children, the Democratic candidate for senator from New York wants the government to ban commercials aimed at preschool children and to prohibit advertising inside public elementary schools. Anticorporate activists welcomed Clinton's proposals but said they don't go far enough. Opponents of a New York City school board plan to finance free laptop computers for students through in-school advertising say her proposals won't protect millions of high school students. Nor would the proposals apparently affect the commercial in-school TV program Channel One, whose market is primarily middle school students.
Corporate lobbyists are already putting the heat on members of Congress who might support legislation reining in children's advertising. Hagelshaw believes the real battles will take place in local school boards and state legislatures, which may be more receptive to anticommercial arguments. There's never been a better, or more important, time for local activists to step up the pressure on corporate exploiters of children.