Toying with the
the Commercialization of Childhood
Allen D. Kanner,
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
Allen D. Kanner:
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