aim toys at little kids
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."
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
"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."
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.
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
"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.
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."
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
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
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.)
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."
companies' first response -- and rightly so -- is that it is
primarily the parents' responsibility to police what their
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.
"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
Resources for kids
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
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
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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