In its effort to create cradle-to-grave loyalty to brand names, the advertising industry spends over $15 billion a year on reaching children—from teens to infants. So far, it's working. Kids currently determine more than $600 billion in household spending annually, influencing their parents' purchases of everything from snack foods to cars. Susan Linn has devoted her life to fighting children-targeted advertising as the instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, associate director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston, cofounder of the Coalition Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, and a parent and stepparent living in Brookline, Massachusetts. Linn spoke to Chronogram about her book, Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising (Anchor Books, 2005).

Was advertising for kids ever innocent?

It was never innocent, but it didn't permeate everything. That's the difference. In 1983 corporations were spending about $100 million marketing to children on television; last year it was up to about $15 billion. The escalation began in the '80s and intensified in the '90s. Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood [CCFC] came about because I was doing research on marketing to kids and came across the Golden Marble Awards, the advertising industry's celebration of marketing to kids. I thought that was horribly offensive, and that it would be a good focus for a demonstration. I called a colleague who does work on media violence and play, and my boss, a psychiatrist and activist. We decided to hold a demonstration outside the Golden Marble Awards in New York. We got colleagues from around the country to join us, and formed CCFC in 2000.

What has CCFC accomplished?

When we discovered that the United States Youth Soccer Association [USYSA] was partnering with the chemical company Chemlon and sold its mailing list of soccer players to Chemlon to direct-mail a sales pitch about pesticides to, say, the parents of Jimmy Jones, we partnered with environmental groups and e-mailed the USYSA saying we didn't think they should renew their partnership with Chemlon—and they didn't. When we got the heads-up that McDonald's was going to pay rap singers to insert Big Macs into their songs, we sent out a press release and really had a significant influence on how much press this issue got all over the world. When HBO produced a television program for infants claiming that it would help children develop a positive relationship to the arts and promote family bonding, we sent out a press release that got picked up by an AP reporter; there were stories on "Good Morning, America" and "World News Tonight." All of the sudden people were talking about the growing controversy around this issue. That's a controversy we generated.

How have kids changed as a result of marketing?

A psychologist colleague says when he used to ask kids what they wanted to be, they would [name] a profession; now they talk about wanting to be rich, or about things they want to have. I've had kids coming into my office, picking up a stuffed animal, and saying, "What does it do?" For someone who cares about creativity, independent thinking, and the ability to engage in life, that's a problem. Marketing is a factor in many problems associated with childhood today: childhood obesity, eating disorders, materialism, family stress, youth violence, and irresponsible, precocious youth sexuality.

What do you think the next generation will be like?

We don't know. The concern is that we're raising a generation of kids completely dependent on screens for stimulation and soothing. We have the whole baby video scam, which is a billion-dollar business—videos being marketed to parents as educational when really they're not. We have babies—practically from the moment they're born—being put in front of TV. We have companies like Sesame Street creating content for cell phones.

It's not just products being marketed to kids—it's values. The primary value is "things make us happy." If people believe [this], they keep buying things; when the things don't really make them happy, they go out and buy another thing. That's really good for corporate profits but not good for the environment. Marketing to children is about promoting waste and a waste mentality.

What can parents do to circumvent the influence of marketing and advertising?

We can't help children struggle with marketing and advertising until we understand our own relationship to it. If we always need the latest doodad or gadget or clothing, if we're susceptible in that way, then our kids will pick up that value. The marketing industry starts from birth by getting kids hooked on screens and branded baby stuff. So, keep babies and very young children away from screens, electronics, and media-related toys as long as possible. Provide an environment for children allowing them to develop their own internal resources for amusement and creativity. Engage kids in the pleasures of being in the world. Make sure they have experiences that aren't branded. If kids watch any kind of television, commercial or public, there are all these characters selling products to kids—Elmo sells junk food to kids. Tell schools you don't want Coke and Pepsi sold there, or a McDonald's curriculum taught, or Pizza Hut reading programs. Get kids out in nature from an early age. Getting them concerned about the environment and working for the public good are antidotes to commercialism, because commercialism doesn't care about the public good. Commercialism is "me first." If you're spiritually or religiously inclined, that's an antidote. Art, drama, making things—those are antidotes.

When you're up against a $15-billion industry, though, it's not a level playing field. We have to see this as a sociopolitical issue about rights and freedom—the right of children to grow up and the freedom of parents to raise them without being undermined by commercial interests.

Is the fight against marketing to kids a hopeless struggle?

People don't know how much marketing to children has escalated and how it's changed. We have people concerned about isolated problems—"I'm concerned about sexuality," "I'm concerned that my daughter's dressing like a hooker," "I'm concerned that my son plays violent video games," "I'm worried about obesity," "I care about materialistic values"—but it's all coming from the same industry. I wrote my book to help people connect the dots.

I don't think this is a hopeless struggle, [but] these are the early days. Most people still don't realize it's a problem. Over the past five years I've seen a big change in how the media is addressing this issue, and the fact that they're addressing it at all. At the media center, I get three or four calls a week, sometimes more, about the issue of childhood obesity—it's becoming accepted that it's related to marketing; the food industry is denying it up, down, and backward, but at the same time making nods to the fact that it is.

In the 1970s the advocacy group Action for Children's Television was instrumental in getting some legislation passed that was later revoked. CCFC is supporting Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa, who has a bill to give the Federal Trade Commission back the power to regulate marketing to kids. In 1978 Congress came out and said there should be a ban on marketing to kids eight and under, [which resulted in] corporate pressure on Congress and Congress severely restricting the FTC's ability.

Senators Hillary Clinton, Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback, and Joe Lieberman have a bill called the Children and Media Research Advancement Act [CAMRAA] to fund research on the impact of junk food marketing on children. This is a terrible political climate for any kind of legislation, so the fact that there are those bills in this Congress is pretty impressive.