What’s the Marketing, Media and Childhood story?

Mission: To raise awareness of negative messages directed at children in advertising and other media, to help parents guide their children through that barrage of messages, and to promote media literacy education and positive media advocacy.

What do we talk about here?
The insidious nature of marketing and media in the lives of children and teens.
How violence and sexualization in the media harm children.
How media messages can impact children’s mental and physical health.
Just how commercialized childhood has become.
How consumer culture affects the health and well-being of children and teens.
How media and marketing can change our culture, society, government and economy, and why we should all be concerned.
What you can do to fight harmful media messages and advocate for positive media.


Why do I do this? Because when my boys were young, I wondered why the cartoons they watched on commercial television showed boys making googly eyes at the girls. And the girls had on these skimpy outfits. My little boys weren’t interested in girls yet. Girls were just other kids at school. If their interests aligned, they would play together. If not, no big deal. And they certainly didn’t understand the concept of staring at girls and saying “hubba hubba.” Why was this version of male behavior being pushed on them? And why were they being trained from such an early age in gender stereotypes? Why this emphasis on the differences between boys and girls?

(I have to say I always assumed the writers and illustrators of these cartoons were mostly geeky males suffering from arrested development and lack of imagination. Flame me if you want. I haven’t met any of them, and I still think that. And that’s who is influencing our children.)

Then, there were the advertisements on television. When a boy of 6 or 8 or 10 sees soft porn in the form of a Victoria’s Secret commercial during a Red Sox game, I wondered: How does that affect him? What is it doing to the sexual development of young males? Are their brains getting flooded prematurely with hormones, and will that be a problem later? I have been reading lately about how addictive porn is, and how it can be desensitizing to teens and young men, leading them to need more and more extreme images and sometimes leading to sexual dysfunction. If so, does exposure to so much semi-pornographic material from a young age start the process early on?

Now, what about when a small child sees violence on television? I really started to wonder about this when my small boys witnessed a commercial during a Patriots football game in which a teen-aged boy was shot. What does that image do when it gets inside those young brains and bounces around? I was reminded strongly of this again while watching the World Cup final game in 2010 and there was an ad for a violent PG-14 rated TV show in which a woman was menaced with a large-gun wielding man. How many young children were watching that game? What kind of effect does this ad have on those children, who may think that woman looks like someone’s mother?

We would watch children’s movies. Everybody is male in children’s animated movies. Every preschooler knows that worker bees are all female. So we get the Bees movie, with all-male worker bees. Jungle Book has a herd of male elephants, although we learned at our very first trip to the zoo that elephants travel in packs of females. Most crowd shots in animated movies look like photos of crowds in the Taliban-controlled Middle East. Most absurdly of all, there I was, watching television with the boys and on comes an ad for a movie with cows, complete with udders, speaking in deep male voices. Um, is the universe just messing with me or what? I’m back to my theory about geeky male writers.

If there was any female character in the movie, she was usually the only one. What is her role? To be the “female” one. Take for example the movie Madagascar. There’s the smart one, the adventurous one, the dopey one, and the female one. She bats her eyelashes a lot. Is it possible that there is more than one “female” personality? This is the kind of thing I bring up at the dinner table.

I don’t just think about boys, I think a lot about girls. How does seeing all these boys in the lead affect girls? Geena Davis, the actress, has found, through her Institute on Gender in Media, that the more hours of TV a girl watches the fewer options she believes she has, while the more hours of TV a boy watches the more sexist he becomes. These things bother me not just as a parent, but as a woman hoping for the end of sexism one day. What good does it do to fight sexism in the workplace if, in the meantime, we’ve got this early sexism training program going on from the pre-school level?

So many questions. What’s the message of pink Legos? How do marketers prey on vulnerable new parents with harmful products like Baby Einstein videos and how does that hurt children? How do merchandising tie-ins train our children to be consumers from an early age? How are our vulnerable teens hurt by ads and TV shows that tell them – in the pursuit of selling them something – that there is something wrong with them? Is that why the number of teenage girls using Botox and undergoing cosmetic surgery is skyrocketing? I could go on and on. But that’s what the blog is for, right?

Why do I do this? Because I have a lot of questions. And it’s time to find some answers.

About me

I’m Erin McNeill. I have two teen-aged boys. They are turning out pretty well. My background is in journalism. Once, I covered riots and natural disasters, city politics and business, in San Francisco. Then I went to Washington D.C. and wrote about environmental policy and legislation. More recently, I covered economic policy in Congress. Now, I do this.

I have recently launched Media Literacy Now, a non-profit organization that focuses on sparking grassroots and legislative activity in each state to get broad-based, comprehensive Media Literacy into schools as a matter of policy. Please visit the website at MediaLiteracyNow.org

I welcome your comments, your questions, your suggestions, your ideas. Please write to me at emcn17 at gmail dot com.