The Kids Are Not Alright
“I want it. I want it. YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!”
Anyone with kids knows how determined they can be when it comes to getting things they really, really want. And with all that parents have to worry about nowadays, sometimes it’s easier to just give in to them. That corporations understand and consciously play upon the “nag factor” when marketing to children is just one of the facts psychologist Susan Linn offers up in Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising, now out in paperback. Kids are indeed a lucrative market, having a say in some $600 billion worth of purchasing decisions. And American corporations spend about $15 billion a year on marketing to them.
An exposé of the children’s marketing industry in the mold of Fast Food Nation, Linn’s book presents evidence of the harm being done not only to kids but families by marketers whose only concern is the bottom line and who don’t think too much about the larger implications of what they’re doing, even though many of them are parents themselves. A puppeteer who regularly appeared on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Linn alleges that the children’s marketing industry is making kids fat, unimaginative, materialistic, and insensitive. What’s more, they’re becoming sexualized at increasingly younger ages. Children’s marketing also interferes with home life by subverting parental authority. Perhaps most distressing, the virtually unchallenged corporate takeover of the flow of information in schools and elsewhere in the public arena bodes ill for society in that it short-circuits the informed dialogue vital to achieving true democratic consensus.
The standard response to whistle-blowers like Linn is that it’s really a matter of individual responsibility. Parents can just say no, the argument goes. But Linn counters that parents and their kids are outgunned at every turn. There’s a correlation between decreased public funding for the arts, culture, and education and the rise of corporate influence and unbridled consumerism among the young. Marketers use product extensions and tie-ins to create seamless webs of enticement, continually bombarding kids with promotional messages from the time they get up until the time they go to bed. Corporate logos adorn every piece of clothing, trademarked characters invade every play space, and media and point-of-sale partnerships link various marketing pitches together. It’s no wonder kids are susceptible to becoming consuming machines.
A practicing child-development psychologist, Linn assumes a behaviorist model of advertising and its effects on individuals. That is, she sees the process strictly as one of stimulus and response—corporations hold out cheesy rewards to children who like laboratory mice learn to navigate mazes of parental constraint to get at them. She cites study after study showing the relationship between media consumption and disconcerting child behavior. There’s a lot of validity to Linn’s fears about the vulnerability of impressible young minds to the power of suggestion, but it sometimes seems a bit over-determined. For example, Linn doesn’t factor in studies, like Michael Schudson’s classic Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, that challenge the supposed unilateral power of advertising’s effectiveness. (There’s a famous quip by Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker who said he knew that half his advertising budget was being wasted, but he could never figure out which half.) There’s also what media-studies types call “reception theory”, the idea that consumers, even youngsters, put their own meanings onto commercial messages and products, redirecting them for their own purposes, like the safety pins and work boots of the punks and skinheads studied by researchers such as Dick Hebdige.
Consuming Kids is shot through with value judgments, presuming the worst intentions on the part of marketers, as one might expect from a polemic whose goal is to goad the reading public into action. Linn’s accusing finger even points to her own discipline, which in many respects has adopted a means-ends rationale toward the psychology of consumption in part because that’s where the money is. This is understandable on one level—corporations fund research to find out what makes people want to buy, and that’s not necessarily the same as looking out for the public interest. But it is sobering to learn that the American Psychological Association dumped social responsibility from its code of ethics in 2003.
Linn’s psychological perspective is well researched, and it begs to be augmented by sociological analysis. Consumption is the necessary other of production. The vast abundance of supply, made possible by modern manufacturing, meant having to stimulate the desire to consume far beyond the satisfaction of purely physical needs. Advertising arose to perform this motivational function. As more and more stuff was being made, broader and deeper markets had to be created to absorb it all. Supply-side theorists have something called Say’s Law—basically it states that “if you make it, they will buy”. You can’t control consumption on a broad social level without somehow changing the conditions of production. Linn’s prescriptions at the end of the book are admirable: she calls for parents to limit their children’s television viewing, demands that professionals advocate for the public good, recommends government policies to regulate advertising to children and expand the public sphere, etc. But they can only provide relief for the symptoms, not a cure for the disease.