Wall Street Journal
Books: To Market, to Market
Meghan Cox Gurdon
CONSUMING KIDS: THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER OF CHILDHOOD
By Susan Linn
(New Press, $24.95, 256 pages)
THERE is something profoundly creepy about the way so many adults strain to erase the distinction between themselves and the very young, generally at the expense of the junior party. Some do it for narcissism, like the creaky baby-boomers who assert that "they're only as young as they feel," as they don elastic-waisted shorts and boxy T-shirts like giant toddlers. Some do it to seem fun, like the mothers who paint their tiny daughters' toenails with scarlet lacquer and buy them sexy Juicy Couture-style velour sweatsuits because it's "so cute." Some, in pursuit of public office, talk sententiously of "the children" and make campaign stops at elementary schools to answer questions from persons too young to vote. And some do it for profit, such as those child psychologists who toss aside moral constraint and advise advertisers on how best to unlock the emotional vulnerabilities of children -- in order to sell more fries, cereal, shampoo, movies, toys and videogames.
If youthful innocence was once something that adults sought to cherish and protect, it is no more. Childhood itself has become a kind of battleground on which marketers race to plant the flag of their brand identity before a competitor can do it first.
It may seem odd to lament commercial derring-do in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, but the fact is that crunchy conservatives and Birkenstock liberals share a feeling of alarm over the way American children are abandoned to the predations of the mass market. In "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood," Susan Linn offers an avowedly left-wing take on the situation.
"Comparing the advertising of two or three decades ago to the commercialism that permeates our children's world today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb," writes Ms. Linn, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists -- in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before."
This is hard to dispute. There is no commercial-free children's television anymore; PBS is filled with cartoon ads for Lipton, Libby's and Chuck E. Cheese. Shop in any major chain toy store and you will search in vain for an amusement not brand-linked to a movie or TV show, which is itself brand-linked to playing cards, breakfast cereals or tins of ravioli. Commercials are beamed into public schools via Channel One's newsfotainment, and teen magazines are one big glossy ad spread. If something's not Disney, it's Barbie; if not Pokemon, it's Yu-Gi-Oh. Blam, boom, bang. From every direction someone is selling something to your children that you would rather they did not have. Purple ketchup! Hard lemonade! Sex! Violence! Rebellion!
Marketers talk of "the nag factor" and "pester power," of how to "mine" family relations, the better to train children to separate their parents from their money. Ms. Linn quotes the former president of Kids `R' Us speaking of children as of commodities: "If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come . . . . Companies are saying, `Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger and younger.' "
Conservatives have long talked about the diabolical influence of mass culture on the dignity of the human person, and it clearly embarrasses Ms. Linn to find herself in bed, as it were, with Phyllis Schlafly. In little asides, the author gasps out her squeamishness: "Honestly, I hate writing that because I sound like someone's old maiden aunt." Yet she dimly perceives a larger truth, noting that, "to the detriment of children, mentioning the word `values' to people of a certain political persuasion (which I admit includes many of my friends, family, and colleagues) is at best a conversation-stopper, and at worst grounds for ostracism." Just to remind: The author teaches at Harvard.
"Consuming Kids" is a cri de coeur on behalf of people too young to suspect how their "share of mind" is being jealously divided; it is also written on behalf of us, their parents, who are as much products of media indoctrination as our children and who are, the author believes, all but powerless in the face of the grinning ad man's juggernaut.
There is surprisingly little in "Consuming Kids," though, about what is actually lost or stifled in children under the continuous high-volume bombardment. Ms. Linn comes close to taking up the question, but she keeps getting tripped by her 1960s-era politics. She wants to object to sexual imagery but fears sounding prudish. Discussing the marketing of media violence, she asks facilely: "Is desensitization a good thing? How does it affect our inclination to prevent wars and other violent and horrific tragedies televised nightly on TV news?" Well, of course desensitizing is not a good thing, but surely impinging on peace studies is the least of it. What about the way it coarsens children's sensibilities, deadens their interior lives and reduces their capacity to experience beauty, simplicity and, the Democrats' favorite election-year quality, nuance?
Ms. Linn finishes her book with a list of maddeningly weak-kneed prescriptions: Turn off the TV during meals; run for your local school board; support campaign-finance reform; push for reregulation of children's television. She urges members of "the mainstream clergy" to speak out against consumerism to "help reclaim values from extremist groups," such as "the religious right."
Oh, for goodness' sake. Why cling to such patchouli-scented bigotry? Why not just admit that the Right is, on this issue, right? Ms. Linn does a fine job of exposing the wickedness of preying commercially on the young. It is too bad that in "Consuming Kids" she cannot bring herself to recognize the role that her political fellow-travelers have played in destroying the strait-laced, old-fashioned, authoritarian protection of decency that once made such exploitation impossible.
Mrs. Gurdon writes "The Fever Swamp" for National Review Online.