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Teach children to resist marketing void


Melinda Hemmelgarn

Food Sleuth
April 16, 2008


John Weisz likens parenting in the new millennium to strapping a 200-pound weight on your child. It’s tougher today, he says, because of the burden of the “steady drumbeat of commercialism.”

Weisz holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and serves as president of the Boston-based Judge Baker Children’s Center.

The center focuses on improving the lives of children “whose emotional and behavioral problems threaten to limit their potential.” The center also houses the headquarters of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which recognizes that relentless marketing to children undermines their health and well-being.

Under the leadership of psychologist Susan Linn, CCFC supports the rights of children to grow up — and the rights of parents to raise them — without being undermined by rampant commercialism. CCFC’s annual summits bring together parents, teachers and health professionals to challenge and combat the exploitive commercial forces that push our children away from their parents and toward profit-driven violence, sexual promiscuity, junk food and branded toys and clothing.

Over the past couple of decades, marketers have extended their reach far beyond the TV screen. Today’s children see ads on the Internet, video games, cell phones and at school.

If you think Pizza Hut reading reward coupons, soda machines and McTeacher nights are merely philanthropic strategies to reward, refresh and fund schools, think again. These promotional tools are little more than clever ways to brand our children and buy lifetime loyalty to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Desperately underfunded schools receive comparatively few dollars in exchange for their buy-in.

At CCFC’s sixth annual summit this month, Knox College Professor Tim Kasser presented his research showing that countries with the highest levels of kid-targeted marketing have the highest indicators of child “ill-being,” as defined by UNICEF. In other words, the drive for more and branded stuff does not a happy child make.

CCFC mobilizes support for legislation that helps protect children from the most egregious marketing schemes and celebrates those who make a difference, such as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.

You might remember Spurlock as the star in his 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me,” in which he ate nothing but McDonald’s menu items. Spurlock got sick fast — he gained weight, watched his cholesterol climb and received strong advice from his doctor to stop eating the fast-food giant’s fare.

In his 2007 film “What Would Jesus Buy,” Spurlock exposes the commercialization of Christmas and questions its impact on families.

Spurlock received the Fred Rogers Integrity Award at CCFC’s summit kick-off. There, he described his childhood in West Virginia, where his mother refused to buy the latest branded, expensive merchandise Spurlock thought he needed to be popular.

Spurlock challenged his audience to help protect children from relentless marketers who tempt and trick kids into thinking they need stuff to fill a hole that only strong family and community relationships can fill.

He also encouraged us to watch Ronald McDonald closely: “The clown never eats the food.”

As a champion for “real, healthy food,” Spurlock already ranked as a hero in my book.

With one film, he accomplished what dietitians have been attempting to do for decades: prompt consumers to rethink their obesity-promoting and environment-damaging fast-food diets.

Linn says that for many, “ ‘Super Size Me’ was a defining moment.” The film raised “the awareness of young people about the harms of fast-food marketing.”

But Spurlock has an even grander mission — to empower citizens and value children for who they are, rather than what they can buy.

“It takes people saying no,” Spurlock emphasized. “I’m not going to go there, buy or eat that. They’ll sell you what you buy.”

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