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Violent shows aim toys at little kids
Star Telegram
July 9, 2007

Mary Cantu's 5-year-old daughter, Tori, is a huge fan of action figures: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, you name it. Which means this summer movie season has been a dream for Tori -- but a nightmare for her mother.

It started when Tori saw a billboard advertising Spider-Man 3 toys at Burger King and asked -- no, begged -- to eat there.

Then, on a recent trip to Target, "there was a full-length poster advertising Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer right next to the entrance and also in the toy department," says Cantu, who lives in Mansfield. "Now Tori wants to go see the movie, and 'mean' Mommy won't take her."

Begging didn't work; Tori didn't get to see the movie. But Hollywood isn't making things easy for parents such as Cantu. From Spider-Man 3 to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to the new Transformers, this summer has seen a spate of movies rated PG-13 for violence that are nonetheless marketed with toys and kids' meals aimed at children as young as 3.
Transformers stars gigantic alien robots, as big as skyscrapers, that battle each other and blow up lots of stuff. As Transformers director Michael Bay -- he also directed Armageddon and The Rock -- told Variety: "I definitely didn't make a toy movie."

Yet there are more than 100 Hasbro Transformers toys on the shelves, most recommended for children 6 and older. There are tiny Transformers in the kids' meals at Burger King, recommended for ages 3 and older. There are even Transformers selling Kraft Lunchables.
"The movie industry is telling parents Transformers is not appropriate for kids under 13, but the toy industry and Burger King are whipping up this Transformers frenzy for kids as young as 3," says Josh Golin, program manager for the watchdog group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). "If the movie is not appropriate for ages 12 and under, then the toys shouldn't be appropriate for 12 and under."

Tactics questioned

Because Transformers is being marketed to young children despite its PG-13 rating, the CCFC has called for an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC reports on the marketing of R-rated movies to children, but the CCFC is asking the agency to begin investigating PG-13 movies as well.

The watchdog group also is asking for a consistent ratings system that would apply to movies, TV, video games and toys.

"My biggest concern is that all the toys are marketing for the movie," Golin says. "These movies become must-see events that all the other kids are talking about. No matter what limits their own parents set, the kids get viral marketing through the schoolyard."

I can attest to that. During kindergarten, my son spent much of recess playing Star Wars, Power Rangers and Monster House -- even though he's never been allowed to watch any of those.

My 8-year-old daughter has learned about Bratz dolls (the questionably dressed fashion dolls, with their own live-action movie coming out Aug. 3) from Scholastic Book Club fliers. In Spanish class one day, her assignment was to watch a scene from a dubbed version of Star Wars.

There are simply too many factors that even the best-intentioned parents can't control.
"All in all, I'm more offended by the cable cartoons," says Whitney Tong of Southlake, who has a 6-year-old son and a daughter who's almost 3. "It's easy enough to just not go to the movie theater, but it took me awhile to figure out that I would have some acceptable cartoons on the TV, and then come back in the room to find Digimon, Power Rangers or some similar show on. I am shocked at how violent those shows are."

April Driggers of Keller says that when her 8-year-old son, Josh, visits his father in Iowa, he gets to see a lot of movies that she would never take him to. "His father never has to deal with the repercussions of the scary movies, like seeing monsters for two weeks afterwards," she says.

Nightmares are the least of the potential health effects of advertising on young children. In December, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on children and advertising. It cited research that the average child sees more than 3,000 ads a day, on TV, on the Internet, on billboards and in magazines. That's not counting the toys in kids meals, books about TV characters or the green Shrek ears stuck in birthday cupcakes.

This pervasive exposure to advertising can contribute to childhood obesity, poor nutrition and cigarette and alcohol use, the report concluded, partly because children younger than 8 are "cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising." They believe all those ad claims.

No wonder our culture is so materialistic. "One of our main concerns," Golin says, "is that we're raising a generation of consumers rather than a generation of citizens."
Longtime issue

In the late 1970s, the FTC decided that advertising to young children was unfair and deceptive, and it considered a ban on all such TV commercials. But the companies selling things to children took umbrage and pleaded their case before Congress. The FTC was consequently stripped of its ability to regulate advertising to children.

And so, unregulated, advertising to children has exploded. According to Golin, companies spent $100 million on marketing to kids in 1983. Today, they spend $16.8 billion.

In 2000, after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, the FTC was charged with investigating violent entertainment, and the agency found that movies, music and video games that carried parental warnings were routinely marketed to young children. Some studios even admitted to screening R-rated movies for audiences that included 9-year-olds. Chastened, the movie industry promised to police itself and stop advertising R-rated movies to young children.

The FTC has kept on top of the issue with regular reports. The most recent, in April, found that the movie industry is doing a good job of not advertising R-rated movies on children's TV -- but advertising on the Internet is still an unregulated free-for-all.

Movie companies are also responding to the growing concern over childhood obesity and the role played by fast-food tie-ins. Last fall, Disney ended its 10-year partnership with McDonald's: No more cute little stuffed Captain Jack Sparrows.

This summer, for Shrek 3, the green ogre promoted McDonald's salads and apple slices instead of burgers and fries. (Although how its special Shrek green mint-chocolate milkshake fit into the more healthful philosophy is hard to see.)

Last month, Kellogg's announced it will stop marketing its sugary cereals to kids, going so far as to ban characters such as Shrek and SpongeBob from its boxes. The move was in response to a lawsuit threatened by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a couple of Boston parents and the CFCC.

"There are some small steps being made, but the important thing to emphasize is that all those steps are in response to pressure," Golin says. "The industry is trying to fend off regulation, so it's extremely important to keep up the pressure, and to keep talking about regulation."

The movie companies' first response -- and rightly so -- is that it is primarily the parents' responsibility to police what their children watch.

But do they really have to make that job as hard as possible?

"This stuff is so prevalent and so insidious ... unless you're going to raise your children in the woods," Golin says.

Driggers agrees. "Fantasy violence is truly something that Hollywood, whether it wants to admit it or not, has a habit of glorifying.

"I know their argument is that if you don't want your children affiliated with a particular movie, don't spend the money on the marketed materials, or take them to see it. But they, as an industry, need to be aware of what their responsibilities are as well. Market to your ideal audience and leave our children out of it."

Resources for kids and parents

PBS Kids features a site called "Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart!" that teaches about advertising tricks and buying smart.

The Center for Media Literacy offers a "Reading Room" of articles such as "Learning to Decipher TV Culture" and "How to Watch Television With Your Grandchildren."

Common Sense Media includes tips such as getting your kids on a "summer media diet," and offers advice on topics such as what to do when the in-flight movie is too violent for your kids. (Top suggestions: Check with the airline before you go, so you're prepared to discuss the images with your children; bring alternative entertainment such as cards, books or games; complain to the airline and offer it suggestions for more family-friendly entertainment.)

Managing the marketing monster

Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood offers these practical steps for parents concerned about children and advertising:

Younger than 2: No TV time -- none. That's what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

Ages 2 to 8: Set strict limits on TV and computer time. At this age, children aren't capable of understanding the difference between advertising and true content.

Ages 8 and older: Start to teach media literacy -- explaining just what advertising is designed to do and what tricks it can use. "That doesn't mean they're going to want the products any less," Golin warns, "but at least you're laying the groundwork for critical thinking about the issue."


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