As associate dean of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center at Harvard Medical School, Susan says she started tracking marketing in children's programming after she saw Teletubbies on PBS. "It was marketed as educational for babies, but there was absolutely no evidence that it was," she says.
Because parents trust public television, they tuned in—in turn, the babies got hooked on television, which is where marketers reach them. Susan says her issue wasn't with the content of the program but the products that were being marketed to kids through the show. "You can say, 'Well, this program does a good job of promoting reading,' but it may also promote junk food or toys that inhibit creative play," she says.
Susan says that there should be stricter regulations on marketing to children, to the extent of eliminating it altogether. She says that marketing is a factor in a lot of problems children are having today, including obesity, eating disorders, underage drinking and tobacco use, violence and irresponsible sexuality.
So how can parents combat the influence of marketing when it comes at them from all directions? Susan offers some ideas:
- Set guidelines before a trip to the store. By discussing what will and won't be purchased, you'll have a better chance of avoiding tantrums.
- Support events like Turn Off TV Week and Buy Nothing Day. Help your kids understand marketing as a social and political issue. If you don't want to go an entire week without TV, plan one night a week with no electronic media and do something as a family.
- Don't put TVs in kids' bedrooms. Susan says the risk of obesity in preschoolers goes up for every hour of television they watch, and it goes even higher if there's a television in their bedroom.
- Encourage altruism. By involving your children in charitable donations at an early age, you create a pattern of giving, as well as offering an antidote to materialism.
- Be willing to say no. While it seems harder for today's generation of parents to say no, it is important, Susan says. Research shows that kids influence parents' buying decisions about everything from cars to vacations, and the advertisements kids see reflects that influence.