Media Expert Helps Parents Ward off Child-Centered Marketing

By Matthew S. Robinson

‘Hey, Kid, You Need This!’

Child psychologist Susan Linn, Ph.D., knows all too well the challenges facing kids (and their parents) today. The greatest among these, she believes, is dealing with the barrage of products and services marketed specifically to children.

Walk down the street or even a supermarket aisle and you’ll likely be stared at (or even stared down) by the faces of popular characters from television, movies and video games. Whether it’s a Barbie® book bag or a box of Spider-Man® cereal, the message behind it is the same: “Hey, kid – you need this stuff – so you’d better nag and cry until you get it!”

Apparently, that message is being heard. Even babies have been heard quoting a word or phrase from an advertisement among their earliest words. Jingles from such mega-marketers as McDonald’s (which spent $1.3 billion on advertising in 2002 alone) and Pepsico ($1.1 billion) can be heard echoing down many an elementary school hall. Marketing that targets children is a $15-billion-a-year industry; it even once had its own award program – the Golden Marble!

What’s a parent to do?

We all want our kids to be happy and to fit in with their peers, who always seem to have the latest “stuff” from popular brands. But we don’t want kids who are materialistic or, worse, ruled by the whims of product marketers.

As associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, Linn monitors and studies how to counter the overwhelming marketing push that companies direct at children. In her new book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, Linn discusses what’s behind child product marketing and offers suggestions on how parents can deal with it responsibly while helping their children do the same. We spoke recently with Linn about this issue:

How did you come upon this issue?

It was permeating all aspects of my life. I was raising a daughter and I was also working with children. My work at the Judge Baker Center deals with helping to mitigate the negative effects of the media on children. It became clear to me in the late ’90s that you couldn’t think of media any more without thinking about marketing.

I just couldn’t get away from it! I saw it with my clients and also with my own daughter. I had a 4-year-old introduce me to Britney Spears, and I found McDonald’s toys in my office.

I started writing about it because of Teletubbies (the PBS TV show), which came to the United States from Britain in 1998. It was marketed as a program that was educational for children as young as age 1, even though there was no research that such young children got anything out of it. The show came with all of these products. And that made it clear to me that it was really a marketing ploy.

The notion of encouraging babies to watch TV was so antithetical to all I had known about what was good for children that I had to do something. I come from a whole-child philosophy, so I was able to see how children were being inundated and affected in all aspects of their lives. And that philosophy encouraged me to start speaking up about it. 

When did child-centered marketing become so pervasive?

There has always been marketing to children, but in the 1980s there was a change and a confluence of factors:

• In 1978, the FCC concluded that it was unfair to market to children under age 8 because they cannot understand persuasive intent and do not have the cognitive wherewithal to defend against it. They wanted to ban such advertising. But yielding to pressure from industry, the FCC lost their power to regulate such advertising.

• In 1984, Congress deregulated children’s television, so it became OK to develop a program for the sole purpose of selling a product. Within a year, all of the best-selling toys were linked to some kind of program. At the same time, electronic media began to grow, so suddenly there was cheap technology and things like VCRs and computers began entering the home, creating more ways for marketers to reach children and bypass parents. There were also more single-parent families and two-parent families where both parents were working, so the kids were often left home alone.

What age groups are most targeted, most susceptible and why?

Every age group and every segment of childhood is targeted – from babies to teenagers. They are targeted in different ways, but they are all targeted and they are all vulnerable.

Preschool children can’t distinguish between commercials and programs and they tend to believe what people tell them. Until the age of 8, children can’t understand that they are being persuaded. Older kids are very susceptible to peer pressure and they want to do things their parents don’t like, as do teens. Teens are also concerned about their bodies and identities. It’s endless.

Today, the big push is on ’tweens. That term came up in the mid-’80s thanks to latchkey children – the children who were home alone and who were being recognized as a goldmine for marketers. The expenditures on child-focused ads in that after-school time slot rose dramatically during those years. The ’90s were fairly prosperous, so people had money to spend on their kids and kids began to participate more in buying things.

Every generation has had its issues. At the moment, I worry most about toddlers and babies. So many of these kids have their own TVs, and that is just wrong!

There is so much marketing geared toward babies and many of the products are touted as being educational, even though there is no research that proves they are. As a result, a generation is being raised to turn to the screen – whether it be TV or computers – to calm and soothe them. People think that TV is safe for their children, at least relative to being on the streets. But it isn’t.

What are some of the means marketers use to reach kids?

So many items are branded for kids, and all of those characters are linked to other products – many of which are not particularly good for kids, such as sugary snacks and fatty foods. The characters become important to them and, once that connection is made, it becomes a gold mine for marketers.

For example, SpongeBob SquarePants was Kraft’s best-selling version of its macaroni and cheese in 2002. Every show and movie is linked to tons of products. A lot of companies also use stealth marketing and viral marketing, in which they co-opt word-of-mouth or market to kids who do not even know they are being targeted.

One company called the Girls Intelligence Agency (the GIA) uses girls’ pajama parties for market research. They actually film the parties to look at consumer behavior. Procter & Gamble has a marketing branch called Tremors that pays teens to distribute products to their friends. Marketing is leaping off the screen and tainting every part of children’s lives. And since the products make them cool, the kids are susceptible.

There are also product placements. They are illegal in kids’ programs, but they are legal in TV programs that kids watch and in movies and video games. For example, the characters on Gilmore Girls eat Pop Tarts™ for breakfast. All kids like American Idol and Coke paid a lot of money to get the judges to drink Coke. In the video game “Crazy Taxi,” the cab stops at Pizza Hut™. It’s popular with advertisers because it’s what marketers call “sticky” – the kids stick to the game for a while and get the message over an extended period of time. There are even games that are entirely built around products.

Who are the biggest offenders in terms of targeting children?

Coke and Pepsi. Parents used to be able to prevent or at least discourage kids from having soda at younger ages, but it’s now harder for parents to set limits, especially when there are soda machines in schools. McDonald’s is also a big one.

As part of your research, you went to a marketing conference. What did you find there and what did you learn?

It was the first time I had ever been to a conference that was about children where nobody talked about what was good for children. It never came up! And while that is not their job, it is worrisome that people who have so much power and money and influence over children never consider what is good for children. What children like came up a lot – because that is what sells – but nobody reflected on the impact of Ronald McDonald on children, other than the fact that he sells hamburgers.

How many commercials does the average child see in a year and what effect do they have?

On TV alone, about 40,000. But it is so much more than commercials. Most of the programs are advertising for something, and most of them also have product placements within them. Children are bombarded with marketing from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they go to bed at night and the marketing industry does everything it can to undermine parental control.

In 1998, Western Media International did a study on nagging. They wanted children to nag their parents and they wanted to figure out how to make it more effective. They called it the “Nag Factor.” It is my understanding that the industry is not talking about nagging as much today, but it is still effective.

Is there any safe or sacred place left, or has marketing pervaded every aspect of life?

People are starting to fight to reclaim childhood for children. Many schools are taking the soda machines out, for example. I work with a national coalition that works to support people who are trying to help children, like parents who take the TVs out of their children’s rooms. And that is a good start, but parents also need to see that it goes beyond the home.

We need to look first of all at our own vulnerabilities to marketing and to cut down on how many TVs that we own and when they are on. When we can, we need to set limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no TV until the age of 2. And that’s important because, the sooner kids start, the more they will watch and the more they will want to watch. There is no reason for babies to watch TV or to have products with the brands on them.

What is the role of society concerning this issue?

It has always been clear to me that children are not raised in a vacuum. But I also believe that society has an obligation to children to promote their health and well-being. What this industry is doing – and we are letting them do it – is undermining that.

As I began to look into this and to see what the marketers themselves were saying, it became more appalling to me. Ninety percent of marketers say that kids are marketed to in ways they do not even notice, and over half of them say there is too much marketing to kids and that, as a result, they are nagging too much and growing up too quickly. And that is why I wrote the book. People do not think much about marketing. The media is such a part of our lives and marketing – especially marketing to children – has escalated exponentially over the past 20 years.

Does petitioning local or even federal government agencies work?

A lot of it begins in the home, but parents can also look to their community and to begin to see it as a sociopolitical issue. We need to start looking at laws. Even in this age of deregulation, there are currently some bills in Congress that deal with these issues. There is even a bill in the works that would give the FCC the power to regulate children’s programming again. So, yes, getting involved can make a difference.

How can parents show their kids they love them without giving in to every material demand?

It’s not good for children to have all of their wishes fulfilled. Loving your kids does not mean giving in to them all the time. Life is a give and take, and children need to learn that.

Kids are told that “things” will make them happy, but studies have shown that “things” do not make us happy. Relationships are far more important.

Parents need to value the creative things their children do and encourage their children in creative play and other non-media-related pursuits. Dragging a mouse on the computer is not the same thing as painting and drawing with real art supplies. It’s prefabricated. There is a special value to making your own things and parents need to encourage that, because many kids now feel that what they make is not good enough.

Parents need to find time away from commercials, which often means time away from any media. They need to do old-fashioned things that are not media- or market-based, whether it be family sports and games, playing dress-up or whatever they can find. Kids need time and space.

What else can be done?

We need to raise children who think. We do not need to raise brand-loyal children. We also need to get outraged. It is outrageous that ChemLawn uses the mailing list from the United States Youth Soccer Association or that Coke gave a grant to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Kids pay for advertising not only with their money (or their parents’ money), but also with their health and well-being.

Parents also need to think about what they are putting in front of their babies. Sesame Street may be educational, but it is now also linked to junk foods, including a partnership with McDonald’s. … Especially with childhood obesity such a problem these days, we need to ask if the total package is good for children, not just the program itself. Advertising isn’t free. It has a huge cost!



The pervasiveness of child-targeted marketing has prompted numerous organizations, books and articles that offer ways for parents to counteract this kind of media control. Among them:



Action Coalition for Media Education–This international network links media educators, students, health advocates and others to try to improve education about media.

Children Now: Children and the Media Program – This organization is dedicated to improving the quality of news and entertainment media for and about children.

Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools – Focuses on research, education, lobbying and action related to corporate marketing.

Common Sense Media – This is an organization for parents, educators and children who are concerned about the quality of today’s media.

The Judge Baker Children’s Center –This nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the lives of children with emotional and behavioral problems.

The Lion and Lamb Project – This organization aims to stop the marketing of violence to children.

Media Education Foundation – This foundation is devoted to media research and resource production.

National Institute for Media and the Family – Provides information about the impact of media on children and families.

Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children – This coalition of health-care professionals, educators, businesses and advocates works to counter commercial exploitation of children.


Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, by Susan Linn, Ph.D., The New Press, 2004. Examines strategies of child-targeted marketing and offers suggestions on how parents can counter media influence and help their children do the same.

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
, by Juliet Schor, Scribner, 2004. Looks at the methods marketers use to reel in kids as customers. Read more about this book.

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
, by Alissa Quart, Perseus, 2003. Explores targeted marketing during the teen years.

Matthew S. Robinson is a freelance writer and early childhood educator.