Consuming Kids: the Hostile Takeover of Childhood
© 2004 Susan Linn
To some, children are the joy of our lives; a refreshing source of curiosity, energy, youth, and joy. To others, they are nothing but grist for the mill. In Consuming Kids, child psychologist Susan Linn reveals the scope and consequences of the increasing commercialization of childhood, which effects more than just parents. It is a profoundly disturbing book; were I a parent its revelations would horrify me. But it demands to be read.
Consuming Kids opens at a conference in which children are the focus — or rather, the target, because this is a marketing conference, where the latest psychological insights into the minds of children are put to good use. “Teenagers are socially anxious; build on that.” These marketeers are family scientists as well: they cite a study about the importance of the Nag Factor, wherein the ‘pester power’ of children is tapped to manipulate parents into taking the kids to a given restaurant or frequenting a particular store. (That same study featured in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and provoked my interest in this subject.) Linn is a psychologist by profession: she cares for children and is sickened by the way that studies done with good intentions — to understand children’s motivations — are being perverted to use by companies which essentially profit by targeting vulnerabilities, like the aforementioned anxiety of teenagers or the fact that children cannot tell the difference between an advertisement and a factual program, let alone think critically about the content of said ads.
Linn devotes the bulk of the book to examining the consequences of child-targeting advertising: the promotion of consumerism among children, the idea that things will make them happy; the sinister way that they are conditioned to favor certain brands through cartoon figures and “role model” spokespersons like Ronald McDonald; the rise of childhood obesity amid the expansion of advertising of candy and processed food to kids; the use of violence and sex to capture attention; the rise of childhood addiction to alcohol and tobacco, and the corruption of the public sphere, from PBS to the schoolroom. (The latter section makes this work of interest to everyone, not just parents.)
I’ve read other works with a bone to pick with advertising of one kind or another, but I rarely enjoy them and never review them because prior reads have been so sloppily done; they consist mainly of one person idly complaining for paragraph after paragraph. This is certainly not the case with Linn, who tempers her passion with professionalism and focus. Her introduction immediately shares her sense of unease with the reader, and then she develops her many substantial criticisms. Hers is a convincing argument, not a rant, and it ends with impressive sections evaluating what our response should be. After examining advertising’s relationship to free speech, she then points out that this is a particularly nonpartisan issue. It doesn’t fit neatly into a party box: this kind of marketing has negative consequences for everyone save the firms targeting the kiddies. She then ends with a chapter detailing what we can do at home, in the community, in schools, in the marketplace, and as members of polities both large (the nation) and small (the city).
Consuming Kids is a magnificent piece of work; I would only fault it for being slightly dated with regards to references to advertising through the Internet and social media; most of Linn’s concern is advertising through television and the schools. Otherwise, she’s golden, offering a comprehensive criticism that is both passionate and moderate in tone. Highly recommended to parents and anyone concerned about the welfare of children and society.
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser