Last fall, a half-dozen child psychologists lurked around New York’s Yale Club at a convention called “Advertising & Promoting to Kids” in search of new, higher-paying clients. They were hoping to sell their smarts to marketers and advertisers attending lectures on “Emotional Branding” and on the troubled post-September 11 economy. As marketer David Bryla put it, today’s advertisers must employ a “full frontal attack” on children. Over the past decade more and more psychologists have been helping corporations win their war, successfully preying on kids’ developmental stages, anxieties and vulnerabilities.
In the crowd sat Susan Linn, an idealistic, old-fashioned therapist, gasping and sighing in disgust as the guest speaker declared, “Remember folks, all kids want to do is fit in!” and “Brand them when they’re babies!” In disbelief, Linn exclaimed loud enough for her fellow attendees to hear, “These are the only people I know who talk about kids incessantly without asking: ‘But is it good for them?'” Linn has been mortified over the fact that psychologists are using their training, as she sees it, to exploit rather than to help kids.
Linn was at the conference not as a participant but as a spy. As an organizer of another conference, held at the same time one floor below, called “Consumer Kids: Marketers’ Impact on Children’s Health,” she wanted to hear the rhetoric firsthand. The Harvard-affiliated group she works for, Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC), had intentionally planned the conference, along with a demonstration outside the club, to fall at the same time and place as the advertising one.
Linn has a few major concerns. She believes it is unfair to market to kids under 8 because they don’t understand that commercials are supposed to make them want what they see. And worse, she says, the commercials are bad for their health. “Most food ads targeted to kids are high in fat, sugar and calories,” says Linn. Preschoolers’ risk of obesity increases by 6 percent for every hour of television watched per average day, she adds. She contends that sloppy political changes have only deepened the problem. Budget cuts to the Education Department, along with a call to corporate America to do something about education, paved the way for programs like Channel One (mandatory sponsored newscasts and marketing in schools, which Consumers Union calls “Captive Kids”), which broadcasts to 12,000 middle, junior and high schools a day. She is concerned about how kids’ health has been affected since desperate officials, in need of funds for textbooks and teachers, gave Coca-Cola and McDonald’s entree into their schools. She laments the day children’s television was deregulated–when psychologically savvy marketers were given free rein to use kids’ entertainment as a marketing tool for toys, exploiting kids’ vulnerabilities in the comfort of their own home. “The negative impact of marketing to children depends on each child’s weaknesses or predilections,” she says. Researchers who presented at Linn’s anticonference linked marketing to youth to childhood obesity, poor body image, eating disorders and violent behavior.
As advertising to kids becomes a bigger and bigger industry–children spent more than $28 billion of their own money in 1999 and directly influenced the spending of more than $600 billion of their parents’ money by 2000–advertisers turn to psychologists to learn how to “brand” children more efficiently. There is at least one psychologist on almost every advertising team that promotes to children. And spending on marketing and advertising to kids hit $12 billion in 1999, leaving kids bombarded with more than 40,000 manipulative ads a year on TV alone.