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What's This Doing to Kids?

Excerpts from interviews with marketers, media executives and cultural critics.

Robert McChesney
a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times

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How does corporate America's obvious focus--their deep research into how young people live and think--does that affect these young people?

It's hard to answer that because there's so many factors in people's lives to really evaluate, you know? Does it make kids happier and healthier or does it hurt them?

I think if you look at the American Pediatric Association, which is really young kids, or American Psychological Association, when they do their studies, I think that the evidence is increasingly clear that being awash in sort of a commercial marination as American children and teenagers are today, does not make happier people.

I mean the evidence is clear that we have a generation that's not especially happy and it should be a troubling sign for all of us. And it's a tough area, because there's so many other factors you hesitate about sounding like a vulgar social critic. But, in 1970 some sociologists did surveys of teenagers all over the world to see who are the happiest teenagers? Who feel best about their world their lives? And the three groups of teenagers that were regarded as the happiest teenagers in the world in 1970 were in Israel, Cuba, and Chile. And those were highly non-commercial cultures, all three of them.

But it's interesting to look at Chile. Chile at that time was a very democratic society, very high rate of voter turn-out, the most political society, arguably, in the world, certainly the Third World. They had a coup d'etat, they established a so-called "free market economy", and they consciously tried to de-politicize the people when they reinstated democracy. And now it's a highly commercial culture.

If you go to Chile today, the middle class of Chile is brand name conscious. They don't know anything about politics. And now they've got one of the most depressed teenagers in the group. But it's considered a great victory in The New York Times and in our media because it's a free society now. It's a democracy, but it's also a society where people aren't very happy and it's obsessed with brand names.

I mean that's anecdotal evidence. I would never use that in the court of law to convict. But I think there is considerable evidence that this type of world does not produce happy people. This isn't really what people are meant to be, basically recipients of marketing messages to define themselves by purely commercial terms. And it really should surprise us.

I mean look at every major religion, every theology. I mean none of them would define a good life or a happy person on the basis of something as meaningless as their possessions, what they own, or how many they own more than someone else, or they have a different brand name.

So what is the emotional-spiritual-ethical effect of having all of your authentic cultural artifacts sucked up in to this machine?

Well, it really promotes the sort of world in which you don't think anything matters, unless it serves your material gain. Why be honest? Why have integrity? Why care about other people? That's for chumps. It's all about taking care of number one. The dominant institutions in society, the values they send out is, "We're just here to make money off of you. We're just here to take advantage of you." The message that goes out to everyone in that system is, "Yeah, everyone should be everyone for themself. Just take care of number one. Why should I care about that other person, you know? What's in it for me?"

And that's not a healthy environment for society. People are not islands. We're social creatures. When we stop caring about each other, we just think what happens to us is all that matters, ah, it creates very unhappy people.

For the parents and teens then, what are the first steps towards eradicating that?

The first steps would be hard to say. I mean ultimately I think we have to change the nature of the system. When you talk about cable television, when you talk about over-the-air television, this is public property. These companies that rule it are there because they've got monopoly licenses from the government either to have cable systems or access to channels on a air waves. So the public has a right to intervene there and say, "These are the terms we want."

For example, in Sweden they allow no advertising to children under 12 as the condition of broadcasting. You can't advertise there to children under 12. The public has a right to do that here. We have a right to set real limits on the amount of advertising and commercialism that reach people under 18....

So I think we have to think big and really get to the root of the problem. Just eliminate this hyper-commercialism aimed at children, at teenagers, and I think that's the direction we need to go in. But that seems probably far off, maybe even impossible, given the strength and power of these media companies.

But there are things you can do at the local level. You can go to your school board, and the same companies that are hyper-commercializing MTV are interested in commercializing your schools. Try to keep advertising out of your schools. Those things that are non-commercial, like public television, try to limit the advertising and commercialism in public media that are supposed to be ad-free. Keep those as a sector, as an island of non-commercial entertainment, news, and journalism in our culture.

Likewise, you can do things like insist that your schools do media literacy, and real media literacy. There's two types of media literacy. There's the type that actually teaches you how the system works, what advertisers are trying to do, understand it to be a critical participant. Then there's the type that the media companies want to do, which is basically to train you to like certain types of shows, but not question the system.

Get real media literacy done by honest intellectuals and academics, not by PR people for the media companies and the ad industry. That can help, too. Make people aware of what to do.... That's why something like media literacy in schools can be so important, to make kids aware at a very early age it isn't natural, it wasn't always like this. Think of it critically. Someone's doing it 'cause they benefit by it. This is what they're trying to do to you. So you can arm yourself and understand the nature of the relationship early on.

John Seabrook
a writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing--The Marketing of Culture

I think that we all sort of still crave the kind of quiet, non-commercial space in our lives. We treasure them and whether we're aware of it as adults or whether we just sort of do it spontaneously as kids, I think that there the still those distinctions made in everyone's life that this is all part of MTV and that this is not.

I think if you sort of think about the progress of MTV through the years, it's been to gradually push that boundary so that the quiet, sort of non-commercial space is shrunk more and more and now I think kids social life is made up of commercial culture to a very large degree, whether it's, "Oh, I see you're wearing Tommy Hilfiger," and "Why are you doing that and not wearing, you know, Polo?" Or, you know, "Did you see the Limp Bizkit ad video on MTV?"

I mean these are the reference points. It's no longer, you know, "Do you want to go down and see if we can see some turtles at the lake?" I think that those kinds of experiences are discouraged partly because they're not as exciting and fun and not as many people engage in them, and also because you don't seen them on MTV.

And so when we talk about the sort of feedback loops, I mean there it's very clear people are seeing what they think of as life on MTV and then they're going out and trying to live that sort of life, which would be a kind of a cultural non-commercial version of that. But because what MTV shows you is very limited in terms of the choices that you can make, the life that you try to lead based on MTV becomes very sterile and homogenous and boring. And then all you have to do is watch more MTV and it's sort of like the loop gets tighter and tighter....

It becomes an enclosure.

It does seem very suffocating and although MTV does represent... you do see people of different races together and that's good. But its versions of African American and white life are so sort of narrowly constrained in terms of what MTV chooses to show you about those lives that in a way it'snot as diverse as it seems. It seems like it's a picture of diversity, but the reality of it is fairly kind of homogenous.

...What's the "marketer within"?

The "marketer within" was a core concept for me when I was writing No Brow . I think it's a really, really important distinction and it's a generational distinction and I feel like I'm slightly on the far side of it.

On that side, you have people who see marketing as an essentially external manipulative force that's trying to get you to do something that you wouldn't ordinarily do. It's the voice of the pitch men. It's the blaring radio hawker. It's the billboards that you're surrounded by and you don't really feel that is part of your folk culture. You feel that what's authentic and what's true to you is not that. You're not quite sure maybe what it is, but it's not that.

Then on the other side of that, you have a group of people who grew up mainly through television absorbing a marketing voice, absorbing that pitch man's voice almost before they knew language. I mean I think that there's been studies done that show that two year-olds can recognize the difference in volume and tone of the commercial voice on television and know it intimately in a way that they don't respond to the editorial voice.

And you sort of internalize that voice so that marketing no longer seems like an alien sort of external manipulative force, but, rather, it's just part of your world. It's part of something that goes on inside you and outside you and the marketer within is the artist who sort of realizes that he doesn't need to use some sort of external sort of advertising to sell his product or his art, that his art can be made out of that voice, that voice that's somewhere sort of still rattling around, the voice of the pitch man, and it doesn't necessarily need to sort of diminish the art -- it doesn't necessarily sort of need to be something that's sort of grafted onto the art. That it becomes sort of part of the art and that the artist of the future will make their art with that voice, you know, in mind.

Is something lost?

Well, I think something's lost because I sort of stand on the other side of that commercial divide and I find it very hard to accept that someone can make art with the notion of selling it--intimately sort of involved with the creation of it and not make some sort of diminished form of art. But, see, I am willing to accept that that is perhaps an old-fashioned notion and that there is another way of looking at art that comes from a another kind of relationship to marketing that sees marketing as a valid form and as an integral part of the making of art.

And it is true that almost every artist that makes something wants people to experience it and -- and many of them actually want to make money on it, too. So we can't sort of say that there are all these sort of pure artists that never thought about it and then there are all these sort of, you know, compromised artists that think about it all the time.

I think that it's a world in which that distinction is kind of broken down and, you know, we'll see more marketers within.
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Brian Graden
head of programming for MTV

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What you find is a surprising resourcefulness to be able to process. Because this is not a phenomena that hit them when they were 15, it's been the reality since they were 5. On the other hand you see--I don't want to say resentment of it--but there is sometimes an undercurrent that says, "I'm 13. Do I really need to be running around with my Palm Pilot worrying about all of these things I hear about on Dawson's Creek?" ...

I can't help but be worried that we are throwing so much at young adults so fast. And that there is no amount of preparation or education or even love that you could give a child to be ready. That said, I think I'm just a person who's getting older talking, because my parents would have undoubtedly said the same thing about the world I grew up in. And young adults don't really see it that way. They don't express particular confusion over it. They don't express that they're being overwhelmed by it.

Sharon Lee
a founding partner in Look-Look, a research company specializing in youth culture

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How does this generation feel about being sold to?

It's a mixed bag on that actually....You can't say, "Oh, they hate being sold to and they hate all marketing." That's not true. That's one perspective on it. They're very sophisticated consumers, meaning they know what's being marketed. They know all about marketing. They were raised with deconstructing advertising since they were little kids.

And so you have to assume that they're very sophisticated and so you can't trick them ever. What you want to do is create some sort of emotional connection with them where they are interested and they respect and you have a dialogue going on. And what they get incensed about is if there's not that level of respect. If they're treated like, "You're just a stupid consumer and we're gonna not bother to learn about your culture but we're gonna market to you in a way that is insulting," then they get upset about that. ...It's a very superficial understanding of the culture. It is disrespectful.

... The other thing, too, that's been interesting that we have seen happen with trend-setters [is] that we see them actually researching what companies are about. Finding out what type of like managing policies they have or how they manufacture their products and really finding out like the history and all the specifics. Do they use [child labor?]... Are they doing stuff to mess up the environment? These are all that concerns for young people now. They're all very aware of what's happening around the world, because they look up these things on the Internet.

Mark Crispin Miller
a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

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If you watch Saturday morning kids' TV, you can see it in programming that is unrelievedly frantic, hyped up, hysterical, in its own way quite violent and pervasively commercial. It's all about selling, and this, I think, is the primary reason why there is something of a cultural crisis involving children. It is not because there are fugitives from the '60s generation who are in control of the media. It's not a communist plot. It's not because bad people are involved in those industries. It's because of the inordinate influence of commercial logic and the commercial imperative overall.

Now I think we have to appreciate the enormous difference between life for young people and life for young people a few decades back. Because now kids grow up in a universe that is utterly suffused with this kind of commercial propaganda. And by that, I mean not only the ads per se, but the shows that sell the ads.

What this system does is it closely studies the young, keeps them under very tight surveillance to figure out what will push their buttons. Then it takes that and blares it back at them relentlessly and everywhere, because these are interests with a tremendous amount of power and technological sophistication. And these are kids who are, to an unprecedented extent, hooked in through their gimmicks, their toys, their computers and so on. So there's really very little space that these giant interests can't completely fill up with this kind of message.

The bombardment is amazing. It's hard, therefore, to keep that kind of crucial distance. It's hard to be critical. It's hard to think about what might be going on at the top, especially if the media doesn't tell you. It's hard to figure out who you are and what you really want. It's hard to make your own music because that thing is always there listening, watching, taking notes, and packaging something so that it can sell you more stuff.

Kids feel frightened and lonely today. It's because they are encouraged to feel that way. Advertising has always sold anxiety and it certainly sells anxiety to the young. It's always telling them that they are not thin enough, they're not pretty enough, they don't have the right friends, or they have no friends, they're creeps, they're losers unless they're cool. But I don't think anybody deep down really feels cool enough ever. That's the nature of advertising, to keep you hungering for more of the stuff that's supposed to finally put you there, but never does.

It's so thoroughly about being on display. It's about how you look. We all imagine a million cameras facing us and recording everything. There's this acute self-consciousness that constitutes a tremendous psychological burden because you can never really feel like you're alone with yourself. You can never really feel like someone's not overhearing what you're thinking. ... Even in the deepest privacy of your own mind you'll often find a team them from some advertising agency, you know. That's the most criminal aspect of this whole system -- it seems to have colonized or tries to colonize the very consciousness of its young subjects.

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