Washington is awash these days with avowals of concern for children, especially on the Republican side. Whatever the issue, it’s really about the kids they say. President Bush referred to children 11 times in a single speech — on tax cuts no less. In a speech on federal money for churches — excuse us, “faith based initiatives” — the count was up to 35 (not counting “kids” and the like.)
“The values of our children must be a priority of our nation,” Bush said in a budget speech in March. But exactly what values was the President referring to? He gave the impression it was the traditional ones of hard work, abstemiousness and the rest. But look more closely at the administration, and a different meaning emerges.
Whenever an issue pits kids against corporate agendas and big money in Bush’s Washington, it is the kids who lose. And that means pretty much all the time. Corporate leaders in the U.S. are bent on reducing children to free-floating appetites for stuff, and the new crowd in Washington is cheering them on — often because it’s the same people. Speechifying about “values” notwithstanding, no previous administration has so embodied the aggressive commercialism that has parents feeling under siege.
If the administration really was serious about standing up for kids, it would go at this commercialism like a shark at blood. It is a direct assault on everything Republicans claim to hold dear. It subverts both the sanctity of the home and the authority of parents; and it turns the entire culture into a nemesis for parents rather than a support for them. Corporations approach kids not as potential moral beings, but as bundles of inchoate desire whose inclinations to self gratification are to be stoked and magnified — the amorality of the Sixties in corporate drag.
But since the perps wear suits, the administration calls it the American Way. Kids are the new frontier of corporate marketing, the “big-spending superstars in the consumer constellation,” as James U. McNeal, president of McNeal & Kids Youth Marketing Consultants, puts it. To claim this frontier the corporations have a simple strategy: they seek to interpose themselves between parents and child, and to enlist the child as an agent in prying money from mom and dad. That’s why they choose venues that parents might not notice, such as Saturday morning TV; or that take parents by surprise, such as ads at the start of kiddie videos, and product placements within them.
Once the advertisers have the kids’ attention, they work to turn them into insufferable nags; and they enlist the most sophisticated wiles of market researchers to that end. Western Initiative Media, a market research firm, put out a study called “The Nag Factor,” on how ad-driven nagging can boost sales. Here’s how Selling to Kids newsletter explained Western’s results to advertisers: “If kids nag with a sense of urgency or persuasion rather than with whiny persistence, they’re more likely to get what they want.”
Such nagging wouldn’t be necessary of course if parents wanted their kids to have the stuff in question. But it’s almost always junk food and junk entertainment — which is why the corporations seek to sidestep the parents and speak directly to the kids. Taken together it amounts to open war on parental authority, and a recipe for family strife. In the psychodrama of kiddie advertising, parents become the cash cows and potential enemies, while corporations become the child’s indulgent friend.
One would expect an administration dedicated to traditional family values to rise up in arms against such domestic subversion. Instead President Bush has declared a unilateral disarmament, and in fact has put the subverters in charge.
Consider the tobacco industry, which for decades has engaged in a thinly-disguised recruitment drive among the nation’s kids. (It has to — no other industry kills off its existing customers so fast.) From the Marlboro Man to Joe Camel to ad-laced promotional giveaways, the drive has continued despite warnings from the Surgeon General, the American Medical Association (AMA), and more lawsuits than most of us can count. The tobacco industry has actually increased its spending on ads since the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement. Not coincidentally another 3,000 kids start smoking every day in the US — and about a third of them will die from illnesses related to this smoking.
If there’s an issue for an administration dedicated to the welfare of children, this is it. Yet already the administration has announced its intention to take a dive on the pending federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry, and it worked hard to weaken an international tobacco control protocol. It is not likely to initiate action on other fronts such as tobacco advertising that influences kids. The two key players on the Bush posture towards the industry — Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson — both served on the advisory board of the Washington Legal Foundation, which has filed many briefs in support of the tobacco industry and the advertising industry.
Moreover, Bush’s chief of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission is J. Howard Beales III, an economist perhaps best known for his scholarly defense of R. J. Reynolds and its infamous “Joe Camel” ad campaign. You read that correctly: a defender of the tobacco company’s seduction of kids is now enforcing the law that pertains to advertising to kids. Beales won’t be alone, either. David Scheffman, the new head of the FTC’s bureau of economics, also worked for the tobacco industry.
And lest the cigarette makers not feel sufficiently soothed, Karl Rove, the President’s chief political strategist, worked for Philip Morris between 1991 and 1996. Personnel is policy, as the saying goes. (Need we add that the tobacco industry contributed some $7 million to Republicans during the 2000 election cycle, and that Philip Morris alone gave them almost $3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics? )
Advertisers to children have the administration wired in a multitude of ways. Soft drinks, for example, are hardly as lethal as cigarettes. But they are an increasing problem as American children show escalating levels of obesity and Type II diabetes. The largest source of refined sugar in the U.S. diet is soda pop. (A single 12 oz. can of Pepsi has 10 1/4 teaspoons of sugar.) A study in Lancet, the British medical journal, found a direct link between soda consumption and childhood obesity — and that’s on top of the public works program for dentists that soft-drink consumption represents.
Coke and Pepsi have established a new beach head for huckstering to children — the nation’s schools. Schools used to teach good nutrition. Now they pitch soft drinks instead. Pepsi and Mountain Dew are big advertisers on Channel One, an ad vehicle qua news show that turns school classrooms into amphitheaters for the forced consumption of TV ads. Worse, Coke and Pepsi have wangled to get their billboards and machines in school cafeterias and hallways across the nation. Shilling for junk drinks might seem a dubious enterprise for the nations schools, and Channel One a big waste of classroom time. The sugar and caffeine-laced concoctions probably don’t help restless kids stay quiet and attentive.
But don’t expect the Bush Administration to do anything about it. The new Secretary of Education is Roderick Paige, former Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, where he ushered in an exclusive five-year marketing arrangement with Coke. By peddling exclusive access to its captive market of kids, the District got $5 million plus a commission on the soda pop they buy. In other words, Paige aligned the schools with the corporations that want to push junk food at students, rather than with the health of those students.
Coke’s largest bottler has signed twenty of these school deals since the beginning of this year alone — despite disavowals from Coke itself. It would take a minuscule portion of the federal budget to replace the moneys schools are getting from these hucksters. But apparently no one in the administration was making this case — or else no one was listening.
The advertisers have much bigger plans of course, and the administration is right there with them. Coke recently entered a global marketing agreement with Disney, for example; and both probably were cheered by Bush’s appointment to the position of assistant secretary of State for public diplomacy. It is Charlotte Beers, a former chair of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, and a former chair & CEO of Ogilvy and Mather. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained in March that the goal of Beers’s job would be “branding the department, marketing the department, marketing American values to the world”.
So America is now a product line. A hint of the values in question here came recently when the Administration announced it was going to bat for the tobacco industry in its efforts to gain entrance to the Korean market.
If one were looking for the congealed essence of the administration’s double-dealing regarding children, the path eventually would lead to Ralph Reed. Reed is the former head of the Christian Coalition and a chief arranger in the political union of convenience between sincere social conservatives and the amoral corporate base of the Republican party. Reed’s speciality is carving out isolated issues such as abortion that pose no threat to corporations, to keep the conservative ground troops preoccupied. Then he helps deliver their votes to the Republican moneybags on election day.
In recent years Reed has added a new dimension for his work. When he’s not giving speeches about the sanctity of the nation’s children, he’s raking in big consulting dollars from the corporations that have targeted those children. Reed has lobbied for Primedia’s Channel One, for example, which is probably the most insidious new means of sneaking around parents. It touts junk food and even violent and sexualized movies to a captive daily audience of eight million kids.
Among the movies advertised on Channel One is “Dude, Where’s My Car?” a movie that glamorizes two potheads who get so stoned they can’t remember where they parked their car. It’s not the kind of fare one expects the former head of the Christian Coalition to be lobbying for. Yet Reed has soldiered away. His firm, Century Strategies, recently tried to defeat legislation that would require parental consent before schools could allow marketing firms to extract personal information from their pupils. The legislation, sponsored by Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) was passed by the Senate. But it awaits action in a conference committee, where it faces stiff opposition from Primedia, Channel One’s corporate parent.
Reed is another one who obviously puts children first. President Bush has found Reed’s approach much to his liking. Reed was an important advisor to Bush’s Presidential campaign, and helped him corral the votes of religious conservatives. Bush kept Reed on board even after it came out that Reed was lobbying for Microsoft even as he whispered into the then-candidate’s ear.
Reed’s act is wearing thin among some pro-family conservatives. His lobbying for Channel One “is a betrayal of conservative values. He sold out,” observes Jim Metrock, President of Obligation Inc., a child advocacy group based in Birmingham, Alabama. Metrock has been trying to get Channel One and its degraded commercial values out of the local schools.
Other conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, as well as Focus on the Family and the American Family Association, actively work against Channel One and other attempts to exploit children commercially through the schools. But their voices are not heard much in the high councils of the new child-friendly Washington. The new administration is listening instead to people like Frank Luntz, the pollster, who urges Republicans to talk about children at every opportunity. “Women consistently respond to the phrase ‘for the children’ regardless of context,” Luntz wrote in a memo to Republican members of Congress.
Chances are we’ll be hearing such phrases a lot over the next few years. But don’t expect the Administration to do much about it where the interests of Big Advertisers are concerned. Instead, we’ll probably get a lot more like the resolution that passed the House unanimously last week, whose purpose was “Recognizing the importance of children in the United States…”
Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert.