Author: ‘We’re training kids to be consumers’ | AspenTimes.com

Author: ‘We’re training kids to be consumers’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The branch of the marketing industry that targets young children is clever. Relentlessly, insidiously, often brilliantly clever.

Take “Teletubbies,” for example, the first TV series marketed as educational programming for infants. The show aired on PBS, giving it the apparent approval of the government, and comforting adults with the notion that it wasn’t commercial television.

Pitched as an educational tool, it made for a tough decision for parents: “I’m not sure I want my 1-year-old watching television … but am I denying her a significant learning opportunity?” From the perspective of Big Marketing, whether it was educational or not, or was non-commercial, was probably beside the point. The best feature of all wasn’t the content, but the fact that it got the eyeballs of infants looking exactly where they wanted them to look – at an electronic screen.

“What it does is train babies to turn to screens for stimulation and soothing – and that’s where the marketing industry wants them,” said Susan Linn, who puts videos like “Baby Einstein” and “Baby Mozart” in the same basket as “Teletubbies.” “Then they’re dependent; they have to get their stimulation from within, not without.”

Linn counts the U.S. debut of “Teletubbies,” in 1998, as a landmark in the business of marketing to children. That, she says, was what transformed Linn, a psychologist, from a concerned parent to an activist.

“There was no basis for thinking this was educational. It was total nonsense,” she said. “My fear was this would open the floodgates to media aimed at babies. And it did. That’s when I saw I needed to do something about it.”

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Linn’s response was to form the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, which she directs, and to write a pair of books about protecting children from rampant commercialism: 2004’s “Consuming Kids” and last year’s “The Case for Make Believe.” An instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, she is also a busy lecturer, and is scheduled to appear at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork for a public talk at 7 tonight and at a workshop at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

In addition to “Teletubbies,” Linn finds several other moments in her personal life significant to her work. She is amazed that her introduction to the sexualized pop singer Britney Spears came from a 4-year-old. And perhaps the experience that set her on her professional path, more personal and thus more seminal than the “Teletubbies,” was the 1997 spring concert her daughter participated in at her public school in Brookline, Mass. – a community the family had chosen for its school system. The concert comprised a set of songs from Disney movies; the school had bought the concert package from Disney.

“I was so outraged. The idea that my daughter was going to be spending time in school on the same body of music she was being sold on a daily basis outside of school troubled me,” said the 61-year-old Linn.

Her professional life includes a stretch as a ventriloquist and puppeteer – with appearances on “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” and in front of children with AIDS at Boston Medical Center – and earning a doctorate in counseling psychiatry from the Harvard School of Education.

“What is the purpose of school – to sell children on commercial culture?” she said. “Or to expand their horizons and knowledge and critical thinking?”

For Linn, a big part of the problem is that so many people don’t see marketing to children as a problem. Programs pitched as educational, concerts that feature familiar songs, toys and games that all the other kids have – where’s the problem?

“So much of it looks like fun, it’s hard to see what the problem is until you’re faced with it,” she said.

Linn, who said she is not “anti-media,” sees plenty of problems. One is the creeping ubiquity of commercialization, with corporate sponsorship of school programs and a wider array of platforms – computers, video games, cell phones, product placement in movies – to sell things. There is the content, with subtle or not-so-subtle messages about body types, sexuality and violence. There is the aggressive pitch to join the consumer culture, the proposed need to buy a particular shampoo, pair of jeans, or toy.

“What research suggests is that marketing is a factor in so many of the problems kids face today – precocious sexuality, obesity, the false notion that things we buy will make us happy,” she said.

Linn’s work has yielded some successes. She persuaded Disney to change its marketing of “Baby Einstein.” She influenced a school district to stop sending home report cards in McDonald’s envelopes. In the bigger picture, she believes there has been progress in making people aware that there is reason to be concerned. Kids, she believes, are having the essence of childhood stripped away by the marketing machine.

“The message kids have is their imaginations are not good enough,” Linn said. “Near and dear to my heart, it’s the erosion of children’s creative play, which is a factor in kids’ self-control, education, and the capacity to wrestle with life and make it meaningful.

“We’re training kids to be consumers, not necessarily good thinkers or good citizens.”

stewart@aspentimes.com