Author, Lecturer, Lawyer and Children’s Advocate Joel Bakan Speaks on the Dangers of Kid Marketing

By on 02/29/2012

Lawyer and author Joel Bakan appeared at Harker’s upper school campus as part of the Harker Speaker Series on Jan. 22 to discuss the topic of his latest book, “Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.” The book details the many increasingly insidious ways in which children are targeted by marketers, especially with the advent of the Internet and social media.

Bakan, who also authored “The Corporation,” which was made into an acclaimed documentary, was spurred to research the topic after experiencing two “pivotal moments,” as he called them. The first was hearing the famous quote by Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

“[Children] are the most tangible representatives of what the future society is, and will be,” Bakan said.

The second came when he saw his 11-year-old son huddled around a computer with his friends, and felt compelled to ask him what they were doing. His son then directed him to a website containing a wide variety of games, many of them with shocking or violent subject matter.

“It’s important to note that these games are not in some dark corner of the Web,” he said. They are, in fact, offered by Nickelodeon, a leading provider of children’s entertainment.

Concerned about the “increasingly brazen” tactics marketers use to target children, Bakan interviewed several leading marketers for the book, and found them to be candid about their goals, proclaiming that their mission is “to uncover and then manipulate kids’ emotional hot buttons and desires” in order to sell their products. Companies on average pay marketers $15 billion each year for these kinds of services.

These hot buttons include obsession with sugary foods, a fascination with violence, their preoccupation with what their peers think and their desire to appear older than they are.

“These tendencies and predilections, which for us as parents are things we want to protect our kids from, for marketers are resources to be mined for profit,” he said.

He cited another example, a Facebook application called “Honesty Box,” which allows users to anonymously gossip about their friends. Adolescent obsession with peer approval, Bakan said, has made Honesty Box very popular, and creates possibilities for online bullying. When Bakan suggested to his daughter that she stop using Honesty Box, “She said, ‘I can’t, because then I won’t know what people are saying about me.’”

Bakan also talked about how pharmaceutical companies have marketed more and more toward children in the last 30 years. While he does not believe that children should never be prescribed medication or psychotropic drugs, “what I do think is happening is that there is a trend of overmedication,” which he partially attributes to marketing tactics used by pharmaceutical companies.

He cited the tragic story of Caitlin McIntosh, who committed suicide at the age of 12 after being prescribed Zoloft by a doctor. It was later found out that Pfizer, the company that makes Zoloft, had known that the drug could induce suicidal thoughts but chose not to reveal that information. Because the Food and Drug Administration did not require private companies to disclose the negative results of their own tests, Pfizer was able to keep these and other findings from the public.

Fortunately, in recent years key laws have been passed that make it easier for consumers to know the risks in using prescribed pharmaceuticals. One of them, passed in 2007, requires companies to disclose the details of their clinical trials to a public registry maintained by the FDA. Although this can be a valuable resource, Bakan said, it unfortunately is bogged down with jargon not understandable by much of the public. Another law passed just this year requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose any payments they have made to doctors greater than $10, so that patients can find out if a doctor’s prescription of a certain drug is suspect.

Bakan concluded by saying that even though parents now have less control over how their children are marketed to, it is nonetheless important for parents to speak up at the government level to make sure companies are required to conduct ethical business practices.

“Being a good parent today requires more, as if it isn’t enough, than making good choices as individual parents,” he said. “I think we also have to work to change the conditions under which we and other parents are making those choices, and we also have to become active in demanding public measures that protect children from harm.”