Marketing Earth Day (and Other Stuff) to Children

Have you done your Earth Day shopping yet? Corporations use Earth Day to sell us on the belief that we can buy our way into ecological sustainability. We can't.
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Have you done your Earth Day shopping yet? Between greeting cards, jewelry, mugs, and teddy bears commemorating the day, its roots in environmental activism have all but been forgotten. Now corporations use Earth Day to sell us on the belief that we can buy our way into ecological sustainability. We can't.

Reducing consumption is essential to preserving the earth's resources and preventing its degradation. The same companies that are painting themselves green depend on the profits they earn convincing us to buy more than we need.

Nowhere is this more obvious, and more troubling, than in the world of children's media and marketing, where companies like Disney, Sesame Workshop, and Nickelodeon are eco-marketing as never before. Disney is inviting families to celebrate Earth Day by visiting their stores and marketing an organic cotton Winnie the Pooh, to be sold along side its countless non-organic licensed toys and accessories. Sesame Workshop has literally turned Elmo green to promote a new DVD-but they have no plans to halt production of the electronic Elmo toys that become obsolete each holiday season as a new, "improved" version is introduced. Nickelodeon has launched "The Big Green Help," a social marketing campaign that urges kids to recycle and eat local, but also to watch commercially sponsored "green-themed" episodes of hit programs like iCarly and to play green games with Nick characters online.

What these companies aren't doing is cutting back on their relentless marketing to children. Instead, as one Nickelodeon executive put it, "On Earth Day, we are using the power of our brand to connect kids to an issue of importance to them." Interjecting brands into an issue that kids are already concerned about may be profitable, but it's bad for children and the environment

On a recent afternoon, Nickelodeon ran thirty-five ads for McDonald's Happy Meal toy giveaways in just five hours. One little toy may not seem like a lot of plastic, but in 2006, fast food restaurants gave away 1.2 billion of them and retail sales of licensed toys brought in $22.3 billion. First graders acquire an average of seventy new toys a year. That's a lot of landfill. Thanks to environmentalists and public health advocates, we have begun to take a long, overdue look at how those toys are made, how they're packaged, how far they travel, and where they'll end up. But shouldn't we also examine the environmental behaviors and values children learn in a society where the norm is a new toy the equivalent of every five days?

Conservationists stress the need to imbue children with environmental values so they will become stewards of the earth. But consumer values undermine environmental values. Marketing doesn't just sell children individual products. Its dominant message is that consumption is the path to happiness and self-fulfillment.

We are raising children to construct their identities around the things that corporations sell. They need more toys to alleviate boredom. They need the latest must-have electronic gadgets and accessories in order to fit in. Since successful marketing continually redefines "must-have," children are pressured to discard yesterday's fads for tomorrow's trends.

This cycle of acquisition and disposal is the antithesis of sustainability, yet the dollars spent on marketing to children continue to escalate. Today marketers spend $17 billion annually targeting children, a staggering increase from the $100 million spent in 1983. Increases in spending, combined with advances in technology and decreased regulation, mean that children are more immersed in marketing than ever before. By allowing marketers unfettered access to children, we teach kids to prefer the mall to the playground, screentime to playtime, and consumption to conservation. How can we expect children whose sense of self is enmeshed in what they own to become effective stewards of the environment?

Airing green-themed children's shows on Earth Day will not mitigate the cumulative impact of relentless advertising. The United States, which consumes twenty-five percent of the world's resources with five percent of its population, regulates marketing to children less than any other industrialized democracy. If we're serious about preserving the environment, that will have to change.

The authors are with The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

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