I recently attended the screening of a film called Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, which addresses the out-of-control marketing practices that are aimed at children today. Everything from the diapers kids wear to the cereal they eat has been infiltrated by the marketing machine that relentlessly pushes them to want, to need, to buy material goods, and while this provides a $700 billion per year market for companies, it negatively affects children.
I watched the film, which was written and directed by Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp and released in 2008, at the Davis Waldorf School. The private school builds its curriculum around the “later is better” philosophy, which says that allowing childen to develop at a natural rate and not rushing them through childhood is better for their development. The Waldorf School often refers to its teaching technique as an “antidote to modern culture,” and doesn’t allow clothing with logos or cell phones on the school’s campus, so it’s fitting that the school screened a film about the dangers of commercializing childhood.
A Waldorf student’s mother, Bessie Oakley, saw the film when it first came out and was shocked by the facts that it revealed. She saw an opportunity to enlighten other parents and signed up with Brave New Theaters to show the film at the Davis Waldorf School. Brave New Theaters is an online organization that gathers independent and educational films and lends them out for screening. For a small fee and the promise to open the film screening to the public for free, anyone can rent a film from Brave New Theaters. The purpose is to help independent film makers who focus on social justice issues get their message out to the public so that they can raise awareness and money in order to take action.
The film itself was fascinating. It explained that before the 1980s, the Federal Trade Commission enforced laws that regulated how companies could advertise, and marketing to children was very limited. However, after the deregulation of the ‘80s, there were effectively no restrictions on how and to whom companies could advertise, even though it is widely agreed that children ages 8 and under do not possess the mental faculties to discern deception from the truth, and so can be unfairly influenced by advertisements. The marketing divisions of companies were well aware of this, and developed the “cradle to grave” strategy, which involves roping people in when they are too young to understand, forcing them to develop an emotional connection to a brand, and then sitting back and watching them remain loyal to the brand for the rest of their lives.
To do this, market researchers take MRIs of children to see what types of images their brains respond to, they hire psychologists and neurologists to tell them how to make the child feel that he can’t live without their product, and they follow children everywhere, even into the bathroom, to observe the way children see and interact with the world. Yuck.
When I hear the word “advertising,” I think of commercials on TV or the radio, but while watching the film I realized that it has gone way beyond that. Games that children play on the Internet surreptitiously gather personal information so that the advertisements on the game page can be tailored to the child’s age, location and ethnicity. Schools are accepting money from companies to let the companies sponsor school events and even put advertisements in the school buses and hallways. A trip to the grocery store provides advertisers with more possibilities, as all the items targeted at children are placed at hip-height for an adult, which equates to being directly in a child’s line of vision. Look for it the next time you go shopping.
The problem with all of this advertising is that it teaches children to equate happiness with owning goods; “you are what you own,” essentially. Serious medical problems in young children such as ADHD, clinical depression, obesity and diabetes have been on the rise over the past three decades, and these increases are often linked with the increase in advertising aimed at children because it encourages them to eat junk food, play violent or sexualized games, sit on the couch instead of moving around, and causes them to equate self-worth with material possesions and physical appearance. No other industrialized country in the world allows anywhere near the amount of commercialization to be aimed at children that we do, and the movie made a convincing argument that it is time for us to take a serious look at how we allow our children to be treated.
After the film was over, Kelly Brewer, an administrator at the Davis Waldorf School, led a discussion about the film’s message. The parents in the room commented in alternately disgusted and worried tones about their experience with this media phenomenon and what could be done about it. It was widely agreed that it is the parent’s responsibility to guide what the child is exposed to, but that this task is made virtually impossible with advertisements infiltrating schools, the influence of friends, and the Internet. However, just the fact that parents and children are becoming more aware of this trend is a good start to a solution.
If you’re interested in viewing the film, Brave New Theaters is screening it in Rohnert Park on April 14th, but you can also easily set up your own screening of this film and others by visiting www.bravenewtheaters.com.