Q+A: Is Elmo Evil? Book Says Babies Are Brainwashed


June 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- Susan Gregory Thomas is the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author of Buy, Buy Baby (Houghton Mifflin), a new book about marketing to very young children. The 38-year-old former U.S. News & World Report technology correspondent claims that little to no research has been done on the long-term effects of infants spending extended time in front of the TV—a phenomenon she asserts is relatively modern. Babies in the age range of 0-to-3 years old are being trained and targeted as consumers, she says, and kids' TV shows that are supposed to be "educational"—like Sesame Street—actually teach children little more than how to recognize licensed characters. Thomas has two daughters, ages 3 and 6. Her book is timely, coming amid the FTC's review of marketing to children, in which 44 major food companies will receive subpoenas demanding details of their kids' marketing programs.

Brandweek senior editor Jim Edwards talked with her after the May launch of the book.

Brandweek: What is the gist of your new book?

Susan Gregory Thomas: Babies and toddlers have become the youngest consumers in American history. And this has happened over the past decade via the introduction of screened media designed for them in the form of videos, DVDs and "educational" television programming. This was designed and marketed with the idea that they were educational for children between the ages of 0-to-3. But what was lacking was any kind of research under-girding their shows.

I was really surprised to learn there was virtually no research on how infants and toddlers even process screened media much less what they might be learning when they watch it . . . The [nascent] conclusions of the tenured academic researchers—not Disney for example, but real academics—was that the only thing that toddlers seemed to be getting out of this so-called educational programming, like Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, Sesame Street, was character recognition. They didn't seem to be grasping the underlying narrative of these shows. They didn't seem to be grasping any academic lessons that were advanced, or the social messages.

BW: All humans learn to recognize characters at a young age. Isn't this normal child development?

SGT: The only other scenario in which they're going to encounter these characters is when the character is selling them something. Elmo is not a species—he's not like a dog you'll see at the park. He's a commodity. You'll see his likeness on diapers. If you can think of it, there's a licensed product that corresponds to it . . . Elmo, to a toddler, is like the Nike swoosh.

BW: At what age do children first become brand conscious?

SGT: It's being compressed down to ever-younger ages because of the idea that these characters have some inherent educational value. For example, in a marketing conference a few years ago, the head of licensing for DreamWorks was saying, "We got so much demand for Shrek nursery products—bedding, mobiles, crib apparatus—that we decided that this would be a good time for Shrek to have a baby." And lo and behold, Shrek 3 was born. I don't think that anybody thinks that Shrek 3 has anything particularly educational to offer. The world of babies and toddlers really did not look like this even 15 years ago.

BW: How is this affecting Generation X, which is in the peak of its reproductive years?

SGT: One thing that surprised me was how well marketers understand Generation X and how to play to their vulnerabilities, because their vulnerabilities are really not obvious, and certainly not obvious to Generation Xers themselves. Generation X sees itself as being media savvy. We're the MTV generation. I'm one of them myself . . . This was the generation that basically reviled yuppie-dom; they hated commercials.

The famous quote in the Los Angeles Times about Generation X was, "I don't buy anything if it's advertised." And they have essentially created this 0-to-3 marketing segment, which is worth $20 billion. You can see that Generation X's favorites are making a turn back to an even earlier childhood period . . . there are Star Wars light sabers for toddlers—there are plush toys.

BW: So toddlers now play with toys from a movie they've never seen and can't understand. Why is this bad?

SGT: I'm not sure if I want to say it's good or bad—it's just what happened. Now there are 24-hour baby TV channels. Their parents are not remembering that they did not grow up on it as babies and toddlers. Baby Einstein was founded in 1987; no one had ever thought before to stick a baby in front of a television and consider it an enriching experience. It was not a concept that people had come up with. And in that, Julie Aigner-Clark (founder of Baby Einstein) is really a genius . . . but there is no research under-girding her product.

BW: Don't parents have a role? They can turn off the TV.

SGT: I think parents ought to. All the experts say we all need time to do nothing at all, but there's something about the American psyche that says we have to make downtime productive . . . in downtime, kids appear to be doing nothing but are in fact doing a great deal.

BW: Are children being harmed by all this TV?

SGT: It depends on what you mean by "harmed." There are studies that show a correlation between early TV watching and a higher incidence of ADD by age seven or eight. There are studies that show with the incidence of television watching among small children that there's a greater increase of reported autism. Even if they're only correlated, they beg the question. There should be more research. If it really turns out that these shows constitute nothing more than program-length commercials for babies and toddlers, then they have to stop; it's against the law. So more research is definitely needed.

BW: Is there any evidence that in-the-womb marketing works? Like when parents play Mozart to their fetuses?
SGT: The Mozart effect was debunked years ago. It was certainly never tested on babies and toddlers and it has just stayed in the well water. It’s a media virus. There is no Mozart effect. We are particularly susceptible to it as parents because we want to believe.

BW: You have kids. What difference has the book made in how you raise them?
SGT: We avoid anything having to do with Baby Einstein, all of those kinds of products. We have a lot of Disney stuff in the house because my daughter loves it. My younger one especially is very interested in Barbie. She wants to be Barbie for Halloween. We try to ask them questions about it, because our kids don’t look like Barbie, that’s for darn sure. We say, ‘How come they don’t make a Barbie that looks like you? Why is she always smiling? What happens when Barbie gets into a bad mood’?