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Toying with the World:

Globalization and the Commercialization of Childhood

Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D.

 Over the last couple of decades, the toy industry has made a remarkable discovery – that in order to be happy, healthy, and well educated, children need dozens of new toys introduced to them each year by a tidal wave of multi-media marketing.  At the same time the fashion industry, the fast-food industry, the liquor and tobacco industries, and even the automobile industry also discovered the deep need children have to be the focus of endless advertising.  It’s not clear why child psychologists have missed this key developmental issue, but that’s another story.  What is clear is that the vast expanse of marketing we are witnessing here today under the banner of the American International Toy Fair is part of a much bigger picture, the commercialization of all of childhood.

The ongoing and ever-growing drenching of childhood with commercial messages has prompted our group, Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC), to call for a ban on marketing to children. Yet this psychological assault on our country’s youth is itself part of a larger development.  For the commercialization of childhood flows inexorably from the massive expansion of corporate power and corporate culture that both America and the world have witnessed in the last few decades.  My purpose today is to outline briefly the links between these various levels of concern – toys, childhood, and corporate power – and in so doing to show that the most effective way to protect our children from the toy industry is for us to join those who oppose economic globalization.

Let’s begin with considering obstacles to passing a law that bans marketing to children.  Immediately, we are confronted with the possibility that such a ban would violate the corporate right to free speech. The idea that corporations have free speech is odd, for isn’t free speech a constitutional right of people, not institutions?  It would seem so, yet in the late 1800’s the courts determined that free speech not only belongs to people but to one, and only one, institution, the corporation.  All other institutions – educational, religious, governmental- are not legally persons. 

What is so special about the corporation?  Over time, the corporation has come to embody and symbolize the ascendance of materialistic values in our society, until today it has become the dominant force moving society in a materialistic direction.  Having used its influence to elevate itself to the legal status of a human being, it now uses that status to gain new privileges and powers, which in turn increases its ability to mold the culture into one obsessed with consumerism.

The corporation as person has recently created the following scary- and absurd- scenario.  Lawyers for Nike have argued in California courts that when Nike lied to the public about conditions in its overseas sweatshops, it was engaging in personal rather than commercial speech, and therefore its lies were protected by the First Amendment.  The lawyers claimed that as legal persons corporations have the right to intentionally mislead the public in matters pertaining to their corporate activities.

If corporations were not legal persons, then corporate speech would neither be personal speech nor protected by the First Amendment. It would therefore be far easier to regulate, and a ban on marketing to children would be far easier to implement.  Revoking corporate personhood is therefore a crucial step towards protecting our children from marketing.

Let’s assume we’ve been successful in passing a national ban on marketing to children.  This new law could readily be challenged, and ultimately overturned, by the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Here’s how this would work.  Toy companies in Mexico and Canada could sue the U.S. Government through the WTO, claiming that the U.S. ban on marketing to children is an unfair barrier to trade.  They could argue that the ban significantly inhibits their ability to freely sell their products in the U.S. And they would likely find a sympathetic ear at the WTO,  for the WTO rules governing commerce are heavily weighted in favor of  “free” trade and against any limitations on it. 

If the Mexican and Canadian toy companies were to win their suit, then the WTO could order the U.S. either to rescind its ban or face stiff economic sanctions, perhaps running to billions of dollars annually, until the ban was lifted.  The WTO is, in fact, designed to be able to levy economic penalties severe enough to force compliance.  Further, the WTO makes its decisions through panels of unelected judges who meet in secret and whose decisions cannot be appealed, a highly undemocratic process that can trump laws passed in democratic nations.

Why is the WTO given such enormous power?  Once again, as with corporate personhood, the WTO serves the ascendancy of materialistic values, this time on the international level.  The WTO was designed with enormous input from transnational corporations, and as a result materialistic values are embedded in it’s very structure.  Even today the U.S. public does not understand the full extent of the WTO’s reach, for it has not been told that any U.S. law can be overturned if the WTO deems it a barrier to trade.

In considering this, we need to realize that the nations of the world could have come together to form a world body with the authority to overturn any laws it judges to be an international threat to health, the environment, the rights of workers or, yes, the well-being of children. Or it could have granted the U.N. such powers.  But instead these countries, lead by the U.S., decided to value commerce above all else.  They gave the WTO far more enforcement clout than any other international body has ever had.  And thus we have the world according to globalization.

Within such a supremely commercialized context, it is no wonder children are considered fair game for marketers.  They are simply a part of the commercialization of everything.

And within such a supremely commercialized context, organizations such as SCEC, and others concerned about marketing to children, need to recognize that as corporate power grows nationally and internationally, our ability to protect our children diminishes accordingly.  This is why we need to build coalitions with those who oppose economic globalization and who are generating compassionate and creative alternatives to it.  And it is certainly why we need to educate ourselves about the massive shifts occurring due to globalization that directly impact our work, and to position ourselves consciously and actively within this larger context.


Allen D. Kanner: (707) 824-1696


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