Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Leading Advertiser Calls for an End to Advertising to Children

There are days when the forces that mine childhood for profit seem too formidable; when the corporate capture of our government feels like far too much to overcome; when the chorus of "it's all parents' fault" is so deafening that I have trouble hearing other voices. And then there are days like today, when something extraordinary happens that renews my faith that a commercial-free childhood is possible.

I have just read a truly remarkable, eloquent essay by the most unexpected source. Alex Bogusky is a Founding Partner of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, one of the nation's most influential and successful ad agencies. Until recently, their accounts included Burger King and the agency is responsible for, among other things, the infamous SpongeBob SquareButts commercial that was the target of a CCFC campaign. And last week, Alex Bogusky, in an essay that I cannot recommend highly enough, called for an end to advertising to kids.

Advertising to adults is not without controversy. And although I’m concerned about consuming for consumption’s sake, I am able to see the role advertising plays in moving our economy forward and the benefit to society that can be created. However, when it comes to advertising to children, it’s much more difficult to find any redeeming value created by the activity. In fact, to the contrary, it is easy to see how destructive the process is to most of us.
The solution? A call for advertisers to stop targeting children, whom Bogusky notes, "are fundamentally and developmentally unequipped to deal with advertising in the way an adult can." That's right -- not a call for advertisers to be more responsible in how they advertise to children, or to only advertise products that are "healthy," but an end to all of it.

It’s not a matter of the rightness or wrongness of the products being advertised. That is a gray area. But there are children and there are adults. And the duty of adults in society is to protect it’s children. And that is black and white.
It's a bit hard to type when I'm speechless, but here are a few other highlights: Bogusky's cogent argument that because of children's developmental vulnerabilities, advertising to children is fundamentally different than advertising to adults . . . and wrong; his assertion that children and families would be a lot better off if there was no advertising to kids; and his debunking of the myth that the sky would fall for the economy and advertisers if children were off limits.

I'm particularly impressed that Bogusky believes that a legislative ban on advertising would be the most effective way of protecting children, even if he's not sanguine about the political prospects of getting one passed. He even suggests that large advertisers like the fast food industry throw their considerable weight behind a legislative ban since, "(t)hey need the publicity that puts them on the right side of these issues and, if legislation is created, it makes a new and even playing field where there is no disadvantage created. "
Bogusky also favors "adding a bit more pressure to the ethical side of the scale" for advertisers, a crucial component of CCFC's advocacy. He'd also like to see considerations of corporate social responsibility include whether or not a company advertises to children. I couldn't agree more.

I could gush some more, but I really hope you'll read Bogusky's piece in its entirety. The comments are worth reading, too. The commenters, many of whom appear to work in advertising, are incredibly open to Bogusky's ideas -- a refreshing change from the attacks and rush to blame parents that often greet blog postings that suggest limiting advertiser's access to children.

So thank you, Alex Bogusky, for the powerful reminder that another childhood is possible. I'm thrilled to know that we're on the same side. And all of us at CCFC look forward to continuing the conversation that you so courageously started.
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Monday, June 28, 2010

Scooby-Doo Salad? No Thanks. by Susan Linn, Ed.D.

I happen to know a five-year-old fan of SpongeBob SquarePants who told her father, in no uncertain terms, that SpongeBob mac and cheese tastes better than any other macaroni and cheese.  It turns out she was right—sort of. A recent study from the Rudd Center at Yale found that characters like Scooby-Doo and Dora the Explorer actually influence how children experience the taste of junk food, as well as their choice for a snack. The study provides more evidence that marketing can trump children’s senses.  Last year, researchers at Stanford found that children believed that food wrapped in McDonalds packaging tastes better than food wrapped in plain wrappers.

What interests me most about the Rudd Center study, however, is that it found no statistically significant evidence that media characters have an impact on how children experience the taste of carrots.  That’s important news for policy makers.  It’s the fashion in some nutrition circles to advocate for using media characters to market healthy or “healthier” food to children, but that has never made sense to me.  It’s not good for children to get in the habit of choosing food—any kind of food—based on which character is on the package.

Meanwhile, market research suggests that parents are not swarming to buy branded produce.  A 2008 survey found that half of parents said that cartoon characters  on packaging would not affect whether or not they buy produce—and almost 30 percent said that they “probably” or “definitely” would not buy character branded fruits and vegetables. The same survey showed that while sales of branded produce increased when the products were first introduced, sales declined as much as 67 percent over the course of a year.

Taken together, these studies suggest that branding bananas and other produce will not have a serious impact on children’s diets.  Based on the results of their study, the Rudd Center researchers suggest that rather than ramping up the use of licensed characters to market healthy foods, we need to restrict the use of these characters to market low-nutrient, high-energy foods.  Christina Roberta, the study’s lead author, writes, “Given that 13% of marketing expenditures targeting youths are spent on character licensing and other forms of cross-promotion, our findings suggest that the use of licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted.”

One thing is clear: we can’t rely on corporations to stop using characters on junk food packaging.  Such marketing is increasing, not decreasing—in spite of food industry pledges to responsibly address the childhood obesity epidemic. Instead of turning carrots into shills for Scooby-Doo, we should be helping children develop relationships with food that have to do with taste and nutrition, not celebrity.  Government restrictions on food companies’ use of characters in marketing to kids will afford parents more freedom to shape children’s healthy eating habits.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Next BusRadio? by Josh Golin

Haven’t we been down this road before? A few years ago, it was BusRadio promising to make school buses safer and calmer with its student-targeted radio broadcasts. Now it’s television that marketers claim will soothe the beast. From the Dallas Morning News:
Television can be a ready baby sitter in the living room, but will it work on school buses?

The Garland school district is experimenting with playing educational videos on a school bus to help cut discipline problems.

For $1,500 per bus, Carrollton-based AdComp Systems installs a 26-inch flat screen TV at the front of the bus. The screen plays videos supplied by NASA, the Discovery network, History Channel and others.
The similarities between BusRadio – which closed its doors last September after a four-year campaign by CCFC and Obligation, Inc. – and Bus-Ed-Safe-TV (BEST) are striking. Like BusRadio, BEST is claiming it will improve student behavior and touting its plan to air safety messages and PSAs in its pitch to school districts while downplaying its commercial content. The Dallas Morning News is even reporting that BEST will have no commercials.

Even if that were true, it’s still a terrible idea. At some point we’re going to need to stand up to the flat-screen invasion and the ubiquitous blaring TV's that compete for our attention and with our conversations at seemingly every turn. Since children 8-18 already spend 7.5 hours a day with media and excessive screen time is linked to poor school performance, keeping televisions off of school buses might be a good place to start.

And just as with BusRadio – which once boasted on its website for advertisers that it would “take targeted student marketing to the next level” – it’s clear the underlying purpose of BEST is to deliver a captive audience of students to advertisers. The BEST website includes a section of “ideal partnerships” which include “targeted content partners” and “commercial sponsorships.”

As for the claim there will be no commercials, the website says only that BEST won’t run “Direct commercial ads that parents can object to and are not good for kids” or air violence or sexually explicit material. That’s not setting the bar very high.

As we learned with BusRadio, it’s not just the content that parents object to – it’s the very business model of forcing children to consume media and marketing on a school bus. Before the BEST team proceeds any further, they should do their homework. They could start with the more than 1,000 comments that parents submitted to the FCC in opposition to BusRadio, or by reading how parents in Louisville, Montgomery County, and cities and towns around the country organized to keep the company out of their school districts. Because if BEST, like its failed predecessor, underestimates parents’ determination to keep their school buses commercial-free, it’s sure to be the next BusRadio.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Real Toy $tory by Susan Linn, Ed.D.

It’s old news that it is virtually impossible to find a movie for kids these days not selling them toys, clothing, food and accessories. But that doesn’t mean we should stop being outraged about it. Particularly egregious is when a film cloaks itself in positive messages while cynically undermining them by brand licensing, product placement and cross promotions.

So I’ll say this for the Disney/Pixar studios: The company does a fabulous job of making films that simultaneously promote and trash socially responsible causes—the former through creative content and the latter through marketing. It’s true that when Pixar execs partnered with British Petroleum to promote Wall-E, the critically acclaimed animated post-apocalyptic environmental fantasy, they couldn’t foresee that BP was going to cause the worst human made environmental disaster ever. But they surely knew, like the rest of us, that drilling for fossil fuels is not exactly a sustainable practice, and that promoting consumption in children by turning film characters into junk plastic toys is not good for the environment either.

And now there’s Toy Story 3—a sometimes poignant rendering of one boy’s transition into adulthood from the point of view of the toys he’s leaving behind. The film concludes with a lovely and pointed celebration of creative play. I get teary thinking about it. I really do. I got teary watching it, too. (Confession: I’m a sucker for “leaving childish things” behind stories. And, as a ventriloquist who has had a long relationship with talking duck, I can and do invest just about any inanimate object with life.) But the marketing of Toy Story 3 does more to stifle children’s imagination than the film does to promote it. Disney expects merchandising to bring in about $2.4 billion, more than any of its other films to date. A search for toys licensed by the Toy Story franchise brings up more than 300 items on ToysRus.com, most of which squelch exactly the kind of creative play the film celebrates.
One business writer described the number of Toy Story 3 products at Target as “jaw dropping.”

In addition to the faithful Woody and the stupid-but-good-hearted Buzz Lightyear, new characters—and new potential for licensing—have been added in Toy Story 3. There’s a strawberry scented villainous bear named Lotso—whose mercantile manifestation is as an ursine “smart toy” a la Tickle Me Elmo, which can be had for $49.95. And in a blatant attempt to broaden the film’s appeal across genders—and to add completely gratuitous, sexualized double entendre to the dialogue—Barbie and Ken have been added to the cast and the licensing frenzy. Little girls, presumably unmoved by action, adventure, and Trixie, a rather appealing but boringly unsexualized cowgirl, can now rush out to buy the Disney Pixar Toy Story 3 Barbie Loves Buzz Lightyear Barbie fashion doll for $16.99—and other Toy Story 3 Barbies as well.

There are also the inevitable Lego Kits--the Lego Toy Story 3 Great Train Chase, or the Lego Disney Pixar Toy Story 3 Garbage Truck Getaway set. It’s well known that children play less creatively with media linked toys and with kits—but even more damaging are the Toy Story 3 video games for Nintendo, Sony PS3, Nintendo DS and X box. And of course, there’s the preschool educational media market: V-tech has the MobiGo
Toy Story 3 Learning Software for children as young as three, and Leapfrog has learn-to-read digital story books. Never mind that screen media already occupies, on average, about 32 hours a week in the lives of two-to- five year olds at the expense of the kind of hands-on play that is so revered in the film.

It’s ironic that the real threat to toys like Woody, Buzz and the gang is not that the child who loved them grows up. It’s that, in real life, companies like Disney/Pixar have commercialized children’s leisure time to such an extent that a preschooler who might be the beneficiary of outgrown creative playthings is likely to have no idea what to do with them.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Lechery, Misogyny, and Sadism...Oh My! Nickelodeon’s Internet Assault on Children by Susan Linn, Ed.D. & Josh Golin

Nickelodeon has been urging children to vote for their favorite games at Addicting Games.com, a gaming website that is part of its popular media empire for kids. Tomorrow morning, in a television special called the Addicting Games Showdown, Nickelodeon will announce which game was voted “Most Heart-Pounding,” “Most Superior Ninja” and “OMG! Cutest Animal.” It may sound like Addicting Games is just another innocuous game site for children, but that’s not the case.

CCFC has been monitoring AddictingGames.com for several months. The site, which is just a click away from many of Nick’s popular websites for children, contains numerous sexualized and graphically violent games that aren’t—by any stretch of the imagination—suitable for kids.

That’s why Nick should add a few more categories to its award show:

Category: Most Horrifyingly Misogynistic Game
Nominee: Nancy Balls
Game Description: “You can try to keep women out of congress, but it's going to be really difficult. Take their shoes away and collect guns. That's how to be a MAN."

Category: Most Disturbingly Violent Game
Nominee: Torture Chamber III
Description: “The object of Torture Chamber is to cause as much pain as possible to your victim before he dies. Doing so awards pain points, and unlocks new forms of punishment."

Category: Creepiest Stalker Game
Nominee: Perry the Perv
Description: “Perry the sneak loves women. The only problem is that women don't love Perry. The fact that he's a peeper on a mission doesn't help either. So Perry decided, if you can't beat ‘em, try harder! Help Perry get an eyeful without getting a handful for being the world's best Serial Peaker!"(sic)

Nickelodeon cynically refuses to stop promoting Addicting Games to children, which is why CCFC members overwhelmingly chose the site as the winner of this year’s TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children) Award for worst toy of the year.

In fact, until recently, Nick promoted—and linked to—AddictingGames.com from websites for preschoolers such as NickJr.com, and the Dora the Explorer website. Those links were removed only after more than 7,000 CCFC members wrote to Nick demanding their removal. But Addicting Games continues to be marketed on Nickelodeon websites popular with young children. That means kids who play online with SpongeBob are only a click away from games that celebrate stalking, torture, and debasing the current Speaker of the House of Representatives solely because she’s a woman.

Since we launched CCFC’s Addicting Games campaign, we’ve heard from a number of angry parents who believed that all of the games on the website were fine for children because they trusted Nickelodeon to provide only age-appropriate content. It’s not surprising that they were—and continue to be—misled. Nick promotes itself as a family-friendly company and promotes Addicting Games under the heading of “Nickelodeon Kids and Family Websites.” And now the company is using the power of its popular children’s television network to lure even more young children to a site that features “naughty” games, shooting games, and even games where the object is to torture animals.

While we find these and other games on AddictingGames.com appalling, we would, to paraphrase Voltaire, defend to the death the right of others to play them—provided those others are adults. Therefore, we recommend a simple solution. Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, should move the adult gaming content to an adults-only website that is not promoted on, or linked from, any of Nickelodeon’s websites or media properties for children. Then the umbrella of “Nickelodeon Kids and Family Websites” would be comprised only of games that actually are for kids and families.

Doing so would acknowledge the obvious: Children are different than adults and deserve special protections on the Internet. No matter how lucrative gaming may be, Nick should not promote lechery and sadism just to keep young eyes glued to advertising supported-screens by providing content.

To urge Nickelodeon to stop promoting violent, sexualized and misogynistic games to children, please visit http://www.commercialexploitation.org/actions/nicknaughtygamesjune2010.html.
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