The escalation of graphic violence in movies and television, for example, has occurred in part simply because the technology became availablejust as the invention of the scroll saw enabled all that curlicue furniture of the Victorian era. It is now possible to graphically recreate a disembowelment or melt an eyeball on the screenand so we do.
When the Reagan Administration deregulated advertising on children's television in 1984, programs could be created for the purpose of selling children toys. Within a year of deregulation, all ten of the bestselling toys were linked to media programs. Meanwhile, laws that might prevent the formation of media conglomerations grow ever more lax, and today, megacompanies such as Viacom, Disney, or Time Warner are likely to own several television stations, radio stations, Internet service providers, theme parks, record companies, and/or publishing housesall of which cross-advertise each other as well as food, toys, books, clothing, and accessories. A few giant corporations control much of what children eat, drink, wear, read, and play with each day.
Through endorsements and licensing agreements, cartoon characters, pop singers, sports heroes, and movie stars are now icons for junk food, toys, clothing, and every imaginable accessory. There's also the fast-growing phenomenon of product placement: embedding product ads as plot points, scenery, or props within the content of movies and TV programs.
Marketing to children is not limited to electronic media; even traditional venues for spreading what used to be legitimately called popular cultureword of mouth, for instancehave been co-opted by corporations. Corporations engage in "guerrilla" marketing: ads and posters now get plastered on buildings and bus stops in a kind of corporate graffiti. There's also "viral" marketing, a term originally used to describe what happens when marketers invade Internet chat rooms and pose as ordinary kids to promote their products. Viral marketing also applies to the practice of handing out free samples of products such as CDs, for instance, to kids identified by other kids as "cool." Marketing companies actually comb neighborhoods to find what they refer to as trendsetters, knowing that when a trendsetter uses a product, other kids will want to use it. Of course, there have always been trendsetterswhat's new is that they don't have to create a new look or discover a new band themselves. Now, adults may do much of the creating for them, paying the kids to set the trends.
What my colleague, psychologist Allen Kanner, first dubbed "the commercialization of childhood" got a boost from the political climate of the 1980s, which saw the beginning of a steady erosion of government support for public institutions and a glorification of the marketplace as the solution to and/or a model for solving social ills. Corporate support, however, usually comes with a price. Sometimes entire public and nonprofit institutions sell naming rights to corporations. If your child has had trouble in school, he or she might attend a Burger King Academy. Children who used to delight in Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum now visit the Please Touch Museum Presented by McDonald's. Also common are social campaigns born of odd marriages, such as the American Library Association's partnership with the World Wrestling Federation (now called World Wrestling Entertainment) to promote literacy.
Public schools, particularly, were urged by the Reagan administration to look to corporate America for rescue. Historically, public school budgets tend to increase over the years because of rising student populations, although recent years seem to be the exception. In any case, a large portion of any budget increase is designated to cover specific government-mandated programs from special education to competency-based testing. School administrators therefore routinely cite inadequate funding for general operations as justification for buying into such corporate intrusions in education as sponsored newscasts beamed into classrooms and a host of other marketing schemes that exploit our mandatory schooling laws. No wonder Consumer Union called their wonderful treatise on commercialism in schools Captive Kids!
From Consuming Kids by Susan Linn, pages 1-10. Copyright Susan Linn 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, The New Press.
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