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The kid gloves are off

A Boston-based coalition fights to give children a commercial break

When Susan Linn greeted the release of ''Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" a few months ago by labeling filmmaker George Lucas a hypocrite, fans showered her with hate mail, including a few letters that compared her with another George: the one named Bush. Thinking back on it in her office, where a sign proclaiming ''Our Children Are NOT For Sale" adjoins cereal boxes with pictures of Spider-Man and Barbie, Linn can't help laughing. It's such a choice bit of irony. She has long been firmly located on the political left, and she considers the Bush administration a disaster for her cause. But it illustrates how easy it is to make enemies when you spearhead something called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

The very name sounds quixotic, almost risible. A commercial-free childhood? Seems as likely as a water-free ocean, given that America's unofficial motto is ''I buy, therefore I am." But this national, Boston-based coalition of parents, educators, health-care specialists, and advocacy groups has apparently concluded that you might as well aim high when the odds are so steep. After all, their targets have so far included McDonald's, Coca-Cola, General Mills, the television industry, Madison Avenue -- in short, all the corporate forces that spend billions of dollars a year to sell toys, clothes, food, and, Linn argues, ''junk values" to the kids of America.

Ask Linn how her coalition, whose day-to-day operations rely on her and one full-time staffer, can hope to win such a David-and-Goliath battle, and she answers with a sly question of her own: ''Who won David and Goliath?"

The smart money should probably still be on Goliath. But the anti-commercialism coalition is emerging as a force to be reckoned with for at least three reasons. First, CCFC includes not just advocates but researchers from organizations such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, who can use data to fortify their arguments on Capitol Hill and at annual ''summits." Second, the coalition wields a busy megaphone; scarcely a month goes by without a sharply worded volley at some perceived corporate ne'er-do-well. Third, CCFC persuasively connects the dots between two troubling trends: the undeniable explosion of marketing to young children and teenagers and the equally undeniable escalation of violent content and sexual themes in movies, television, video games, and music.

The latter trend is often characterized as simply the result of a pervasive moral decline. But Linn and CCFC cofounder Diane Levin, who are both 57, argue that it is the direct result of a calculated, systematic effort by the entertainment and advertising industries to create a media addiction among children -- and thereby sell them products. The coalition is trying to draw attention to the built-in logic of escalation that those industries operate by, epitomized by an emphasis on what have been called ''jolts per minute," and to the social consequences of all those ''jolts."

''Children are always drawn to the most extreme thing they see," says Levin, a Wheelock College professor of education who now sits on CCFC's steering committee. ''So the industry is always looking to push the line a little bit. So once we get desensitized they can push it a little further."

Taking on giants
There is a mouse-that-roared quality about the coalition, whose mission grew out of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center, a Boston nonprofit that provides intervention and research for children who are struggling because of emotional or behavioral problems. The CCFC's day-to-day operations are run by Linn, the associate director of the Media Center, and program manager Josh Golin, with frequent input from Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the Media Center's director. That core trio also seeks input from the steering committee sometimes before assailing a target.

They are few but fierce, and they are raising hackles. In mid-August, in a preemptive strike before the Cartoon Network had premiered Tickle U, a new block of programming aimed at preschoolers, CCFC blasted it as ''a cynical ploy to get young children to watch more television." In an interview, Alice Cahn, the Cartoon Network's vice president for programming and development, said she was disappointed by what she called CCFC's ''misinterpretation and spinning of what is a valid educational effort."

Cahn said she was troubled that CCFC criticized the programs before they aired, adding that the Tickle U programs are based on research into the ways children learn and the value of humor in their development. ''There's no nefarious raison d'etre in the Cartoon Network building a wholesome, funny preschool service that speaks to children's sense of humor," she says.

Linn acknowledged that she had not seen the programs before criticizing Tickle U. But she said the timing of CCFC's criticism was valid because it took issue with the Cartoon Network's claim that the shows would help develop a child's sense of humor. ''If they had just premiered a block of preschool programming, we wouldn't have done anything," she says. ''It was the false claims." She insisted there is no evidence that children need to learn a sense of humor or that TV can help them do so.

Linn and CCFC have taken on bigger targets than the Cartoon Network. In May, declaring that '' 'Star Wars' food lures children to the fat side," the coalition lambasted George Lucas for acknowledging that the violence in ''Revenge of the Sith" made it inappropriate for young children while he participated in promotions such as a Burger King toy giveaway.

As that broadside suggests, the coalition's goal is to raise public consciousness about the harmful effects of marketing to children: not just sexual and violent content but also the role of junk food in the rise in childhood obesity, the way the marketing industry has created ''rampant consumerism" among the young, and the corresponding decline of creative play as the industry creates and feeds children's appetites for toys and gadgets.

As CCFC gets more well known, other groups concerned about marketing to children have contacted the coalition, eager to use its megaphone. Capitol Hill has also cocked an ear: CCFC members have held two congressional briefings, armed with the latest research on the harmful effects marketing has on children, and Linn recently testified at a Federal Trade Commission hearing in Washington on the link between marketing to children and childhood obesity.

''We're asking: What would a commercial-free childhood look like?" Levin says. ''How would childhood be different, how would children be different, how would parents' jobs be easier and more satisfying?"

Growing up with TV
It all began with a platoon of waddling Teletubbies.

Strange though it may now seem given her current dim views of TV, Linn grew up on television -- literally. A gifted ventriloquist and puppeteer from an early age, she began performing on live TV in her native Detroit at age 10. In 1965, she enrolled in Boston University as a theater major. In 1968, she met Fred Rogers of ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"; a couple of years later, he invited her to perform with her puppets on his show, and in the late 1980s she worked in concert with Rogers's production company to make videos for children who were struggling with issues ranging from racism to cancer to homelessness. Along the way, she forged careers as a therapist, writer, and children's entertainer. She began working at the Judge Baker Children's Center in 1994.

Levin, meanwhile, was building a reputation as an acute analyst of the impact of media on childhood. Ten years ago, she helped found Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, which prepared guides for parents on how to choose good toys for their children. In 1998, she put her concerns about the commercialization of childhood and how it affects children's play and ideas about the world into book form with ''Remote Control Childhood? Combatting the Hazards of Media Culture."

That same year, ''Teletubbies" came on the scene. The PBS show instantly ignited controversy because it was the first TV show explicitly aimed at infants and toddlers. '' 'Teletubbies' -- that's what turned me into an activist," Linn says. ''The notion of targeting babies . . ."

Her ire was further inflamed when she heard of the ''Golden Marble Awards," an advertising industry competition that gave awards to marketers who had devised the best ways of selling products to children. ''The idea of not just marketing to kids but giving awards for it: I thought that was really creepy," she says. In September 2000, Linn, Levin, and Poussaint led a protest of the Golden Marble Awards ceremony outside a New York hotel. Stories on the protest ran in USA Today and on National Public Radio.

Emboldened, the coalition staged a counter-ceremony the next year, at which they gave ''Have You Lost Your Marbles?" awards to corporations and programs that included Seventeen magazine, the Channel One TV network, and, yes, ''Teletubbies." The coalition, initially known as Stop Commercial Exploitation of Childhood, kept up the protests each year, and in 2003 the Golden Marble Awards were canceled.

The coalition has only intensified its campaign since then. Its mailing list keeps growing, to the point that it now numbers more than 3,000 and ranges from the National PTA to the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Linn's 2004 book, ''Consuming Kids," has just been released in paperback. Among other federal and state legislation, the coalition has thrown its weight behind a bill sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa that would strengthen the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate marketing to children.

''The climate has changed so much," Linn says. ''It's not really safe for kids to watch television or engage with media. There's barely a program that isn't trying to sell to kids. We all need to take a hard look at what's happening today."

There is plenty to look at. But Linn draws inspiration from some of the last words she heard spoken by Fred Rogers. In a speech she heard him give shortly before he died, she says, ''He talked about greed and the terrible impact of greed on children."

Blunting that impact is the task the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has set itself. ''We have this $15 billion industry that is undermining parents and targeting children with junk -- junk food, junk values," Linn says. ''It's not that we don't know what we're up against. It may be difficult, but it's worth doing. Somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to stand up and say, 'It's wrong.' "

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