Mutant Ninja Turtles, Profits, and Children

AMERICA'S children are swept up in a ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle'' frenzy. Box office sales for the movie hit $60 million after just two weekends, making it the biggest grossing spring release movie in history. Over 200 companies are marketing more than 1,000 products with the TMNT Logo. School teachers say young boys are running around classrooms karate chopping each other in imitation of the turtles; crowds gather around whomever has the latest TMNT toy.

As a decade of unrestricted cross-media marketing to children reaches a new peak, corporate America is raking in the profits. Yet few are asking what the effect of these marketing practices might be on children.

The success of the Turtle craze has a history which began with deregulation of the broadcasting industry shortly after Ronald Reagan took office. Soon after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) systematically dismantled all regulations governing children's television, the toy and television industries began developing toys and programs as a package. By 1985, all the 10 best-selling toys were tied to TV shows, many of which had a violent theme. Companies licensing cartoon logos to sell on other products joined in. They, together with toymakers and TV producers, began coordinating their marketing efforts, and all three became advertisements for each other.

Children were easy prey for the sophisticated marketing practices aimed at them; they do not have cognitive skills to understand the purpose of advertising, much less consider its effects on them. They are less capable of making informed consumer decisions. Through the 1980s, one product-linked cartoon after another swept the American youth culture. Last year it was Ghostbusters; the year before, GI Joe. Children became further socialized into consumerism, and began to expect the next new wave. Toward the end of the 1980s, filmmakers joined in on the media crossfeeding - and in the enormous profits. So did chains such as Burger King which currently offers a special deal on the TMNT video with a meal purchase.

The effect of unregulated advertising and marketing to children has endangered their healthy development by undermining play and creating an unhealthy focus on violence. And consumerism. Toys tied to scripts with a single purpose lock children into repeating narrow actions seen on the screen and prescribed by each toy. What is worse, the focus of most single-purpose toys, Turtles notwithstanding, is on violence. Children, as they use the toys, often act out the violence they have seen on film. They often have difficulty moving away from imitating these scripts and bringing into play their own ideas and experience.

The TMNT world is the product of adult imagination. It isn't based on how children understand the world. Any logical plot or underlying motives that do exist in the movie, video, or cartoon (and there are few) are often lost to a young child. Kids take from the screen what they can understand - usually disconnected fragments of the most vivid or dramatic scenes viewed. In the TMNT movie this amounts to: punches and karate chops; bad-guy leaders with Asian eyes; and violence as the means, the only means, for resolving conflicts. Some adults may see Ninja Turtles as less violent than cartoons like GI Joe. After all, they use swords and fists not guns and bombs. Yet from a child's point of view, bodily attacks may be no less violent than those by high-tech weapons. Each turtle is a karate expert and comes with a favorite weapon. The karate chops and weapons can rivet the child's attention and be later imitated.

Manufacturers have become a powerful socializer of the nation's children. Their influence over children's play has grown so strong as to suggest that they have taken control of children's play, and the values of play, from parents. And all without public dialogue or debate. For the first time in recent history, massive numbers of children are under the influence of ``caretakers'' who care more about profits than about children's best interests. It was the right of manufacturers to persuade, to market their products to children, and to realize large profits that President Reagan protected when he vetoed the Children's Television Act of 1988 on the grounds that it violated free speech. It was not the rights of children and their parents that were protected by this veto.

The success of the ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'' movie now proves that children are a market thoroughly exploitable. Yet America's parents would never willfully choose caretakers for their children whose main goal is to maximize their own self-interest above all else.

We have seen what happens when corporations, with the help of the government, are given free rein to exercise their powerful influence over the lives of children and their families. Now it is time for the government to assume its rightful role in protecting the nation's children from the commercial exploitation which is causing them obvious harm. Citizens too, working together in school and neighborhood groups, can express their will through boycotts and other consumer actions, and can join organizations which are working on a national scale to organize consumers who will put the needs of children and their healthy development before private gain.

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