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Corporate America Spending $15 Billion Annually to Brainwash Children

Commercial Alert, September 13, 2004

Following is an article from yesterday's Washington Post.

Those Ads Are Enough to Make Your Kids Sick
By Juliet Schor

A bubbly young researcher armed with a video camera sits on the bedroom
floor with a 5-year-old girl, watching her play and asking her questions.
The mother is off in the kitchen. After a bit, the young woman follows the
little girl into the bathroom, where a row of empty shampoo and bubble bath
bottles has been lined up above the tub. The market researcher has an "aha"
moment -- the little girl has turned the containers into toys. The health
and beauty aids company she's on assignment for could do that too, she
realizes, and after she submits her report, the company redesigns its
package to make it look more toy-like.

Around the country, scenes like this are being repeated daily. Advertisers
and the companies they represent are doing record levels of research to help
market their products to children. They are relying on brain science, the
reports of child advisers, and extensive videotaping of kids in stores, at
playgrounds and in their homes. Researchers I interviewed recounted their
taping sessions in kids' bedrooms, playing with toys or grooming. A ritual
as private as bath time has become familiar territory as marketers observe
children taking baths and showers to come up with strategies to sell new
health and beauty products, or novel approaches for marketing existing ones.
They investigate children's closets. They even go to sleepovers.

American parents have been well warned about junk food, how it dominates
advertising aimed toward children and how poor eating habits have led a
staggering 15 percent of the nation's children into obesity. They are told
of the health risks and that a whopping one-third of children born today are
expected to eventually develop diabetes.

But it's not just junk food that endangers the health of our children, it's
also the "junk culture" that surrounds them. And that junk culture is not
only making children materialistic, it is making them sick. They are
becoming depressed and anxious, my research shows. They are suffering from
headaches and stomachaches, too.

We know our children are living in an environment where they are bombarded
with advertising aimed just at them, but it is influencing them in more ways
than their parents might imagine.

The average American child is exposed to 40,000 advertising messages each
year, according to recent estimates, and corporations are currently spending
$15 billion annually advertising and marketing to kids up to age 12. With
all this money at hand, companies are ratcheting up their kid-oriented ad
budgets to promote entertainment, fashion and apparel, electronics and
furniture, and health and beauty aids. After more than a decade of
relentless advertising and marketing to children, the results are striking.

By the time many children reach early elementary school, they have already
been incorporated into the universe of junk entertainment, listening to
music and watching movies and television that offer them unprecedented
levels of violence along with the presentation of young people as sexual
objects. (MTV isn't just for teenagers, it's a kid phenomenon, too.) By the
time these kids enter the 8 to 12 "tween" stage, they've adopted the junk
values of materialism and the desire to be rich. When I interviewed Martin
Lindstrom, a branding expert, he cited a recent survey by the Millward Brown
global market research agency. It reveals that nowhere else in the world are
8- to 12-year-olds more materialistic (75 percent desire to be "rich,") or
more likely to believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are
and define their social status.

All this is not only distasteful, it is unhealthy, as I found after
surveying 300 children ages 10 to 13 in urban and suburban Boston in 2002
and 2003.

I came to this conclusion by creating a new measure of the kids' level of
"involvement" in consumer culture -- in addition to their media exposure,
which is the usual standard. I asked questions about how much they were
psychically tuned in to the values and aspirations of consuming, such as how
much they cared about having a lot of stuff; how important designer labels
and a nice family car were to them; whether they usually were focused on
acquiring something new; and how much they wanted to be rich and wanted
their parents to be richer.

Among the suburban kids whose parents were more restrictive about consumer
culture, I also found that the more they bought into that culture, the more
negative they were about their parents, and the more likely they were to
fight and disagree with them.

While the figures tell me children's well-being was affected by consumer
involvement, they do not explain how. One possibility is that people who are
envious of others and worried about possessions and money are more likely to
be depressed and anxious. Desiring less -- rather than getting more -- seems
to be the key to contentment and well-being. Perhaps, as they focus on the
consumer culture, kids spend less time in the reading and play that keeps
them happy and healthy. Difficult as it is to explain, the connection is
clear: The more enmeshed children are in the culture of getting and
spending, the more they suffer for it.

As I interviewed children and parents, I found the conversations were
supporting what the figures were telling me. Parents who were involved in
conflicts with their kids about buying stuff, eating junk food, and watching
TV, playing video games and using the Internet also reported that their
children were experiencing behavior problems, difficulties in school and

How have things gotten so far out of hand? For the last decade, the kids
junk culture has been relentlessly pushed by a small number of
mega-corporations -- Viacom, Disney, McDonald's, Burger King, Philip Morris,
Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sony Pictures and others. Through their advertising
agencies, these companies have developed sophisticated and effective methods
of reaching children that go far beyond the television ads of yesteryear.

That kind of intensive research went into companies figuring out they could
turn shampoo bottles into licensed character toys , plastic first-aid
bandages into "tattoos," and ketchup into a gross green goop that kids will
demand. Marketers have also perfected stealth marketing efforts, such as
"peer-to-peer" campaigns that enlist kids to market to their friends and
schoolmates, a process that has been gaining popularity recently.

Language provides a particularly telling clue to the marketers' mentality.
It's a war out there. Children are referred to as "targets." Printed
materials are "collateral"; grass-roots campaigns are "guerrilla" or
"viral." Sometimes they talk about "converting [a kid] into a user," a
phrase from the drug culture. There's little doubt about who's winning this
war either, as marketers have transformed childhood from an idyllic to a
hazardous life stage. It's high time parents and legislators took notice and
countered the growing culture of junk.

Findings like mine, as well as those of many other studies that document the
harmful effects of the individual components of the junk culture -- food,
violent video games, oversexualized body images, and youth consumption of
drugs, tobacco and alcohol -- suggest that adults are failing to protect
children in basic ways.

Many adults respond to the junk culture with a fatalistic attitude,
shrugging it off as inescapable or not essentially different from what they
experienced as children. But others are breaking through that denial to push
legislative agendas that pursue new protections from advertising, such as
the Parents' Bill of Rights, a set of nine measures to reform marketing
practices being sought by Commercial Alert, an organization based in
Portland, Ore. Other groups advocate school-based measures such as
district-wide prohibitions against soft-drink contracts in schools.

Industry is fighting back, by dominating government panels, providing
stepped-up financial contributions to politicians and advocacy groups such
as the National PTA and funding industry front groups such as the Center for
Consumer Freedom. But with mounting evidence of the harm being done to
America's children by the junk culture, it's high time parents, educators
and children's advocates stood up to the junk purveyors and reclaimed the
culture of childhood.

Author's e-mail:

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of
a new book, "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer
Culture" (Scribner). She is on the advisory board of Commercial Alert.

<----article ends here----->

What you can do to help
1) Click here ( to send an email to your
Members of Congress in support of the Parents¹ Bill of Rights
(, which is a package of nine
legislative measures to restore to parents some control over the commercial
influences on their children.

2) Forward this email to parents, grandparents and those who care about
children. Ask them to read the article, and to encourage their Members of
Congress to support the Parents' Bill of Rights.

About Commercial Alert
Commercial Alert is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to
keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from
exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community,
environmental integrity and democracy. For more information, or to become a
member, go to

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