Exploiting Children One Commercial at a Time

As a social justice activist for the last 22 years, I am big proponent of upholding the right to free speech and expression. However, I do feel companies owe some modesty when it comes to children. For their sake, teach your children to un-plug and tune out.
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When you have children, nothing is more disheartening than turning on your television and seeing one advert after another luring them into a sea of pink or blue. These commercials transparently target genders, and all the while offer inappropriate toys and games. Companies hone in on kids because they are the most naive and vulnerable - and the loudest consumer there is. As much as they are activists pleading their case to their parents, they are unable to recognise they are being used for profit. Essentially, the most marketed to, are children.

As a parent myself, I have had to be the referee between the onslaught of plastics and gadgets being peddled to our daughter on a daily basis. If you have children, you know how difficult this part of parenting can be. Aside from external invasions, you also may have come across family members pushing gender-specific items on your child, for their "own good." Roaring cars to make the boys rough and pink puked on the girls to make them into princesses. In fact, there are well over 40,000 Disney princess items currently on the market today - just waiting to crowd up your daughter's room.

When we were younger, we had a different childhood than what kids have now. The Reagan-era deregulation of children's television left Sesame Street on its own while more and more inappropriate programmes began to surface, allowing corporations a free-for-all in advertising. It's a big business and marketing isn't cheap. Back in 1983, companies spent nearly $100 million annually in advertising. Fast-forward to today and the number has risen to $17 billion.

There are a few bright spots amongst the madness, however. There are organisations out there which aim to limit the barrage of marketing to our kids. One in particular is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). They do exactly what their org name says and they do it quite well.

CCFC was founded in 2000 by Dr. Susan Linn, along with Dr. Diane Levin and Dr. Allen Kanner. Linn's background as a child psychologist prompted her to take on the media after seeing how it affected her patients. In 1999, Linn, along with other activists, academics, educators and healthcare providers concerned about corporate influences on children, convened at Howard University to discuss what do to.

The following year, the group held a demonstration outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street in New York City to protest the Golden Marble Awards, the advertising industry's celebration of marketing to children. The protest garnered significant national media attention from NPR and USA Today to Advertising Age. Originally called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, CCFC continued to protest the Golden Marbles - through demonstrations and counter-conferences - until the industry cancelled them in 2003. CCFC has continued its impressive string of victories since, including:

  • Convincing the Walt Disney Company to stop falsely promoting Baby Einstein videos as educational for babies and to offer refunds to parents who had been deceived by the company's marketing.
  • Prevented Hasbro from producing a line of dolls for six-year-old girls based on the Pussy Cat Dolls, a burlesque troupe turned singing group known for its sexualised songs and dances.
  • Organized parents around the country to stop BusRadio, a company that broadcasted student-targeted ads on school buses. After a three-year campaign by CCFC, BusRadio closed its doors.
  • Stopped Scholastic Inc., the renowned educational publisher, from distributing the United States of Energy, fourth grade teaching materials paid for by the American Coal Foundation. Following that success, it rallied tens of thousands of parents, educators and grassroots advocates to successfully persuade Scholastic to drastically limit its practice of partnering with corporations to produce sponsored teaching materials.
  • Helped parents and educators defeat state legislation to put advertising on school buses in several states, including Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York.
  • Stopped McDonald's from advertising on report card envelopes in Florida. The advertisements promised elementary school students free Happy Meals as a reward for good school performance.
  • In response to CCFC's petition to the FTC, the Commissioners filed false advertising charges against the marketers of Your Baby Can Read, a video series which retailed for as much as200. Your Baby Can and its former CEO agreed to settle the FTC's charges. The landmark settlement bars the defendants from further use of the phrase "Your Baby Can Read" and imposes a185 million judgement - equal to the company's gross sales since 2008 - against the company.

"Most toys are now marketed as either for boys or girls. You can walk into almost any toy store or chain and see the isles divided: blue for boys and pink for girls. The boy isles are filled with toys linked to violent media and the girl isles are clutter with sexualised dolls, make-up kits, and princess paraphernalia," says CCFC spokesperson Shara Drew. "This marketing sells products, but it's not good for kids. Research shows the harms media violence and sexualisation causes children, but companies continue to promote toys and media this way. We think that's unethical. In fact, we think all marketing to children is unethical because it exploits their developmental vulnerabilities for profit."

As if peer pressure among kids isn't enough, companies began twitching when faced with strong opposition from parents and anti-commercial orgs.

"We have pressured many companies to change their marketing practices, and I think it's safe to say that marketers who prey on children consider us a threat," said Drew. "When we pressured Disney to offer refunds on Baby Einstein videos in 2009, CCFC was suddenly evicted from its home at the Judge Baker Children's Center after calls from Disney lawyers."

Drew stated CCFC's ultimate goal is for the U.S. to follow the lead of countries like Sweden and areas of Canada, which have banned all marketing to children.

According to a 2007 Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Economics Staff Report, children ages 2-11 see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on television alone, a figure which does not include product placement. Add to this figure is the overwhelming advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and even in schools. Other malignant advertising include alcohol peddlers, where ads are placed in areas frequented by children. See Alcohol Now Banned from City-Owned Property in LA.

"Marketers should not target children. It is unethical to use sophisticated technology and techniques honed by anthropologists, psychologists and other child experts to best manipulate children into wanting a product. Companies should respect parents' role as gatekeepers and aim their marketing at them, not kids," concluded Drew.

Constant tv time, self-centred characters on today's cartoons, a multitude of toys and games which only keep a child's attention for 20 minutes at best - all of these strip the natural curiosity and imagination a child is born with. Not to mention these, and electronic gadgets, contribute to obesity. As adults we are lured by a good old-fashioned advert, telling us how cool we'll look in this or that, but imagine what they are doing to our kids.

Even the most innocuous-appearing materials on the market offer bits and pieces of unsavoury messages to children. One can see this growing trend unfolding in Disney and Pixar films, where adult humour is prevalent. If you have to grip your remote in order to fast-forward adult-themed scenes in a Disney film, then there is clearly a problem.

Today's marketing encourages eating disorders, precocious sexuality and youth violence. Its aim is not to better our children, it is to brand them with designer labels, empty promises and shallow ideals. Material goods, and its strangling enslavement of our daily lives, should be denied. We are not what we own and should never defined by it.

As a social justice activist for the last 22 years, I am big proponent of upholding the right to free speech and expression. However, I do feel companies owe some modesty when it comes to children. For their sake, teach your children to un-plug and tune out.

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