Stuffing Our Kids: Should Psychologists Help Advertisers Manipulate Children?

Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., and Tim Kasser, Ph.D.(1)

Advertising to children has become big business in recent years, with kids under twelve spending over 24 billion dollars of their own money in 1997 and directly influencing the spending of 188 billion more (McNeal, 1998). This surge in child consumerism has resulted in a keen interest among marketers in knowing what makes kids tick. To learn more, advertisers have hired well-paid psychological consultants to help them study every phase and stage of a child's life. The results are sophisticated, finely-honed commercials that work.

When psychologists engage in such consulting practices, their media-amplified impact is enormous - and it will continue to grow, as there is no end in sight to the expanding child market. These practices raise grave ethical concerns regarding the proper use of psychological expertise and threaten the public's trust in the profession.

For this reason, along with Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based advocacy group, we recently sent a letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) asking it to address these issues.(2) The letter, endorsed by sixty psychologists and other mental health professionals, requested that APA "[i]ssue a formal public statement denouncing the use of psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children," and that it amend its code of ethics appropriately. We further urged APA to launch a campaign to educate the public about the ongoing abuse of psychological knowledge by the child advertising industry. APA has referred the letter to its Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, which meets in March.

Some child advertisers candidly admit that their commercials exploit children and create family conflicts. According to Nancy Shalek, then president of Shalek Agency, "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's easy to do with kids because they're the most vulnerable" (as quoted in Ruskin, 1999, p. 42).

Marketers also work hard to increase their product's "nag factor," a term which refers to how often and how vehemently children pressure parents to buy an item. In one of our practices (Kanner), parents have approached the therapist in turmoil over how to respond to such nagging. They feel guilty about purchasing items, such as junk food or violent video games, that they believe are bad for their kids. On the other hand, they worry that by constantly saying "no" they will increase their child's depression or worsen an already strained parent-child relationship.

Another disturbing trend in child advertising is the targeting of very young children. Mike Searles, then president of Kids-R-Us, a major children's clothing store, believes there are great advantages to hooking a child as soon as possible: "[I]f you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying 'Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger'" (as quoted in Ruskin, 1999, p. 42).

Psychologist Dan Acuff (1998) in his recent book What Kids Buy and Why offers marketers detailed advice on advertising to two-year olds. He suggests that commercials include animals or animal characters, feature characters that are round or curvy in shape, and proceed at a slow pace that most adults would find tedious. His recommendations are based on studies showing, respectively, that up to 80% of young children's dreams are of animals, that toddlers associate round, curvy shapes with "good guys" and jagged, crooked lines with "bad guys," and that very young children are not "wired" for fast-paced programming with quickly changing scenes and images. Thus, Dr. Acuff has integrated a diverse yet highly specialized set of studies to help marketers manipulate these highly vulnerable toddlers.

What is the proper relationship of child psychology to advertising? Given the unprecedented volume of commercials to which children are exposed today, along with their increasing sophistication, to answer this question we need to consider the cumulative impact of ads. Specifically, we can inquire as to whether, taken as a whole, modern advertising emotionally harms children.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe it does.

Studies on "materialism" show that individuals highly focused on materialistic values also report less satisfaction with life, less happiness, worse interpersonal relationships, more drug and alcohol abuse, and less contribution to community (see Cohen & Cohen, 1995; Kasser, 2000; Sirgy, 1999). Yet materialistic values are the very ones that commercials pound into our children day in and day out.

Consistent with these findings, Kanner & Gomes (1995) have written about the narcissistic wounding of our youth that occurs when advertisements make children feel deeply inadequate unless they purchase an endless array of new products and services. We have described this process as contributing to the formation of a shallow "consumer identity" that is obsessed with instant gratification and material wealth.

In addition to inculcating materialistic values, commercials deceive and manipulate children on a massive scale. The false promises of popularity, success, and attractiveness that marketers routinely make for their products are such common lies that we have become inured to their dishonesty. Yet from our clinical work we know that when adults chronically deceive and manipulate a child, it erodes the youngster's ability to trust others and feel secure in the world. We would expect the falsehoods and distortions in commercials to have a similar effect.

Curiously, the overall adverse impact of advertising on children has been largely ignored by psychology, just as psychologists who consult with child marketers have gone virtually unchallenged. This state of affairs reflects a more general failure of the field to critically examine the consumer values and beliefs that have transformed American society during the 20th century.

Our letter to APA is thus intended to do much more than halt the questionable consulting activities of some psychologists. It is a call to psychology, at long last, to take action against the commercialization of our youth.



WHAT YOU CAN DO: To support the proposals outlined in our letter, call APA President Patrick DeLeon, Ph.D., (1-800/374-2721) and your division and state chapter presidents.

References

Acuff, D. (1997). What kids buy and why. NY: The Free Press.

Cohen, P. & Cohen, J. (1996). Life values and adolescent mental health. Mahwah: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kanner, A.D., & Gomes, M.E. (1995). The all-consuming self. In T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner (Eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Kasser, T. (2000). Two versions of the American dream: Which goals and values make for a high quality of life? In E. Diener & D. Rahtz, (Eds.)Advances in quality of life theory and research. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

McNeal, J.V. (1998). Tapping the three kids' markets. American Demographics, 20, 36.

Ruskin, G. (1999). Why they whine: How corporations prey on our children. Mothering, 97,. 41-50.

Sirgy, M.J. (1999). Materialism and quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 43, 227-260.



Author Identification

Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., is an associate faculty member of the Wright Institute and a child, family and adult therapist in Berkeley, CA. He is co-editor of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind and has conducted research on the impact of daily hassles and uplifts on health and well-being in children and adults. He can be reached at 510/526-8613.

Tim Kasser, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Knox College and the author of various empirical articles and book chapters on values, goals, and well-being. He can be reached at 309/341-7283 or "tkasser@knox.edu".

1.  An earlier version of this paper appeared in the February, 2000 issue of The California Psychologist .

2. A copy of the letter can be obtained by contacting either author (see end of article) or by viewing Commercial Alert's website "www.essential.org/alert/psychology/apaletter".