In November 2003, The Cat in the Hat earned a
whopping $38.33 million its opening weekend in the United
States despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. How did
Hollywood do it? If the question were posed to Harvard
psychologist Susan Linn, she would point to the film's
extensive marketing to children, which ranged from
limited-edition cereal and Oreos to clothes, jewelry,
backpacks, and skateboards. In Consuming Kids (see
review, p. 94), her exposé of Madison Avenue's negative
impact on our children, she reveals that youngsters influence
$600 billion worth of purchases—no mere coincidence.
Advertisers themselves spend $15 billion pitching to children.
"These days," Linn writes, "the village raising
our children has been transformed by electronic media, a
ubiquitous, commercially driven force in all of our
LJ: Can you describe the
path that led you to write this book?
SL: It's a dirty job, but somebody had to
do it. Marketing to children in this country is pervasive,
escalating, and unchecked. It has a profound effect on
children and families, so parents and other people who care
about children have a right to know more about it.
LJ: What did your research
entail? I know you went undercover at a recent KidScreen
Advertising and Promoting to Kids conference.
SL: I've been immersing myself in
marketing literature for the past five years. I think it's
important for people to understand how marketing experts
characterize children and families in their trade
publications, as well as how they write about the process of
marketing to children. I found the web and databases such as
Lexis Nexis and Factiva to be particularly helpful. In
addition, I read books on marketing to children, as well as
journals in psychology, marketing, and education. Since each
chapter [of the book] covers a different aspect of children's
lives, I also interviewed researchers and experts on topics
ranging from underage drinking to childhood obesity. People
were very generous in sharing their work.
Because of my work with the coalition to Stop Commercial
Exploitation of Children, people often send me articles about
various aspects of this topic, and that was helpful in keeping
up with current developments.
LJ: Many LJ
readers would be interested in hearing about your work
with the late Fred Rogers.
SL: I appeared on Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood from time to time as a puppeteer
ventriloquist and worked with his production company, Family
Communications, to produce videotapes about difficult issues
for children, including a whole series devoted to helping
first- to third-graders grapple with racism, prejudice, and
diversity. He was a mentor and a wonderful model for using
television and video to help children grow and develop.
LJ: You make reference to
Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death
and his interpretation of Aldous Huxley's Brave
New World that "what we love will
ruin us." How does this relate to the problem of food
marketing and childhood obesity?
SL: Eating foods high in fat, sugar,
calories, and salt is pleasurable. Most of us love to eat
candy and French fries, and the commercials and media programs
that sell these products to children are often appealing and
entertaining. Kids like to eat junk food. And—in the case of
childhood obesity and its attendant problems—it could
literally kill them.
LJ: In your book you call
attention to the American Library Association's literacy
campaign with World Wrestling Entertainment [WWE]. For
libraries looking for "hooks" to get kids and teens
into libraries, what is the harm of using popular culture
figures, such as WWE wrestlers?
SL: The wrestlers are icons for WWE and,
therefore, the behaviors and values it celebrates. Even as
these stars promote literacy, they are also promoting the
behaviors depicted on WWE programs, that is, violence and
bullying. I think that schools and libraries need to consider
seriously whether they want to endorse the antisocial behavior
the WWE celebrates.
LJ: How does eliminating
marketing to children differ from censoring the media?
SL: I believe strongly in freedom of
expression and that people have the right to create any kind
of art or media programming they choose. However, I
believe—at least when it comes to children—that commercial
speech should not be protected under the First Amendment. I'm
not concerned about the content of media; I'm concerned about
how and whether media and products are marketed to children
who do not have the cognitive capabilities or the life
experience to defend themselves against it.
LJ: You state that people
seem more worried about government regulation than corporate
control on the freedom of speech issue. What threats do
SL: At this point, three corporations
control most children's programming on television.
Corporations—such as toy companies—are now creating
programming on television. It's virtually impossible to get a
children's program on the air unless it features characters
that can be licensed for sale as toys, food, clothing, and
accessories. Isn't that limiting freedom of expression?
LJ: What impact do you hope
the book will have?
SL: I hope that Consuming Kids will
shine a spotlight on the marketing industry and its practices
as they relate to children and, in doing so, contribute to an
end to marketing to children. Among people who care about
children, there is growing concern today about childhood
obesity, violence, precocious and irresponsible sexuality,
materialism, and eroding parental authority—all of which are
being marketed to kids on a daily basis. It needs to stop.