Time for a commercial break?

Everyday amazements - December 2004


Dan Baron


Daddy, can you get me this?” my 4-year-old Dina asks as we watch a commercial for something called a Chou Chou doll, which is supposed to laugh, cry and babble like a baby.

“We’ll see,” I tell her. It’s a pat answer, but I’m not sure how to answer her question, especially at this time of year. After all, it’s the holidays—why spoil the fun?

A few moments later, my daughter asks the same question about another product. I soon learn that various companies want her to have a GI Joe, something called Hubba Bubba bubblegum and Cool Crew Dusty the Talking Vacuum.

Do these commercials ever stop?

It’s not just TV, though. Deciding what media my children should be exposed to and what products I should buy for them are constant challenges. On the one hand, all this advertising directed at kids puts pressure on parents to buy, buy, buy. On the other, I am thinking, maybe some of these products are worth it.

Wait a minute, I tell myself. Time for a break—and not a commercial break. I’m finding that a lot of people, including many parents, are raising serious questions about how our consumer culture impacts children.

Earlier this year, a task force of the American Psychological Association released an excoriating report on what advertising does to children. The report points to research that estimates the average child in this country watches 40,000 commercials a year. The task force also estimates that companies in this country spend more than $12 billion a year to reach “the kid market.” They recommended that we ban advertising to children ages 8 and under.

Forty thousand commercials a year? Twelve billion dollars? I don’t even know how to comprehend these numbers. They are truly frightening.

Still, it’s not just the numbers that scare me; it’s what can be behind them.

One psychologist who co-authored the report says that some companies won’t tell consumers about their tactics.

“The advertising industry doesn’t want people to think they are being manipulated,” says Susan Linn, associate director at the Harvard University-affiliated Media Center at Judge Baker’s Children’s Center in Boston. “The industry doesn’t want people to know that some companies even hire child psychologists to figure out the best ways to reach children.”

In her book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, which was published last spring, Linn describes the marketing of products to children in this country as “harmful,” “pervasive” and “out of control.” The book has been praised by a range of respected child advocates, including pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Perhaps the most troubling issue here for me relates to another question: How much about marketing does my young daughter understand? Not enough, according to many who have studied the issue.

“Young kids are more susceptible than adults—they don’t understand what we call ‘commercial content,’ ” says Joanne Cantor, a retired communications professor at the University of Wisconsin who sat on the task force that produced the report. “The more they are exposed to, the more likely their toy choices will coincide with what’s marketed.”

Cantor and Linn are among those who advocate for considerably stronger regulation of marketing to children, as does a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Commercial Alert. The group is advocating for a Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The organization’s far-reaching bill proposes federal legislation that includes the Leave Children Alone Act, which would ban television advertising aimed at children under 12 years of age. 

Maybe, I think, this kind of all-or-nothing proposal goes too far and doesn’t stand a chance to become law anyway. What’s too far, though? When I look at my daughter, I wonder: Does she really need to see another Hubba Bubba bubblegum commercial?

There is, of course, another side to the story. Paul Kurnit, a veteran marketing and advertising executive, is among those who are highly critical of the movement to increase the regulation of marketing to children.

One reason, Kurnit suggests, is that in a free society it’s up to parents to set limits for their children—not the federal government.

“Parents must provide a sense of appropriate behavior,” says Kurnit, who has managed brands for Hasbro, a leading toy manufacturer, and Post Cereals, among others. “Let’s remember the only way products get into the home is if parents consent to buy them.”

No argument there, but it can be very tough to provide a sense of “appropriate” behavior to my daughter in this culture. How can I explain to her that it may not be appropriate to buy her Froot Loops just because she sees a bunch of kids on TV acting ecstatically happy when they’re eating this cereal?

I often wonder how I can talk with my daughter about this loaded subject. I figure it’s time to try.

“Dina, do you know why people want you to have those things?” I ask her one day as we watch TV together and another stream of commercials rolls by.

My question seems to puzzle her.

“No, why?” she answers.

“Because they want you to buy them. They want us to give them money—for a doll, a toy, a cereal or anything else.”

“So,” she asks, “that means we shouldn’t buy them? That means they’re not good?”

I know it’s not that simple.

“Sometimes they’re good, sometimes we’ll buy these things,” I tell her. “Most of the time we won’t. We don’t think you need them.”

She nods and seems genuinely interested; our little talk is a step forward for us. Meanwhile, I tell myself it’s a good idea for my wife and I to keep talking with her. 

We’ll have to do a lot of talking. After all, Barbie, Elmo, Ronald McDonald and friends apparently have about 40,000 chats each year.

Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at [email protected]


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