Shielding children

It's rare that an award ceremony should be cause for alarm. But the third annual Golden Marble Awards, the advertising industry's celebration of successful marketing to children, ought to worry anyone concerned about our children's well-being. This year the ceremony was held in New York on Sept. 14 - the same day the federal government published a report documenting the rapid growth of marketing in schools, and four days after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its findings that media companies deliberately market violence to children.

Marketing to children has become so pervasive that the ad world apparently thinks it warrants a separate awards ceremony. These awards honor artistry without questioning the ethics of marketing to children. The annointed commercials may be brilliantly designed and executed, but the praise is bestowed without regard for the way ads manipulate children or for how the products affect children and families.

Kids are barraged with advertising from the moment they wake up until bedtime. Corporations spent more than $12 billion in 1999 marketing to children. They're bombarded with products linked to TV characters, toy giveaways at fast-food chains, and product placements in movies and television. Children see 30,000 commercials annually on television alone. And there's growing evidence that it's harmful to them.

Last month, after reviewing 1,000 studies conducted over 30 years, a coalition of professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, linked violent media to aggressive behavior. Yet professional wrestling programs, which are rated TV-14, and violent movies such as "X-Men" (rated PG-13) peddle violent action figures to preschoolers. As the recent FTC report confirms, the entertainment industry intentionally markets violent content to children through products it officially rates as unsuitable.

At a time when childhood obesity has become a major public health problem, the fast-food industry is the biggest advertiser on television. McDonald's alone spends $6 million a year on advertising. Studies show that obese children are more susceptible to the "feel good" messages embedded in advertising.

At the same time, advertisers present children with models who are impossibly slim. Over one-third of girls in grades 5 to 8 report dieting in the last year, and studies document that discontent with body images rises with exposure to fashion magazines.

Advertising even affects the way children play. The most advertised, bestselling toys are linked to media programs. Yet children often play less creatively with toys based on characters from television and film.

Young children are vulnerable to marketing exploitation. They tend to believe what they see, they don't understand that ads are meant to sell them something, and they have trouble differentiating between commercials and programming.

The deregulation of children's television in 1984 made it possible to use programs to promote toys, further blurring the line between ads and shows. In addition, companies now wield increasingly sophisticated technology, extensive market research, and the expertise of child psychologists. Today, children influence purchases totaling about $500 billion a year - a sure sign of corporations' success.

The ubiquitous media, combined with virtually unrestricted marketing practices, makes obsolete the conventional wisdom that parents can protect their children from commercial culture. To some extent, parents can mitigate the effects of marketing, but unless families retreat to the woods, children are exposed at friends' houses, on the street, the playground, supermarkets, and even in school.

That companies get awards for doing the best job of manipulating children into buying things is emblematic of a consumer culture that is out of control. Parents need help from policymakers to protect children from this unprecedented assault. The White House should lead the way by convening a conference on corporate marketing and its effects on children to serve as a springboard for national dialogue and lay the groundwork for creating appropriate policy. The National Institutes of Health should fund research on the psychosocial and health consequences of intensive marketing to children.

Children pay for advertising. They pay with their safety, their health, and their creativity. Why should the industry reward itself for succeeding at a practice that exploits society's most vulnerable members? The Third Annual Golden Marble Awards should be the last.

Susan Linn is associate director of the media center at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Diane E. Levin is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and author of 'Remote Control Childhood' (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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