monsters inc•

How to thwart the $17 billion marketing effort to steal your kids’ dreams,
infiltrate their friendships, plaster their PJs with logos, hijack their imaginations, fragment their
attention spans, make them obese, and drive a wedge into their relationship with you
credit gut ter
best life
December 2008/January 2009
credit gut ter
i thought i
could win the
battle for my
child’s brain.
I thought I could outsmart the campaign to embed logos (and the
animated characters that shill for them) deep within my 4-year-old’s
operating code before she so much as understands that caterpillars
become butterflies. My daughter, Parker, a tall girl with sandy
brown hair and enormous blue eyes, has been largely shielded from
brands and the plethora of screens used to spread their fairy dust.
At home, she has no access to cable TV and views only parentapproved DVDs and sporadic bouts of PBS Kids. She doesn’t know
how to use the remote control, doesn’t have a cell phone, has no
access to video games, and knows only the kind of web made by
spiders. She likes to paint, play tag, pick tomatoes, and dance when
no one is looking. She remains clueless about the Kids’ Choice
Awards, Radio Disney,, and avatars. I realize that in
the eyes of some parents, this makes me a little uptight.
In our daughter’s presence, my wife and I mute commercials,
spell out the names of chain stores, and refer to Ronald McDonald
as “the clown,” but we cannot keep our little girl in a marketingfree bubble. Thanks to an aunt, Hello Kitty has become her starter
Abercrombie & Fitch, signifying who knows what. Thanks to her
grandparents—okay, and a few times her dad—she has half a
dozen of the 40,000 items adorned with the Disney princesses. And
lately, we have watched in resignation as the alien baby of tween
marketing has grown in her preschooler belly. She has neither seen
nor heard the Jonas Brothers, for instance, but she spontaneously
declared the group to be a good band. The other day, we found a
pair of 3-D glasses in her cubby at day care, kid swag promoting
the Hannah Montana section at Wal-Mart. Now she is familiar
with a band, a television show, and a discount chain she has not
heard, seen, or visited. Did I tell you she has grown-up consumer
preferences (she wants a convertible like Barbie’s) and grown-up
appearance issues (she wants blond hair). Did I tell you she is 4?
Fun House Essentials
When choosing a toy, let this
mantra guide you: “A good toy is
90 percent child and 10 percent
toy,” says Joan Almon, director
of the Alliance for Childhood.
“Look for toys that stimulate the
imagination. Branded and licensed
toys won’t do that.” Here are
some of Best Life’s
best life
Well, I’m not uptight, okay, and I don’t live off the grid or in a yurt.
I’m just a dad who has figured out that the business of selling things
to kids has reached a fever pitch in this country, and even the best
efforts of parents to defend their children from the onslaught can
leave them feeling surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned. I
have also learned that researchers have linked this phenomenon
with a host of negative consequences for kids. Childhood obesity
and the sexualization of girls garner the headlines, but those
who have studied the problem say these issues are simply the
more glaring symptoms of a larger illness. Recent research links
marketing and its sidekick, consumerism, to an increased risk for a
broad spectrum of ills, including conflicts at school, conflicts with
parents, psychological distress, indifference toward others, and
a disregard for the world itself. Exposing a child to high levels of
marketing, in other words, is a great way to make a child unhappy,
unsuccessful, and unlikable. Most of us think of marketing as ads,
but with shows having become toys having become brands, the
most innocent of stuffed toys is no longer as innocent as it seems.
“Even Sesame Street has an army of Elmo dolls out there now,” says
Michael Rich, MD, director of the Center on Media and Child Health
at Children’s Hospital in Boston. “For a child, these products are a
connection to Sesame Street. The relationship they have developed
with the program and its characters is leveraged to make them
desire that brand. They’re just learning to be consumers, a mentality
that says, ‘If only I can have that, I will be happy.’ ”
For those who say “ba-loney,” that advertising has always been
with us, there’s no comparing your memories of 30-second ads with
the 24-7, 360-degree, multimedia Manhattan Project now under
way to own your children’s brains. In the past 25 years, marketing
to children—an ethically indefensible practice that enjoys virtually
no popular support and yet faces little oversight—has grown from
$100 million worth of holiday-time ads, to a $17 billion effort to seed
brands and licensed characters into every corner of children’s lives.
With the convergence of technology that connects televisions,
cell phones, and the Web, kid-brand gurus have developed an
unprecedented array of Trojan-horse methods to enter your kid’s
head and capture his mind. What’s at stake is more than a few
dollars, it’s the internal emotional adventure of childhood itself.
Into Elmo’s Den
It’s early on the second day of the Ninth Annual KidScreen Summit,
a high-powered conference that drew to New York City more than
1,300 animators, video and Web site designers, cable honchos,
licensing experts, and assorted Net 2.0 types pulling the strings
behind the global business of entertaining and marketing to kids.
Less is more when it comes to picking great toys for children
Known for its wooden dollhouses
and train sets, this manufacturer
adheres to strict safety and
environmental standards,
and crafts toys that verge on
Gustafer Yellowgold DVDs
Created by Morgan Taylor and
described as “a cross between
Dr. Seuss and Yellow Submarine,”
this is original music and animated
storytelling for preschoolers.
Thames & Kosmos
The alternative energy and
environmental science kits
from this company harness the
curiosity of children to subjects
such as wind power and solar
Magneatos and Magna-Tiles
Ultramodern versions of building
blocks, these brightly colored
toys stimulate shape recognition,
patterning, and motor skills.,
Back to Basics Toys
This catalog is a one-stop
destination for all the games and
toys (Tinker Toys! A Slinky Dog!)
you remember from your youth.
TRUCE Toy Action Guide
An online parents’ guide by childdevelopment experts, updated
every holiday season and loaded
with suggestions. truceteachers
.org/toyactionguide.html p . s .
December 2008/January 2009
Technically, this is a conference about
entertaining kids, and to be fair, there are
a great number of children’s programming
participants here who do what they do out
of an overriding interest in making kids
smile through the use of screens. But with
children, the wall between entertaining and
marketing has crumbled. How else to explain
the session today titled “Beyond the ClickThrough,” in which a panel of the smartest
minds in children’s Web site development
trades notes on how to make kid-oriented
Web sites even stickier. The FCC regulates
children’s television advertising, but
aside from child-safety legislation, fewer
restrictions apply on the Web, and marketers
now view the Internet as a place to get
more engaged eyeballs for less money
and more time. The presenters talked about
customizing characters, the difference
between successful children’s TV shows
and Web sites, and the optimum frequency
of refreshed content. “You want to give the
opportunity for kids to play with your brand,”
said Zack Zeiler, one of the panelists and the
president and CEO of Visual Perspectives
Internet Inc., an interactive Web company
that creates games for adults’ and children’s
Web sites, usually tied to products.
Zeiler had invoked the real game changer
in the big business of marketing to children:
While parents may fret about 30-second
commercial breaks during cartoons, the marketers have basically
left TV ads in the rearview mirror and moved on to dunking kids in
25-minute-long bouts of online “brand immersion.” The goal: Turn
your kid into their very own salesman. “At the Geppetto Group,”
reads the influential marketing firm’s promotional copy, “we view
integrated marketing as an opportunity to invite consumers to
actively participate in the brand.” The company views kids as the
target. It promises to guide these “targets” down a yellow brick
road “from brand awareness to investigation, from investigation
to selection, to repeat purchase, to loyalty, and ultimately, to
advocacy.” It sounds far-fetched, but it’s happening.
Of the 96 food, beverage, and candy companies that advertise
most heavily on children’s television, 85 percent of them had Web
sites loaded with games seemingly designed for no purpose other
than to extend the duration and increase the personal bonding of a
child’s brand exposure, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s
2006 report “It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online
Marketing of Food to Children.” The sites offered kids the ability to
watch actual commercials (53 percent of the time), to customize
their stay at the Web site in some way (73 percent of the time), to be
marketed an unrelated movie or TV show (47 percent of the time),
and even to become viral carriers of the brand via the sending of
brand-touting e-mail greetings to friends (64 percent of the time).
During the three-month period under study, there were 12.2 million
visits by children ages 2 to 11.
In the Q & A that followed the KidScreen session, someone from
the audience cut to the chase. “What’s being done to get parents
to pull out their wallets and buy something on your Web site?”
Like a guest at a wine tasting who’s only there for the booze, the
questioner had crudely brought up a primary purpose of licensed
characters, engaging Web sites, and brand building: Sell stuff to
kids. A couple of guys on the panel mumbled some platitudes
about the perils of commercialism for kids, but Zeiler charged in
unbowed. “How do you engage a parent?” he asked. “If a kid is
having a temper tantrum in a store. If the kid is so enamored of the
product that he has to have it.”
The session soon wrapped up, and I approached the goateed
Zeiler to ask him about his comment. What did he say to the critics
who believe that toy companies shouldn’t purposefully set off the
tantrum-inducing misery in kids that invariably pits children against
their parents? Zeiler channeled his inner Ayn Rand and gave it to me
straight: “If a kid in a store says ‘This is really cool,’ if it generates
sales, who are we to dictate? That’s the parent’s job.”
And keeping kids away from the marketing machine is going to
become harder. Game systems can eat up even more hours than
Web gaming, which is why advertisers spent $80 million on ads
nested within video games in 2007, and in the next four years are
expected to spend more than 10 times that amount having snacks,
drinks, and shoes written into software. (Both Sony and Microsoft
have recently moved the sale of video-game ads in-house.) Avatar
Web sites such as Neopets, BarbieGirls, and Be-Bratz are expected
to sell $150 million worth of ads each year by 2012, and have already
become places to train kids how to shop. The latest trend in screenbased marketing is to complement a Web-centered kid world with
that of the screens that never leave children’s sides: those on cell
phones. Disney recently established a Web-based destination for
kids known as Pixie Hollow, a virtual friendship where subscribing
girls can adopt fairy avatars and then use their cell phones to
digitally feed Pixie Hollow butterflies. With a study having already
been conducted by the Sesame Workshop to have Elmo texting off
a letter of the day, kids will soon become adept at checking their cell
phones long before reaching kindergarten.
How to Stick It
to SpongeBob
Use these eight expert-approved
strategies to outsmart the marketers
and nurture an engaging, resourceful,
creative, curious, and considerate child
The High Cost of Marketing
best life
December 2008/January 2009
Boost Your Kids’ Test Scores
and Physical Health
Most doctors recommend no
screen time for kids under 2
years old, and no more than two
hours a day for everyone older.
This includes computers, video
games, and DVDs. But most
parents inadvertently undercut
this recommendation by putting
TVs in their children’s bedrooms.
Kids between 1 and 14 years
whose bedrooms are TV-free
have lower rates of obesity, score
higher on standardized tests,
go to sleep at least half an hour
earlier each night, and fall asleep
easier, according to research.
“The best place for a TV and a
computer is in a space shared
by the whole family,” says Susan
Linn, EdD, a psychiatry professor
at Harvard Medical School.
says Linn, “is no less than the development of essential life skills, the
ability for children to look to themselves for generating amusement
and to soothe themselves when they feel stressed.”
Children would be less vulnerable to licensing were it not for the
all-consuming role of screen media in their lives. Today’s kids, from
the ages of 8 to 18, spend “the equivalent of a full-time job, with a
few extra hours thrown in for overtime (44.5 hours a week)” using
the media, according to a 2005 Kaiser study titled “Generation M:
Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” It starts earlier than ever.
The independent use of screens by kids now precedes that of toilet
paper. Before they are 2 years old, 38 percent of kids can turn on
the TV and 40 percent can change channels, according to another
Kaiser report, “The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of
Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents.” By the time they
are 4 years old, 69 percent of kids can put in a DVD and 71 percent
can operate the remote control; by age 6, a third have TVs in their
bedrooms, and by adolescence, that figure doubles.
“To me, consumerism is the more insidious problem,” says Tim
Kasser, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College
in Galesburg, Illinois, and author of The High Price of Materialism.
“It’s less obviously seen. It’s the water in which we swim.” Scientific
studies show an association between materialism in children and
impairment on a host of markers of children’s physical, social,
and psychological well-being. “Children who are high on scales of
materialism report being less happy, less satisfied with life, more
depressed, and more anxious. They even have lower self-esteem,”
he says. “One report even shows more somatic problems such as
headaches and stomachaches.” Kasser cites a correlation between
materialism and both oppositional defiant disorder and conduct
disorder. Materialistic kids also don’t make good stewards of the
environment. “A study measured kids’ materialistic tendencies in
relation to 10 behaviors that help the environment,” says Kasser.
Surprise, surprise: “Materialistic kids were less likely to engage in
positive environmental behavior.”
Recently, economist Juliet B. Schor, PhD, published
groundbreaking research on consumerism, media use, and
well-being among 300 fifth and sixth graders in the Boston area,
one of the first studies of consumerism in children this age.
The data connected the dots between television watching and
increased consumerism in kids. Schor, author of Born to Buy: The
Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, found that
both screen time and high consumer involvement were significant
causes of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, psychosomatic
complaints, and increased conflicts with parents. The study
specifically found that consumerism and screen time led to mentalhealth problems, rather than the other way around. It wasn’t clear
how this entire stew of misery came about—whether consumerism
made kids envious of others, or cut into time for exercise, or
dampened fantasy lives—only that the end result of too much media
and consumer involvement in a child is a worsening of nearly every
measure of wellness and family harmony.
A Parent’s Guide to a Branded World
l andov
Selling to kids has been recognized as treachery since the 1970s,
simply because using moving images and blinking lights to get
grade schoolers thinking about toys, food, and TV shows is like
hunting cattle with rocket launchers. It’s why you can’t advertise
to kids in Norway and Sweden, and why Canada, Greece, and
some other European countries have severe restrictions. Kids
today may seem more media savvy than they did in the past, but
their familiarity with brands only masks the immaturity of their
young brains. “Developmentally, children under the age of 7 or 8
are incapable of discerning persuasive intent,” says Dr. Rich. “They
really believe that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups cereal is nutritious.
As a result, the American Psychological Association has stated it is
unethical to advertise to children under 8.”
Researchers have learned that marketing is bad for kids on nearly
every measure of well-being. Children’s TV ads, Web sites, and
video games are dominated by pitches for candy, soda, and fast
food to the tune of $10 billion to $15 billion annually, and research
shows that these ads work: Kids as young as 2 ask for foods they’ve
seen advertised on TV. Even after adjusting for age, BMI, total
energy intake, TV viewing, and physical activity, for every hour of
TV or video viewing, adolescents’ odds of eating foods commonly
advertised on television increased, according to a 2006 study from
the Harvard School of Public Health. “Statistically, there is strong
evidence that exposure to television advertising is associated
with [obesity] in children ages 2 to 11, and teens ages 12 to 18,”
concluded a recent National Academy of Sciences report titled
“Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?”
Marketing also does a number on girls. The American
Psychological Association recently convened a task force that found
that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls in advertising,
merchandising, and the media is causing real problems. “We have
ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects
in a variety of domains, including cognitive function, physical and
mental health, and healthy sexual development,” states Eileen L.
Zurbriggen, PhD, coauthor of the task force’s report and a professor
of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The rapid metastasizing of screen-based marketing and licensing
has insidious consequences for all children, and it goes beyond
obesity and body-image issues. Start with licensing. For very
young children, cartoon characters have become ads in and of
themselves—marketers have successfully trained kids to play with
brands, not toys—and researchers are just starting to understand
why this is scary. Children need generic, unbranded toys in order
to best express themselves, explains Susan Linn, EdD, head of the
influential Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and author
of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized
World. A psychologist who once worked for Fred Rogers and is a
psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, Linn laments the
fact that it’s hard to find any products for kids—from food to toys—
that aren’t adorned by brand logos. On the surface, the danger is
that it’s stifling children’s imaginations. “Any engaging, unbranded
puppet will encourage self-expression,” says Linn, “while a Cookie
Monster puppet is always Cookie Monster and does little more than
eat cookies.” But the issue is bigger than creativity. “What’s at risk,”
Sometimes it feels like a lost cause, like my 4-year-old is under siege
and the goateed guys doing this to her can get away with it by telling
themselves “the parents are in charge.” So with the help of the
researchers, physicians, and educators I interviewed for this story,
I’ve created some rules for anti–child marketing jujitsu, guidelines
parents can use to delay the moment when their child’s imagination
quits thinking about ponies and replaces it with My Little Pony (see
“How to Stick It to SpongeBob,” right).
It’s a constant battle. While visiting friends recently, a mother
started in on my little girl because she didn’t
Continued on page 152
Build Immunity to
Consumer Culture
Science has demonstrated a link
between increased exposure
to ads and increased rates of
children consuming high-calorie
foods, abusing alcohol, and
smoking. “You can work with
your child from the age of 4 or 5 to
build up resilience to consumer
culture,” says Tim Kasser, PhD,
a psychology professor at Knox
College in Illinois and a father of
two boys, ages 9 and 11. When
his family watches TV, Kasser
mutes the commercials while his
sons make up their own dialogue.
“Now if you ask my children what
an ad is, they will reply, ‘They
want your money!’ ” he says.
Inspire Your Kids to
Be More Active
Making a contract with your 8- to
12-year-old child to watch less
television will make him or her
more active, according to a study
at the University at Buffalo. “Give
your kids points for spending
time outside,” says Leslie Sim,
PhD, a child and adolescent
psychologist at the Mayo Clinic.
“Then let them exchange those
points for special activities
with Mom or Dad. Make the
reward whatever is going to be
meaningful to the child.”
Be a Player
Brain development research
shows that infants learn best
through human interaction,
manipulation of their physical
environment, and open-ended,
creative play, says Michael Rich,
MD, PhD, director of the Center
on Media and Child Health at
Children’s Hospital in Boston. Yet
a host of “educational” videos
and shows have been created
for babies and toddlers. “Time
in front of a screen takes away
from more developmentally
optimal activities,” says Dr. Rich.
Sim offers these simple tips to
enhance play: Don’t instruct,
don’t question, do praise, do
imitate, and be enthusiastic and
verbal in how you describe the
child’s play. In fact, fathers have
a greater effect than mothers
on their children’s language
development in families with two
working parents, according to a
study in the Journal of Applied
Developmental Psychology.
Bond at the Dinner Table
Eating in front of the TV is
associated with increased time
spent watching TV, according
to a University of Washington
study. On the other hand, family
meals are associated with
smarter, healthier kids, says
William Doherty, PhD, a professor
of family social science at the
University of Minnesota. To make
family meals work, Doherty
recommends the following:
Involve kids in the preparation
and cleanup, start and finish
meals at the same time, keep
the TV off, don’t badger the kids
about finishing their peas, and
talk about topics the kids feel
good about. Show the Love
The temptation is strong to
give your children another hour
of Nickelodeon or the latest
Transformers model. Give them
your time instead. “This is a
particular problem for fathers,”
says Joe Kelly, fathering author
and anti–children’s marketing
advocate, “because we are told
that our primary role is as a
provider, and we have a narrow
definition of providing: money and
stuff.” Follow your children’s lead
and show them you’re interested
in what they want to do. Studies
show that kids who receive more
one-on-one attention grow up
more secure.
Free Your Child’s
Inner Hemingway
At age 5, kids prefer timeless toys
such as generic dolls, stuffed
animals, and cars, yet only two
years later, these preferences
are replaced with brands such as
Dora and SpongeBob, according
to the child marketing research
Continued on page 152
monsters inc.
Continued from page 133
know about Hannah Montana. Buying
groceries, we push our cart past Dora dolls
next to the jelly, Barbies near the chips,
Hannah Montana DVDs in the cereal aisle,
and a TV airing a loop of the High School
Musical kids singing and selling Sara Lee
bread. A trip to Toys “R” Us is like peeling
back my daughter’s scalp, and then ladling
a hot porridge of branding into her skull.
I don’t want Parker to grow up without
any cultural references, so I’ve been picking
my battles. We avoid the mac-and-cheese
boxes imprinted with a Disney music star,
but we have cans of SpaghettiOs featuring
Disney princesses. I let her watch whatever
she wants at Grandpa’s house. He recently
thought it would be funny to tell her to tell
me she likes Hannah Montana, but she told
him she didn’t. Maybe we’re gaining ground.
Then again, maybe not.
Taking Kasser’s advice, when Parker one
day pressed us for a Dora hat and sunglasses, even though she has plenty of hats
and sunglasses, we tried the straight talk.
“You’re going to grow out of Dora,” my
wife said.
“Do you know what Dora is?” I added.
“Dora is marketing.”
My daughter listened, thought about what
we had said, and then leaped up into the
air with joy. “Dora is marketing!” she cried.
“I want a Dora hat and sunglasses so I can
grow out of it!” n
Continued from page 133
group KidSay. Licensed characters stifle
the imagination and increase materialism, say child development experts such
as Linn, who recommends buying only
unlicensed products. “Inundating children
with branded stuff deprives them of opportunities to create imaginary worlds and to
develop a sense of self that is independent
of the things sold by corporations.”
Use a Cell Phone to Build Trust
“Parents need to be vigilant about the cellphone marketing efforts that are under
way,” says Robert Weissman, managing
director of Commercial Alert. For younger
kids—ages 8 to 12—consider a phone that
allows them to call (or be called by) only a
limited set of numbers and has no texting,
says Tanya Altmann, MD, a spokeswoman
for the American Academy of Pediatricians.
It’s trickier for teens because texting is
such a part of their culture. “Ask your kids
to think about what it means to receive
messages from strangers,” says Douglas
Gentile, PhD, director of research at the
National Institute on Media and the Family.
Parents should also monitor their kids’
phone use by reviewing the bill, says Dr.
Altmann, and buy plans that limit the
number of minutes, to teach children to
use their phone time mindfully. As they
get older, and you feel safe knowing with
whom they communicate, you can allow
them more freedom and privacy. p . s .
best life
December 2008/January 2009