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  Marketing and Parental Responsibility
 

By Josh Golin

Mothering.com, July 2005

We get a lot of questions about parental responsibility at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). If, the questions go, we are suffering from an epidemic of childhood obesity; if younger and younger children are consuming media with sexual and violent content; if 40 % of ten-year-old girls are on diets - isn’t it because parents aren’t properly monitoring their children’s activities or saying “no” often enough?

Blaming parents is a popular sport these days. Even though we know that marketing is a factor in childhood obesity, eating disorders, precocious and irresponsible sexuality, youth violence, family stress and the erosion of children’s creative play, some people still like to point the finger at parents. Marketers do it because it takes the spotlight off them. Some politicians do it because it’s easier to talk about what parents are doing wrong than to consider policies that would restrict corporate access to children. Sadly, even parents blame other parents – and themselves – for their failure to do the impossible: completely shield their children from a marketing industry that refuses to respect parents’ authority as gatekeepers.

It’s true that there are things parents can do to limit the influence of marketers over their children’s lives. Most importantly, they can limit their children’s screen time. This means no televisions in children’s bedrooms and limits on Internet use and video games, where children are increasingly targeted by ads and product placement. Parents can also talk to older children about how advertising works and help them understand the ways in which marketers are trying to influence them.

But even the most attentive and well-intentioned parents cannot protect their kids from all child-directed marketing. For one, there is simply too much of it. Marketers spend more than $15 billion a year targeting children, much of it deliberately designed to circumvent parents and undermine their authority. The absence of parents is one reason corporations like to target children in schools. Viral marketing –which provides popular children with free products to market to their unsuspecting friends – is another way marketers make an end run around parents. At the same time, advertisements frequently undermine parental authority by encouraging children to nag for products.

Any discussion of parental responsibility must recognize that marketers deliberately make it harder for parents to be responsible. Consider, for instance, the parents who decided not to take their kids to see Star Wars: Episode III-Return of the Sith because they were concerned that the extremely violent PG-13 movie was not appropriate - as George Lucas himself said - for young children. While they were being responsible, their kids were being bombarded with messages urging them to see the movie. Star Wars ads were on shows for young children on Nickelodeon such as RugRats. Ads for Star Wars themed junk food were everywhere. Star Wars toys were heavily advertised for kids as young as four. And even if parents were able to keep their children away from all media, the grocery store, and the toy store, they certainly couldn’t keep them away from other kids who were targeted by the same marketing and undoubtedly talking about Star Wars.

Fighting the influence that corporations have over children is an overwhelming task. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine, for a moment, that a person was telling your kids the things that marketers tell them. If someone were going around your neighborhood offering children junk food, or encouraging them to be violent or precociously sexual, or telling them that their happiness and popularity depended on owning a particular product, or urging them to go home and nag you, what would you do? You would do everything in your power to keep that person away from child, but you probably wouldn’t stop there. You might also talk to your friends and neighbors and let them know about the threat. You might contact your local officials to see if there was anything they could they do to protect your children. And if their answer was no, you might lobby your representatives to pass legislation that would protect them.
Increasingly, this is exactly what parents and concerned citizens are doing to protect their children from corporate predators. Consider, for instance:

In Seattle, Brita Butler-Wall was so troubled by the marketing she saw in schools that she co-founded the Citizen’s Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. As if that wasn’t enough, she then ran for the Seattle School Board – and won! Now, with Dr. Wall as Board President, Seattle is a leader in the movement to limit corporate access to children in schools.

In California, Becca Arnold was appalled by the marketing of violent media to children. So she started a
website to track legislation around the United States that would restrict the sale of violent video games to children. Then she became a self-taught lobbyist – and worked to get one of these bills passed in her own state. The bill hasn’t passed yet – but thanks to Becca’s efforts, parents in California and around the country are contacting their representatives and asking for similar legislation.

In the Quad Cities, a group of parents was so concerned after hearing a talk by CCFC’s co-founder, Dr. Susan Linn, that they decided to start their own chapter of our organization. Now, CCFC-Quad Cities helps raise public awareness about the harms of marketing to children throughout Iowa and Illinois.

What do all these examples have in common? They demonstrate that responsibility means more than just trying to protect your own children. It means working to change a culture that values corporate profits more than children, and fighting to change the rules that allows marketers unfettered access to kids.

Responsibility also means sharing your concerns about marketing with others. That’s why – with the help of our Quad Cities chapter – we’ve created a series of fact sheets about marketing to children. The sheets are organized by topic (e.g. Marketing in Schools, Marketing to Babies, Marketing and Childhood Obesity, Marketing Violence) and include resources for concerned parents and citizens. We hope you’ll take a look at these sheets and, if you’re concerned or angry about what you read, print them out and share them with your friends or family. Or bring them to your local church or community group or your local PTA.

One family, in isolation, cannot fight a $15 billion industry. But by working together, we can reclaim childhood from corporate marketers. And what could be more responsible than that?


 

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