'Consuming Kids' Movie Sparks Parental Backlash
December 7, 2009
This holiday season, two local moms would like to see less Dora, Elmo and Disney, please.
They’d prefer that their tots play with generic teddy bears, instead of toys stamped with one of the ubiquitous characters marketed to children nationwide.
But finding generic toys — or even diapers — is hardly easy, and that’s a problem, said Dr. Karen R. Fine and Dina L. Tedeschi. The friends, members of Worcester’s chapter of the National Organization for Women, say they have always been a little leery of advertising, but they became more aware of childhood consumer culture after seeing a film.
The documentary “Consuming Kids” shows how teams of MBAs and psychologists help advertisers find ways to undermine parental authority to influence children, with the ultimate goal of turning children into lifelong super consumers, Dr. Fine and Ms. Tedeschi said.
The women were so affected by the movie that they decided to sponsor a screening in Worcester. It will be shown tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Worcester Public Library. The screening is free and open to the public, and it will be followed by a discussion. A trailer of the film can be seen at www.youtube.com and www.commercialfreechildhood.org.
According to some parents and advocates, companies target kids from the time they are toddlers to the time they are teenagers, perpetuating a “must-have” culture that starts with diapers and macaroni and cheese and extends to cell phones and video games.
“Parents really mean well and want to do the best for their kids … how do you compete, how do you block this?” asked Dr. Fine, a veterinarian who has an 18-month-old son, Nathan. “It’s really hard when you’re being undermined by all these corporations.
“I’m looking at this (movie) and thinking I want my son to be able to play with kids whose parents also have this information.”
As she raises her son, Dr. Fine’s biggest concern is branding. She’s trying to make sure Nathan doesn’t get hooked on a brand — for example, Elmo. She plans to keep him away from the TV until he’s at least 2 years old.
Ms. Tedeschi, who works as associate executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, said she still buys some “commercialized” things for her 3-year-old son, Phenix, but in moderation. He’s allowed to watch TV, but mostly PBS, which doesn’t have the kind of commercials shown on other channels. He eats McDonald’s Happy Meals, but his mother tries to get him more excited about the food than about the toy of the day that comes with it.
“Finding things without marketed items on them is really hard,” Ms. Tedeschi said. “Something as simple as underwear, you can’t find something that’s plain.”
For those buying holiday gifts for children, the mothers suggest picking something educational rather than the hottest toy or character. For kids who already have lots of stuff, Dr. Fine suggests giving them money that they can donate to an organization of their choice. The women will offer more tips at tomorrow’s film screening.
Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, will lead a discussion after the film.
Advertising targeted at children has escalated over the past 25 years, he said in an interview. In 1983, companies were spending $100 million a year targeting kids, and now they spend about $17 billion a year, he said.
Technology, including the proliferation of TVs and DVDs has played a big role, Mr. Golin said. “Cell phones are a way marketers can be with kids all the time,” he said.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood lobbies for more regulations regarding advertising to children. The organization says the United States regulates marketing to children less than any other Western democracy. Mr. Golin pointed to Sweden’s laws as a good model. Sweden, he said, has banned all advertising to children younger than 8.
As the father of a year-old daughter, Mr. Golin, too, struggles with finding a plain white diaper.
Other organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, say advertising affects children’s health and well-being. According to the APA, research shows that children younger than 8 are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits.
Those in the advertising industry, though, prefer self-regulation to government regulation. On its Web site, the American Advertising Federation says it protects and promotes advertising at all levels of government and works to “encourages industry self-regulation as a preemptor to government intervention, when appropriate.”