Synopses & Reviews
The average American child sees about 40,000 television commercials every year. Companies target younger viewers all the time, selling everything from sugar cereals to minivans, and cross-promotional marketing influences everything from the food stocked in school vending machines to the characters who appear in childrens books. Kids are requesting specific brands as soon as they can talk. American corporations spend over $15 billion yearly on marketing to children in an effort to cultivate nagging, insatiable, “cradle-to-grave” consumers.
In this shocking and engrossing exposé, psychologist Susan Linn reveals how the marketing industry preys on kids from the day theyre born, exploiting their vulnerabilities and skewing their values in order to influence what they eat, wear, and play with. This advertising blitz stifles creativity and exacerbates obesity, eating disorders, violence, sexual precocity, and substance abuse. Linn—a mother herself—recognizes that parents alone are no match for the marketing experts. What they need is the concerted help of healthcare professionals, educators, and legislators who have childrens best interests in mind. Consuming Kids is a call to action for anyone who cares about the well-being of children.
About the Author
Susan Linn is Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Associate Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Childrens Center in Boston. An award-winning producer and ventriloquist, she is internationally known for her pioneering work using puppets as therapeutic tools with children and is co-founder of the coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Penelope Leach
Introduction: The Marketing Maelstrom
1. Notes from the Underground: Thirty-Six Hours at a Marketing Conference
2. A Consumer in the Family: The Nag Factor and Other Nightmares
3. Branded Babies: From Cradle to Consumer
4. Endangered Species: Play and Creativity
5. Students for Sale: Who Profits from Marketing in Schools?
6. Through Thick and Thin: The Weighty Problem of Food Marketing
7. Peace-Keeping Battle Stations and Smackdown!: Selling Kids on Violence
8. From Barbie and Ken to Britney, the Bratz, and Beyond: Sex As Commodity
9. Marketing, Media, and the First Amendment: Whats Best for Children?
10. Joe Camel Is Dead, but Whassup with Those Budweiser Frogs?: Hooking Kids on Alcohol and Tobacco
11. If Values Are Right, Whats Left?: Life Lessons from Marketing
12. Ending the Marketing Maelstrom: Youre Not Alone
Reading Group Guide
1. Linn cites the deregulation of advertising on childrens television during the Reagan administration and the current laxity of laws limiting the formation of media conglomerates as major factors in the commercialization of childhood [p. 6]. What do these policies reflect about Americas view of the role of government in society? How do the arguments for regulation stand up against those for deregulation? The advertising industry says that it is self-regulating adequately. Do you agree? Have recent political trends made the creation of vast mega companies like Viacom, Disney, and Time Warner inevitable? Could the negative impact of their reach and dominance have been predicted?
2. From the invasion of Internet chat rooms to the employment of “cool” kids to hype various products, “even traditional venues for spreading what used to be legitimately called popular culture-word of-mouth, for example-have been co-opted by corporations” [p. 6]. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine noted that “trendsetters” selected by corporations to promote their products are often unpaid volunteers. Why are teenagers particularly susceptible to assuming this role?
3. Research shows that children today are reaching physical maturity earlier than previous generations (for instance, girls are entering puberty earlier than their mothers did, p. 27). What affect does this have on how children perceive themselves? Have these changes distorted societys attitudes about childhood? What are the challenges for girls reaching puberty earlier than their peers? What can society do to support them?
4. Has research into the emotional and social development of children failed to keep pace with studies of biological changes? What aspects of childrens behavior or attitudes deserve further investigation? What specific questions would be useful in determining the influence of marketing and of the media?
5. Linn argues that “the process of marketing” has a significant impact on family life [p. 32]. How have marketers exploited both everyday observations about kids behavior and more subtle psychological insights into the parent-child relationship? Why are some families more susceptible than others? In addition to social and economic status, what factors shape consumer behavior? Does Consuming Kids offer explanations that surprised you or contradicted your assumptions? How does Linn support her conclusions? Is her evidence objective, or does it reflect a bias?
6. Has public television betrayed its audience by forming partnerships with commercial interests, or are its alliances with toy manufactures and its participation in shopping malls an economic necessity? Do tie-ins with fast-food companies and brand-licensing deals with unhealthy food products undermine or negate the educational benefits of broadcasting Sesame Street, Arthur, and other programs for young children? Do you think that commercial-free television for children is important? Why or why not?
7. The effects of television shows, DVDs, and computer programs for babies and toddlers have not been fully investigated. There is no evidence that the youngest and most impressionable children gain anything from them that cant be gained quicker from real life. Do you think that products like Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, and Baby Genius should be removed from the marketplace until such research is completed?
8. “Given the current confluence of sophisticated media technology and the glorification of consumerism, its becoming increasingly difficult to provide children with an environment that encourages creativity and original thinking” [p. 62]. Do todays advanced technologies represent a greater intrusion on a childs environment than the introduction of radios, movies, and television in the past? Does the use of popular fictional characters as marketing tools for zillions of products [p. 64] make it impossible for children to create their own fantasies and games? Do your own experiences support the view that children today exhibit less creativity-and have less fun-than previous generations? What other changes in society might explain the lack of imaginative play among kids today?
9. Why is the Internet such a strong influence on todays youth? To what extent has it replaced the “community” you knew as a child?
10. How do todays mass-marketing techniques differ from those with which you grew up? How has the advent of electronic media altered not just the dissemination but the content and direction of commercial messages?
11. During the 1990s corporations extended their reach into schools, sponsoring newscasts, field trips, vending machines, classroom instructional materials, and more. Can a case be made that companies like Burger King, which sponsors scholarships, or Nike, which supplies athletic equipment, perform a social service that outweighs their more selfish interests? Are the trade-offs worth it? Do you agree that commercialism in schools can compromise the quality and integrity of education? Given the decline of public funding for education in many parts of the country, how would you answer the question “Who Profits from Marketing in Schools?”
12. Linn suggests that a good way to frame discussions about sex and violence in the media is to recognize that the things children are exposed to on a daily basis (including “plotless” ads and musical videos) are all narratives that transmit cultural values [p. 109]. Use this approach to critique specific ad campaigns, childrens programs, prime-time series that children are likely to watch, and popular video and computer games. Do they encourage age-inappropriate behavior? What are the long-term implications of the ideals they present and the role models they use?
13. Do you agree with Linns statement, “The ‘worst effect [of marketing to children] will depend on your childs weaknesses or predilections” [p. 9]? Are the negative effects of violent messages more serious, for example, than the risks linked to the marketing of unhealthful foods? Are parents able to counteract some messages more effectively than others?
14. After reading Consuming Kids, what specific marketing techniques do you think are the most insidious?
15. Why has the political right taken the most active role in calling for government controls of the media? Is the left defending its political principles (particularly the sanctity of the First Amendment) at the expense of the nations children? Does Linns perspective encompass the concerns of people all along the political spectrum? How do her own political leanings, as well her professional roles as a psychologist and childrens advocate, shape the way she presents her arguments?
16. The use of violence and sex in the media has raised objections for a long time, and many studies have shown that most parents feel that marketing contributes to their children becoming too materialistic. What new information or insights does Consuming Kids contribute to the debate? Are the solutions Linn provides realistic? What reform efforts by the public have been successful in the past? Are there parallels between the methods and goals of those efforts and the call to action in Consuming Kids?
17. Linn argues that marketing to children is a societal issue, not just an issue that concerns families. Do you agree? What is societys responsibility to children?
“A call to arms. . . . We can and must take back our parental roles.” -T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups discussion of Susan Linns Consuming Kids, a lively, eye-opening investigation into the blatant manipulation of the youngest and most vulnerable members of Americas commercialized culture.