Andrew Gumbel: We should all join the resistance against Disney

I know I'm making no sense to my son. He's probably wondering why his Dad is such a mean old grouch


We are wandering the aisles of our local supermarket, and my five-year-old son sees a plastic Spider-Man "spider squirter" toy loudly advertised on a packet of chocolate-covered cereal pops. Naturally, he wants to buy them. Naturally, I resist. He wants to know why I'm being so difficult.

We are wandering the aisles of our local supermarket, and my five-year-old son sees a plastic Spider-Man "spider squirter" toy loudly advertised on a packet of chocolate-covered cereal pops. Naturally, he wants to buy them. Naturally, I resist. He wants to know why I'm being so difficult.

Futiley, I attempt to explain to him that I think the free Spider-Man toy is probably a cheap trick to try to make us buy breakfast food that could rot our teeth and make us fat. In the end, I can only lure him away by promising that we will buy the spider squirter as a separate item in a toy shop.

En route to the check-out, my son sees a Disney magazine for kids with characters from the studio's new animated movie, Lilo and Stitch, on the front. He has not yet seen the film, but he wants the magazine anyway. Again, I try to explain that it's not worth it for a bunch of adverts for other Disney products and a couple of badly drawn cartoons. Even as I talk, I know that what I am saying makes absolutely no sense to a five-year-old. He's probably wondering why his dad is such a mean old grouch.

Of course, there is nothing unusual about being bombarded with child-oriented marketing these days. It's an integral part of global capitalism. Living in southern California, though, there is the extra frisson of knowing that this is where it all started. This is where Disney first came up with the idea of marketing tie-ins to its animated films, where the fast-food industry was born, where theme parks, Barbie dolls and clothing featuring images of film and television characters all originated and, in many cases, merged together to turn the care-free innocence of childhood into aggressively promoted commercial space.

There is nothing unusual about my son's behaviour in the supermarket – in fact I like to think he is several degrees less venal, grasping and insistently materialistic than many of his fellow five-year-olds who, unlike him, watch hours of television each day and eat out at McDonald's several times a month. None the less, he is responding to a series of deliberately planted stimuli.

Chillingly, even his attempts to talk me into buying the various bits of junk we encounter are part of a carefully thought marketing plan – experts in the field cheerfully talk about parents succumbing to "pester power" and "the nudge factor". Even though he does not know it, and even though we, his parents, do our best to stop it, our son is a part of the vast, intricate machinery of corporate sales and marketing that latches on to kids while they are still in nappies.

Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, is right: the cultivation of children as consumers has taken on monstrous proportions. The super-abundance of movie tie-ins, Happy Meals and plastic toys not only fills children's lives with useless junk; thanks to cross-marketing, the system also ensures that one purchase inevitably becomes a stimulus to further consumption, creating an endlessly expanding circle of insatiable consumerist desire.

None of this happened by accident. Back in the 1970s, the US Federal Trade Commission tried to ban television advertising aimed at children under seven, on the grounds that it was detrimental to their development and fundamentally dishonest: children that young, the studies showed, had no way to distinguish advertising from normal programming.

The FTC's noble initiative was scuppered with the advent of the Reagan administration, and indeed the 1980s have since come to be regarded as the decade of child marketing. It wasn't just a matter of government deregulation: with women increasingly entering the workforce, parents felt guilty about time spent away from their children and compensated by buying more things for them.

A number of big companies took advantage of this marketing opportunity, notably Disney and McDonald's, both of which had a long history of luring children with cross-over promotional techniques, including theme parks, toys and the iconic figure of Ronald McDonald. Since 1996, the two companies have worked under a global joint marketing agreement, combining their considerable forces.

By now children's TV advertising plays 24 hours a day on such cable stations as Nickelodeon, Disney and the Cartoon Channel, none of which existed 20 years ago. There is no major family movie release without toy and fast-food tie-ins. Television characters turn up on juice boxes, toothbrushes and vitamin bottles. (Burger King once even made chicken nuggets in the shape of Teletubbies.)

Fast-food companies and soda manufacturers have also penetrated the US school system, offering sponsorship deals in cash- strapped districts in exchange for the right to sell their products on campus. Some schools even use product-placement textbooks ("If Judy eats no more than x Big Macs a week and no fewer than y...").

The losers in all this are the children, who are encouraged to lose sight of all values other than consumerism, and gravitate inexorably towards junk food that can only make them pliant, fat and stupid. Just look at the childhood obesity figures: they tell their own story. Resisting my son in the supermarket may make me feel like a killjoy, but it is the only way I know to keep the garbage at bay.

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