May 17th, 2009

A Sober Look at Ads and Children

By Linda Matchan
The Boston Globe

The Museum of Fine Arts launches a new documentary film series this week about consumerism, and it features a Massachusetts film, “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood,” about how kids are exploited by child marketing.

The commercialization of childhood? My first reaction was, tell me something I don’t know.

As it turned out, the film told me a lot I didn’t know. It was produced by the Media Education Foundation of Northampton, which makes and distributes films dealing with the media’s influence on society, and this group does not look kindly upon US media, or marketers. The foundation’s executive director, Sut Jhally, is also a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and no shrinking violet on this topic. Advertising “is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history,” he has written, “and its cumulative cultural effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it.”

Jhally is executive producer of “Consuming Kids,” and its point of view is pretty consistent with his writings. But even those who don’t share his vision of media-as-Armageddon are likely to be gobsmacked, to use a Susan Boyle-ism, by some of what’s revealed about the $40 billion youth marketing industry.

Most of us know, for example, that corporate marketers are careful observers of child behavior, but it’s rather jarring to learn exactly how carefully they’ve been observing the nation’s children. So carefully that they’ve actually taken notes on the way kids nag parents - it’s called the “Nag Factor” - and advise corporations on which kind of tantrums work the best. (Fact: Children sometimes repeat “Can I?” as many as nine times.)

I was so surprised to learn that a Massachusetts-based company called Bus Radio bombards kids with eight ads per hour as they ride the school bus that I went to the company’s website to make sure it was real. Sadly, it is. “Bus Radio!,” is a typical raucous Bus Radio promo. “We’ll choose a name at random, and if you’re the winner, we’ll give a pair of tickets to your bus driver too. You guys can hang out together, maybe share a large Coke.” How wholesome is that?

Filmmakers Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp show how marketers are getting increasingly aggressive and invasive, bombarding kids with messages from morning till night, from cradle to (if they can do it) grave, through brand licensing, product placement, stealth marketing in schools, DVDs, the Internet, iPods, cellphones and just about every venue they can penetrate. The new world of advertising doesn’t seem to recognize boundaries anymore: Ads, for example, no longer just serve as backdrops in video games, they now are video games. (As in racing with Chips Ahoy.) Kids can get Disney ringtones; they can get e-mailed birthday wishes from Power Rangers.

This hasn’t all happened overnight, of course. Barbaro and Earp trace it to the 1980s when the toy- and cereal-industry lobbies staved off an attempt by the Federal Trade Commission to ban all advertising to young children. By 1984, the Reagan administration had completely deregulated children’s television; what’s followed, it appears, has been a kind of targeted product placement strategy run amok. “Commercials are so 20th century,” Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says in the film. “There is a brand in front of a child’s face every moment of every day.”

“Consuming Kids” has its Boston premiere at the MFA May 20, 7:30 p.m. It will be followed by a panel discussion with people interviewed in the film, moderated by Susan Linn. The film runs through May 30.

Other documentaries in the Consumerism film series are “Objectified,” May 21 and 22, about industrial design; “Malls R Us,” May 20-30, which explores the world of shopping malls; “Milk in the Land,” May 28 and 29, about the relationship between milk and American culture; “Flow,” May 22 and 24, which investigates the world water crisis; and “Dust,” May 27-31, about the environmental and health consequences of dust. For information, visit


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