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Campaigning for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Campaigning for a Commercial-Free Childhood
Howard University conference addresses the dangers of marketing to children

By Ronald Roach

Anational coalition dedicated to protecting children from the marketing efforts of companies held its fourth national conference in Washington. Convening on the Howard University campus, the two-day Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) conference had highlights that included a speech by legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

The CCFC’s steering committee is comprised largely of scholars, including Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the noted Harvard University Medical School psychiatry professor known for consulting with Bill Cosby on  “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s. Poussaint, one of the founding members of the coalition, presided over the conference opening and much of its first-day proceedings.

In addition to scholars, the CCFC includes among its membership health care professionals, K-12 educators, advocacy groups and parents. The coalition was formed to “counter the harmful effects of marketing to children through action, advocacy, education, research and collaboration.” 

In many nations, product marketing aimed at children is considered “inappropriate” and even banned in countries such as Sweden, according to Poussaint. “In America, it’s felt that (restricting advertising aimed at children) is an abridgement of the First Amendment,” Poussaint told the more than 100 people who attended the conference.

Poussaint talked about the coalition’s early success in bringing attention to advertising industry practices. The group earned some notoriety after protesting an annual awards event that honored effective advertising campaigns aimed at children. Formerly known as the Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children coalition, the CCFC had its defining moment in 2000 when a number of its members protested the Golden Marble Awards, the advertising industry’s celebration of marketing to children. The event was eventually canceled as an annual ceremony, according to Poussaint.

Poussaint also mentioned that scholars at Howard University held a conference on commercialism and children in 1999, signaling the academic research community’s strong interest to work with activists and others on controlling the rampant marketing toward children. “If you want change, you have to do something,” he noted.

“There is increasing concern that marketing has infiltrated nearly every aspect of children’s lives,” says CCFC’s co-founder

Dr. Susan Linn, psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School. “We represent a growing movement to counter commercial messages and find concrete ways to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers.”

Conference presenters included Linn, the author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood; Maine state representative Sean Faircloth, D-Bangor; Dr. Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociology professor; Dr. Diane Levin, the author of Remote Control Childhood; and Dr. Velma LaPoint, an associate professor in the school of education at Howard University. Representatives from organizations such as the Motherhood Project, TV-Turnoff Network and the Center for Science in the Public Interest also spoke at the conference.

CCFC has compiled statistics showing that between 1992 and 1997, companies increased their marketing to American children from $6.2 billion to $12 billion. Currently, marketers are estimated to spend at least $15 billion annually targeting young people in the United States. In addition, children’s spending power has grown in the past decade, with those aged 4 to 12 making $30 billion in purchases in 2002, up from the $6.1 billion they spent in 1989. Children aged 12 to 19 spent $170 billion in 2002, a weekly average of $101 per teen. In addition, children watch an estimated 40,000 commercial ads a year on TV alone, according to data compiled by the CCFC.

Conference participants noted that over the past two decades there have been dramatic increases in childhood obesity and diabetes rates. As a product of their constant exposure to marketing, today’s children are also said to have higher risk for depression, anxiety and violence, according to some of the presentations. Pervasive marketing also encourages eating disorders, family stress, precocious sexuality and lessens a child’s capability to play creatively.

“Some of the major results from the survey were that children who scored higher on the consumer involvement scale were more likely to be more depressed and anxious, to have lower esteem and had a higher frequency of headaches, stomach aches and boredom,” says Schor of a study of 10- to 13-year-olds in the Boston area that was included in her book, Born to Buy.

Nader said that corporations get away with unscrupulous marketing tactics because they face less scrutiny for their conduct than individuals. “Hiding behind their anonymity, corporations are not subject to shame in the way individuals are,” he says.

Nader expressed his belief that there’s room for broad political consensus among conservatives and liberals for bringing about restrictions on advertising to children. “This should be a classic issue in political campaigns. Politicians know it’s a winning issue. They haven’t made it an issue because of the influence of money in politics,” he explained, implying that campaign contributions by corporate interests have kept the child marketing issue on the political sidelines.

During the conference, the CCFC announced that U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, received the first ever Fred Rogers Integrity award. Named after the late host of the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” TV program, the award recognizes a public figure “whose efforts to protect children from harmful marketing best embody Mr. Rogers’ long-standing commitment to nurturing the health and well-being of America’s children.” Last year, Harkin introduced federal legislation to reinstate the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to limit marketing to children.

A number of speakers talked about the impact of rampant marketing on minority youth. LaPoint, a CCFC steering committee member, said in her “The Dress Mess and More: Commercialism’s Challenges to Black Children’s Health and Well-Being” presentation that the marketing of food and fashion represented the greatest challenge for Black children and their families. “I do think ethnic identity is compromised by marketing,” she says.

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