Psychologists protest kids' ads

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The outcry from leading child psychologists over advertising aimed at children will reach a fever pitch this week when an organized protest takes place at the Third Annual Golden Marbles Advertising & Promotions Awards.

The protesters, led by Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint of the Harvard Medical School and Boston's Judge Baker Children's Center, contend that children's advertising not only advocates violence but also is responsible for obesity in children, a breakdown in early learning skills and the destruction of parental authority.

In a related development, the American Psychological Association plans to form a task force to examine whether it is unethical for psychologists to consult with advertisers that market to children.

MISUSING KNOWLEDGE?

"Advertising agencies hire psychologists, both clinicians and researchers, to help them fine-tune their advertising aimed at kids from 2 years old on," said Allen Kanner, a psychologist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif. who is organizing the task force. "Many of us think that this is a misuse of psychological knowledge."

The Golden Marbles awards reward creativity in children's advertising, and are sponsored by Fox, Grey Advertising's G Whiz kids ad unit, Griffin Bacal, Leo Burnett USA, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and Walt Disney Co., among others.

The protesters, meanwhile, include Dr. Poussaint and Susan Linn, Ed.D., both of Harvard and the Baker clinic; Diane Levin, Ph.D., Wheelock College; Alex Molnar, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of "Giving Kids the Business. Commercialization in America's Schools" (Boulder, Westview Press, 1996); and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., Lesley College, and the mother of actor Matt Damon.

BOMBARDED WITH ADS

The Center for a New American Dream, a group of doctors and teachers based in Takoma Park, Md., an anti-advertising-to-kids group whose motto is "More fun, less stuff," will also be on hand.

"Children are bombarded with advertisements," said Dr. Poussaint, "and advertisers also push this `nag factor' -- for children to nag their parents to buy them certain things. This sets up a tension and strife between parents and children."

Dr. Poussaint was referring to a 1998 "Nag Factor" study conducted by Western International Media, now Initiative Media. Also called "The Fine Art of Whining," the study sought to prove "Why nagging is a kid's best friend" and found that "21% to 40% of sales of jeans, burgers and other products occur because a child asked for [the product]." The study identified different parental groups such as "Indulgers [33% of parents], most likely to be affected by nagging" and "Conflicted [20%], frequently give in to nagging, but are very ambivalent."

"The study was intended to help companies figure out how to get children to nag more effectively," Ms. Linn said. "This is really undermining parental authority within the family, and also harming the well-being of children and families."

Advertising executives, naturally, defend the study and kid's advertising in general. "The nag factor, as negative as it sounds, is really about when kids and parents are watching TV together -- that's when the advertising has the best effect," said Mike Lotito, president-chief operating officer of Initiative Media. "Parents are able to teach kids how to evaluate and review advertising and what to take away from it, and kids are able to voice their interest in products."

FUNDAMENTAL NEED

"Most products really provide something for kids that they really, truly need for their development, for their social interaction," said Chris McKee, creative director of Geppetto Group, New York, and one judge of the Golden Marbles awards. Pokemon taps "a fundamental need of kids to collect things and become empowered by collecting."

But to the protesting doctors and educators, fast-food and junk-food ads clearly contribute to the epidemic of obesity in children, and violent ads contribute to violence in schools. Protesters want a White House conference on marketing to children. "We need to begin a national dialogue on this issue," Ms. Linn said.

"There is no reason to keep kids hermetically sealed away from our society," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, who added that as long as advertising to kids is fair and truthful it is OK. "You can't keep kids in a cocoon until they come out of the chrysalis full grown."

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