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.
Linn’s associates, Allen Kanner and Tim Kasser, co-editors of Psychology and Consumer Culture (to be published by the American Psychological Association in October), are trying to convince the leaders of the APA to declare that helping child marketers appeal to children is unethical. The APA has set up a task force to review their proposal, signed by sixty psychologists, which also asks that the organization issue a public statement denouncing the use of psychological techniques to assist corporate advertising to children and that it launch a campaign to review and research the negative effects of advertising on kids and teens.
Kasser explains that young children don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand persuasive intent, and that the actor on the screen is paid to seem happy. “Teens have a more finely tuned sense of these things,” he says, “but they are entering another vulnerable period. They are starting to leave the family group and enter the world of peers. They are becoming self-conscious and very aware of being looked on by others. And marketers prey on that.”
These activists make a strong case suggesting that children and teens don’t have such a developed sense of the world, which leaves them–in the minds of marketers–defined by and valued for their plasticity. In Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Alissa Quart systematically shows us how far toy, fast-food and clothes companies, plastic surgeons and their marketers, together with their partners in television, film, public education and politics, and even parents, have gone to make sure that kids are well branded despite the potential consequences for self-esteem and physical health. Quart, who focuses mostly on middle-class white kids, eerily demonstrates how the relentless marketing to kids has insidiously permeated what used to be, not even fifteen years ago, youth’s sacred spaces: the teen movie and magazine, youth literature, school social events, video games, extreme sports, the dressing room and worst of all, their inner lives.
Take, for example, the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, on the history of skateboarding. According to Quart the film was funded by Vans sneakers, and it’s Vans shoes that are seen flashing and dashing throughout every scene, leaving behind their emotional stamp of cool. She quotes Jay Wilson, vice president for marketing at Vans: “We really try to connect emotionally with the kids and find new ways of doing things. We’re getting more public relations on this thing than we ever imagined.”
Quart also compares teen movies of the 1980s with those of today. The Breakfast Club and Heathers depicted freaks and losers as heroes and ultimately united youth against self-interested adults and mainstream authority, observes Quart, in contrast to movies such as Clueless, Bring It On and Legally Blonde, which celebrate popularity and status quo. Quart’s explanation of the change subtly lies with the new marketing technique of placing products throughout films: Losers don’t sell Clairol, Clinique, Tiffany bracelets and Prada. And clearly, the goal of the day is to sell.
“Teens suffer more than any other sector of society for this wall-to-wall selling,” Quart argues in the introduction of her book: They are at least as anxious as their parents about having enough money and maintaining their social class, a fear that they have been taught is best allayed by more branded gear. And they have taken to branding themselves, believing that the only way to participate in the world is to turn oneself into a corporate product or corporate spy to help promote products to other kids.
Marketers and advertisers seek to appeal to adult psychology as well, but clearly the playing field is not as skewed. Emotional branding guru Marc Gobé just published Citizen Brand: 10 Commandments for Transforming Brands in a Consumer Democracy, a book that seeks to help companies develop socially responsible brand strategies in order to “earn buyers’ loyalty.” Gobé is the executive creative director of Desgrippes Gobé Group, which is responsible for emotion-driven brand design for Coca-Cola, IBM, Reebok, Starbucks, Gillette and Victoria’s Secret. In adult-targeted campaigns, rather than focusing on anxieties such as kids’ desire to fit in, Gobé suggests, marketers indulge buyers’ healthy desires, such as women’s tendency to bond with one another, the bohemian middle class’s urge for adventure and thrill-seeking, gay and lesbians’ desire to be accepted and openly depicted in the copy and images of ads, and Generation X’s celebration of racial diversity. When it comes to sports, Gobé points out, women are more interested in the “experiential and personal perspective and less interested in the external achievement.” A Nike ad that targets “everyday women” shows a female runner sprinting through the city and says “I am not Marion Jones.” Nike’s website explains, “It’s not about perfection and not about winning or losing. It’s about human potential. It’s the feeling you get when you finish your first marathon, 10K race or walk around the block… It’s small, personal victories as well as large public ones.” Rather than take advantage of us, these ads appeal to adult sensibilities.
Most parents don’t have the time and energy it requires to fight the ubiquitous and overwhelming influence the media have on their children’s inner lives. Many are even grateful to television for keeping kids occupied. But some older kids maintain a critical perspective and can detect when they are being manipulated, and are trying to fight back in their own way. Quart’s book takes surprisingly uplifting turns as the author includes many examples of teens leading the fight to remain “unbranded” in this era of unregulated marketing to kids. She brings her readers to the precocious youth magazine New Moon, where young teen reviewers and activists–privy to and intolerant of a society that desperately relies on exploiting kids and teens in order to drive an unstable economy–vent. She quotes 16-year-old Lynn Grochowski critically analyzing She’s All That: “When Laney makes the move to ‘normal’ it is only because of her new wardrobe, haircut, addition of makeup, and loss of glasses.” A 15-year-old adds, “This movie would be much less shallow if Zach were to be interested in Laney for who she really is, not because she turns out to be beautiful after a makeover.” And as an 11-year-old put it in a review of The Princess Diaries, “I wonder how many young girls, after seeing this movie, wanted to throw out their glasses, straighten their hair, pluck their eyebrows, or cover their freckles.”
But movie plots and product placement are only one form of attack that kids’ self-esteem is up against. According to Quart, a 1970s antitrust court decision that deregulated medical advertising and ads for learned professional service laid the foundation for ads in Teen Vogue and Seventeen for an herbal breast-enhancement tablet. Perhaps it is no coincidence, Quart points out, that a Seventeen poll of readers recently found that 25 percent had considered liposuction, a tummy tuck or breast augmentation. The magazine in effect exploited its loyal (and impressionable) readers’ anxieties rather than helping to diminish them through articles and analyses. The freedom of the Internet hasn’t helped protect youth either: Doctors who, as Quart puts it, may have once “tried to maintain a special dignity in their marketing” now offer online inspirational profiles of young teens who have rid themselves of their “hook noses” or “weak chins.”
But, according to Quart, when public education sells out to the marketing-obsessed culture, the whole system seems finally to turn on its head. She closes her book with a refreshing–and quite rare–respectful depiction of teenagers as enlightened young people who will do what it takes to place much-needed boundaries on the misguided adults in their midst. In the chapter “Schools for Sale,” Quart draws an inspiring picture of teens from a severely underfunded public school in Philadelphia demonstrating consistently against the privatization of their school by Edison Schools Inc., a publicly traded, New York-based company that operates more than 133 public schools in twenty-two states and Washington, DC. Chris Whittle, founder of Channel One–the advertising-laden station that blasts into classrooms–is Edison’s CEO.
“Edison is like Channel One,” says 17-year-old Max Goodman. “It will have an unconscious effect on all the students just like advertising in the schools. And The Gap has money [invested in] Edison, so maybe one day they’ll say, ‘This lesson is brought to you by the Gap.'” Another student chimes in, “My education shouldn’t be for profit. Do I want to learn that one plus one equals Pepsi?” Edison eventually became the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation centering on improper accounting and classification of revenue. The investigation resulted in the company restating its revenues. Quart surmises that the ongoing student protests, compounded with the scandal, finally put Edison on the defensive and ultimately led the board of education to cease relinquishing additional schools to Edison’s control.
Quart, a product of academic parents and lefty summer camps, is more than a journalist. She has profound activist assumptions and intentions that surfaced even in the initial stages of writing, as she aggressively insured the preservation of her chapter called “Unbranding,” which–unlike most literature that focuses on the vulnerability and victimization of youth–highlights kids’ fighting their exploitation in a variety of small and large ways. Quart seamlessly weaves within her cultural criticism and warnings an extremely insightful analysis of the transformation of youth social movements:
When I was a teenager in the late 1980s, teen activists directed their energies to the battle to end apartheid and in honor of abstractions like world peace…. Now, the youth movement is very much directed at issues of youth and against the forces that oppress them in their schools and at home. Kids may well consider youth itself something of an embattled minority–and that in turn informs their politics, the area of focus being the retention of civil rights in their classrooms…. The Philly activists are more evidence that some among Generation Y have not taken the merchandizing of their minds, bodies, and subjectivities lightly. They are willing to fight back.
In her profound and pivotal work No Logo, Naomi Klein included an important story of adult activists working hard to enlighten resistant teens, arduously setting the theoretical and logistical groundwork for such a youth movement. Quart in Branded fused philosophy and structure with the passion and fury of fully aware and fed-up real-life adolescents. German philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that only a tiny percentage of humanity is capable of transcending the “human condition” to think critically about social norms. If she were alive today, I wonder if she would suggest that American culture’s apathy toward corporate manipulation of children is an example of the “banality of evil.” If so, activists such as Linn, Kanner, Kasser and Quart are making extraordinary strides in fighting it, considering what they are up against. Quart’s work hasn’t been embraced by seemingly pro-branding reviewers but was called “brilliant” in, of all places, the Sunday Business section of the New York Times. And Linn, for her part, is making some child marketers stop and think, at least for a moment. As the marketers’ conference ended and a speaker rapped joyously about “kids as essential consumers,” one twentysomething, dolled-up attendee turned to me and whispered: “You know, now that I’m thinking about it, the way they’re talking about children is pretty creepy.”