Electric Youth

If anything, the problem is only getting worse. Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor characterizes the past decade as a “race to the bottom in terms of the ethics of advertising to children.”

That’s at least in part because of the explosion of screens. They’re everywhere now, from Dad’s tablet to Mom’s smartphone to the DVD player in the car. Kunkel cites previous research showing that children are exposed to 40,000 TV ads a year. That’s probably come down some, he says, because children are spending less time watching television. The bad news, however, is that they’re spending a lot more time looking at other types of screens. The FCC restricts the time that networks can broadcast ads, but the Internet is a Wild West. So advertisers now use spots on TV to try to get kids to move to the Web, where they can spend unlimited amounts of time playing so-called advergames on sites that promote children-focused products. Add it all up, and children are actually being subjected to more ads than ever. “Kids are exposed to marketing messages in their entertainment, in their schools, and on screens in the checkout aisles at the supermarket,” Kunkel says. “They can’t get away from them. They are more pervasive than ever before.”

In the past 10 years, we’ve also seen, for the first time, the advent of media — games, apps, and even an entire television network — aimed at babies and toddlers. Why? In some ways it’s to get them hooked early, so when they get older they can nag their parents into making purchases. Texas A & M’s McNeal estimates that advertisers spend $50 billion a year marketing products to kids ages zero to 16. That’s actually a pretty good investment, since McNeal says those kids now influence an estimated $1.2 trillion dollars in spending by their parents each year.

McNeal has grown increasingly critical of the practice of advertising to children. Kids and parents need more government protection, he says, because the marketing industry “has learned it can do and say what it wants to without any legal recourse.”

Greg Livingston, coauthor of Marketing to the New Super Consumer: Mom and Kid, insists that the industry and television networks do a very good job of self-policing, and that their own guidelines are becoming ever-more stringent. “Companies have a right to share and make individuals — be they younger or older — aware that their product exists,” Livingston says. And besides, he says, his own research shows that mothers like their children to tell them what they want them to buy, because today’s moms don’t have the time or money to purchase a food or toy their kids won’t eat or play with.

But BC’s Schor says there’s simply no doubt that the federal government should be looking out for kids. “It shouldn’t be the job of Susan Linn to do what she is doing, or even the job of parents,” Schor says. “The government should be doing it, because children are unable to protect themselves from the harmful practices of corporations.” 

LINN WAS SIX YEARS OLD and living in Detroit when she saw ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney on TV in the early 1950s. Fascinated, she began experimenting with ventriloquism herself. In time, her parents hired a professional coach to give her lessons, and she has never lost her love for the craft. In fact, she dropped out of Boston University’s theater program at 19 to pursue a career as a ventriloquist.

After leaving BU, Linn performed street theater for Boston’s summer arts festival, made occasional appearances on the local TV show Major Mudd, and traveled and performed with Pete Seeger. For three weeks in 1967, she toured New England performing with an accordion player, a clown who did cigarette manipulations, and an alcoholic banjo player in a Santa suit. That same year, Linn was sitting in her fourth-floor apartment above a Kenmore Square pizzeria when she saw Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for the first time.