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Marketers pursue kids ad nauseam


Chicago Sun Times, 6/14/06

Watching a movie with my husband can be a mildly frustrating experience.

First, it’s tough to find a movie on which we can agree. He’s a science fiction fan (the older and campier, the better) while the kids and I are fans of just about anything else.

Then, there’s the fact that he would nearly always prefer to read. So there are times when we’ll be watching a movie while he tries to read. The kids complain about the bright lights that allow him to see; he complains about the loud dialogue that allows us to hear.

Sooner or later, he’ll give up on the book and tune into the flick. The next thing we know, he is belting out “product placement” every time an actor raises a can of Coke, boards a United Airlines plane or climbs into a Ford vehicle.

Irritating? Yes, but only because it means we miss some bit of dialogue and have to stop, rewind and replay the movie to hear the critical conversation.

I wouldn’t dream of asking him to stop. I like that our kids get regular reminders that the fantasy world we are watching has a cynical, commercial side to it that is delivered in increasingly subtle ways that seep into every corner of our lives.

The kids are 10 and 12 now, the age when peer pressure begins to take a heavy toll. Wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, having the right ring tones can be the keys to whether it’s a good day or a bad one.

The marketing geniuses know that. It’s why they pay to have actors drink their colas or drive their cars. And, yes, I know the marketing companies (and many of you) believe it is our job and our problem as parents to shield my kids from the insidious influence of America’s marketing machinery. We try. It’s why we mostly watch movies rather than television and why any TV we watch is recorded on our TiVo so we can zip through the commercials when we watch it later.

Even so, it’s tough to avoid the marketing influence that comes at our children from every direction.

I used to think that at least books were safe. No longer.

The New York Times reported Monday that books are the new frontier for product placement marketing to our kids.

“We ought to be outraged by this,” said Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, a book that looks at the myriad ways companies market to our children and how we as parents might stem the tide. She also is a psychologist, member of a coalition called The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a parent who, like my husband, yells “product placement” when her family is watching a movie.

When a kid is reading and stumbles across a clever product placement “nobody’s going to be yelling it out. Parents are not going to know,” Linn said. “The whole notion that parents can be gatekeepers, it’s not possible.”

And the number of places in which our kids are assaulted with advertising continues to grow. We’ve already given over our classrooms to Channel One and a new company, BusRadio, is asking school systems across the country to turn over their bus-riding students for yet another onslaught of captive advertising.

Soon, they won’t be able to read a book safely either.

Linn said we as parents ought to be railing against this, to think of the commercial corruption of our children on par with the efforts to win the vote for women or civil rights for African Americans.

Is it really that important?

Yes, because marketing and media is insidious and fills every crevice of our children’s lives. The result: impulse buying, blind brand loyalty and demands for instant gratification as well as childhood obesity, growing violence, sexual promiscuity, underage drinking and drug abuse.

Are they all a direct result of marketing messages? Not solely. But marketers certainly must share in the blame. And if we are to save our kids, “it’s not enough to yell product placement,” Linn said.

Visit the campaign’s Web site,, for more information and suggestions on ways to make your voice heard


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