Electric Youth

In 1998, PBS imported Teletubbies from Britain, marking the first time a television show directed at children as young as 12 months was aired in this country. Linn found the show “brilliant and diabolical” in how it was clearly designed to hold the attention of babies. In a 1999 American Prospect article, she took the show to task for its claims that it was educational — claims, she wrote, that were unfounded.

“We predicted it would open the floodgates of television aimed at babies,” Linn says now. “And we were right.” With that in mind, Linn, Poussaint, and a small group of academics and healthcare professionals formed a new project a few months later at Judge Baker’s media center: the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The ventriloquist had found her voice.

AT A BOSTON MEDICAL CENTER project for sick children in Mattapan one day last fall, a group of doctoral students have gathered to listen to Linn speak about the effects of media, and about play-based therapy. A photo of a sock puppet appears on the screen during the presentation, and Linn asks the students, who are all interning at the project, to describe what they’re looking at. A worm, says one. A boy, says another. Someone else says a girl.

“And what does that say?” asks Linn. “Anything, right? And that’s because what it is resides in you.”

Seconds later, a slide comes up of a googly-eyed blue monster. This time, everyone knows exactly who they’re looking at, as well as his name. And when Linn asks what he’s most known for saying, the interns erupt in a simultaneous rendition of a throaty, cookie-scarfing growl, before succumbing to laughter. “There you have it,” she says. “Children play less creatively with media-linked toys. Now suppose this is embedded with a computer chip. What use is that to a child? Yet these are the most-advertised kind of toys.”

In a sense, the best way to understand the companies and products that Susan Linn is against — and there is no lack of material for her activism — is to understand what it is that she’s for: the simple, educational, therapeutic act of unscripted, unbranded, and unbridled play. Whether she’s speaking to the students before her now or the parents she meets with so often, she is careful to never come across as shrill, despite her outrage over what she believes the advertising and marketing industries are doing to children. Rather than anger, she projects a therapist’s calm.

Linn’s impressive list of successful campaigns has won her millions of adoring fans. But judging from her hate mail (she keeps a bucket filled with it in her office), she’s got plenty of detractors, too. She’s been judged a fascist, a communist (sometimes in the same letter), a Harvard snob, and a publicity hound. Her critics interpret her campaigns against marketers as attempts to dictate how parents should raise their children. She’s been accused of being hostile to fun. But no action she has ever taken has resulted in attacks as ferocious as the ones she sustained after picking a very public fight with Disney and its Baby Einstein line of “educational” videos and products.

In late 1996, a mother and former teacher named Julie Aigner-Clark shot the first Baby Einstein video in her basement. Aigner-Clark’s marketing promised that the video would increase the brain capacity of babies. Later offerings carried additional claims of educational benefits. The videos, snatched up by well-intentioned parents looking to give their kids an advantage, won awards and even showed up on Oprah. In 2001 Aigner-Clark sold the company to Disney for $25 million. By 2003 a third of all American infants had at least one Baby Einstein video.