Reading guide for Consuming Kids by Susan Linn

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Consuming Kids

The Hostile Takeover of Childhood

By Susan Linn

Consuming Kids
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  • Hardcover: May 2004,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2005,
    304 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About This Book

Enticing ads on prime-time television, special promotions with McDonald's and other fast-food outlets, and corporate symbols and slogans on T-shirts, caps, backpacks, and more–they're all part of our children's everyday world. Once dominated by a few entertainment and toy companies, the onslaught of corporate come-ons directed at kids has exploded into an all-out battle that pitches the best intentions of parents against the commercial interests and formidable marketing budgets of gigantic corporations. With infant clothing festooned with designer logos, corporate-sponsored newscasts in schools, and popular teen idols representing the hottest brand names, the marketers' dream of winning customer loyalty from "cradle to grave" is well on its way to becoming a reality.

In Consuming Kids, Susan Linn, a child psychologist and advocate, exposes the increasing intensity and sophistication of marketing to children. Drawing on the actual documents of well-known corporations, advertising agencies, media conglomerates, and professional marketing associations, she shows that companies deliberately devise campaigns which exploit the developmental vulnerabilities of the targeted age group, honing in on the specific cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills that influence a child's likes, dislikes, desires, and decisions. Tales from parents and other caregivers besieged by requests for inappropriate products, as well as conversations with children make it clear just how effective these calculated campaigns are. The impact goes beyond the needless accumulation of material goods. Commercialization is stripping childhood of the benefits of play and creativity, inspiring undesirable behavior in our future citizens, and undermining society's ethical and moral values. Arguing that only a concerted response from the public–parents and teachers, policy makers and legislators, doctors and clergy–can end the assault, Linn not only identifies the problems but also offers sound solutions.


Discussion Questions

  1. Linn cites the deregulation of advertising on children's television during the Reagan administration and the current laxity of laws limiting the formation of media conglomerates as major factors in the commercialization of childhood [p. 6]. What do these policies reflect about America's view of the role of government in society? How do the arguments for regulation stand up against those for deregulation? The advertising industry says that it is self-regulating adequately. Do you agree? Have recent political trends made the creation of vast mega companies like Viacom, Disney, and Time Warner inevitable? Could the negative impact of their reach and dominance have been predicted?

  2. From the invasion of Internet chat rooms to the employment of "cool" kids to hype various products, "even traditional venues for spreading what used to be legitimately called popular culture–word of-mouth, for example–have been co-opted by corporations" [p. 6]. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine noted that "trendsetters" selected by corporations to promote their products are often unpaid volunteers. Why are teenagers particularly susceptible to assuming this role?

  3. Research shows that children today are reaching physical maturity earlier than previous generations (for instance, girls are entering puberty earlier than their mothers did, p. 27). What affect does this have on how children perceive themselves? Have these changes distorted society's attitudes about childhood? What are the challenges for girls reaching puberty earlier than their peers? What can society do to support them?

  4. Has research into the emotional and social development of children failed to keep pace with studies of biological changes? What aspects of children's behavior or attitudes deserve further investigation? What specific questions would be useful in determining the influence of marketing and of the media?

  5. Linn argues that "the process of marketing" has a significant impact on family life [p. 32]. How have marketers exploited both everyday observations about kids' behavior and more subtle psychological insights into the parent-child relationship? Why are some families more susceptible than others? In addition to social and economic status, what factors shape consumer behavior? Does Consuming Kids offer explanations that surprised you or contradicted your assumptions? How does Linn support her conclusions? Is her evidence objective, or does it reflect a bias?

  6. Has public television betrayed its audience by forming partnerships with commercial interests, or are its alliances with toy manufactures and its participation in shopping malls an economic necessity? Do tie-ins with fast-food companies and brand-licensing deals with unhealthy food products undermine or negate the educational benefits of broadcasting Sesame Street, Arthur, and other programs for young children? Do you think that commercial-free television for children is important? Why or why not?

  7. The effects of television shows, DVDs, and computer programs for babies and toddlers have not been fully investigated. There is no evidence that the youngest and most impressionable children gain anything from them that can't be gained quicker from real life. Do you think that products like Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, and Baby Genius should be removed from the marketplace until such research is completed?

  8. "Given the current confluence of sophisticated media technology and the glorification of consumerism, it's becoming increasingly difficult to provide children with an environment that encourages creativity and original thinking" [p. 62]. Do today's advanced technologies represent a greater intrusion on a child's environment than the introduction of radios, movies, and television in the past? Does the use of popular fictional characters as marketing tools for zillions of products [p. 64] make it impossible for children to create their own fantasies and games? Do your own experiences support the view that children today exhibit less creativity–and have less fun–than previous generations? What other changes in society might explain the lack of imaginative play among kids today?

  9. Why is the Internet such a strong influence on today's youth? To what extent has it replaced the "community" you knew as a child?

  10. How do today's mass-marketing techniques differ from those with which you grew up? How has the advent of electronic media altered not just the dissemination but the content and direction of commercial messages?

  11. During the 1990s corporations extended their reach into schools, sponsoring newscasts, field trips, vending machines, classroom instructional materials, and more. Can a case be made that companies like Burger King, which sponsors scholarships, or Nike, which supplies athletic equipment, perform a social service that outweighs their more selfish interests? Are the trade-offs worth it? Do you agree that commercialism in schools can compromise the quality and integrity of education? Given the decline of public funding for education in many parts of the country, how would you answer the question "Who Profits from Marketing in Schools?"

  12. Linn suggests that a good way to frame discussions about sex and violence in the media is to recognize that the things children are exposed to on a daily basis (including "plotless" ads and musical videos) are all narratives that transmit cultural values [p. 109]. Use this approach to critique specific ad campaigns, children's programs, prime-time series that children are likely to watch, and popular video and computer games. Do they encourage age-inappropriate behavior? What are the long-term implications of the ideals they present and the role models they use?

  13. Do you agree with Linn's statement, "The ‘worst' effect [of marketing to children] will depend on your child's weaknesses or predilections" [p. 9]? Are the negative effects of violent messages more serious, for example, than the risks linked to the marketing of unhealthful foods? Are parents able to counteract some messages more effectively than others?

  14. After reading Consuming Kids, what specific marketing techniques do you think are the most insidious?

  15. Why has the political right taken the most active role in calling for government controls of the media? Is the left defending its political principles (particularly the sanctity of the First Amendment) at the expense of the nation's children? Does Linn's perspective encompass the concerns of people all along the political spectrum? How do her own political leanings, as well her professional roles as a psychologist and children's advocate, shape the way she presents her arguments?

  16. The use of violence and sex in the media has raised objections for a long time, and many studies have shown that most parents feel that marketing contributes to their children becoming too materialistic. What new information or insights does Consuming Kids contribute to the debate? Are the solutions Linn provides realistic? What reform efforts by the public have been successful in the past? Are there parallels between the methods and goals of those efforts and the call to action in Consuming Kids?

  17. Linn argues that marketing to children is a societal issue, not just an issue that concerns families. Do you agree? What is society's responsibility to children?



Suggested Reading

Seth Godin, Unleashing the Ideavirus; Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion; Naomi Klein, No Logo; Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy; Newton N. Minnow and Craig L. Lamay, Abandoned in the Wasteland; Mary Pipher, Can't Buy My Love and Reviving Ophelia; Alissa Quart, Branded; Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti, eds., Kids Stuff; Emanuel Rosen, The Anatomy of Buzz; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation; Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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