Feature

Some psychologists cry foul as peers help advertisers target young consumers.

BY REBECCA A. CLAY

Ever since he first started practicing, Berkeley, Calif., psychologist Allen D. Kanner, PhD, has been asking his younger clients what they wanted to do when they grew up. The answer used to be "nurse," "astronaut" or some other occupation with intrinsic appeal.

Today the answer is more likely to be "make money." For Kanner, one explanation for that shift can be found in advertising.

"Advertising is a massive, multi-million dollar project that's having an enormous impact on child development," says Kanner, who is also an associate faculty member at a clinical psychology training program called the Wright Institute. "The sheer volume of advertising is growing rapidly and invading new areas of childhood, like our schools."

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According to Kanner, the result is not only an epidemic of materialistic values among children, but also something he calls "narcissistic wounding" of children. Thanks to advertising, he says, children have become convinced that they're inferior if they don't have an endless array of new products.

Now Kanner and several colleagues are up-in-arms about psychologists and others who are using psychological knowledge to help marketers target children more effectively. They're outraged that psychologists and others are revealing such tidbits as why 3- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that transform themselves into something else and why 8- to 12-year-olds love to collect things. Last fall, Kanner and a group of 59 other psychologists and psychiatrists sent a controversial letter protesting

psychologists' involvement to APA.

In response, at its June meeting, APA's Board of Directors acted on a recommendation from the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and approved the creation of a task force to study the issue. The task force will examine the research on advertising's impact on children and their families and develop a research agenda. The group will look at the role psychologists play in what some consider the exploitation of children and consider how psychology can help minimize advertising's harmful effects and maximize its positive effects.

The group will also explore implications for public policy. Task force members will be chosen in consultation with Div. 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services) and other relevant divisions.

Unethical practices?

The letter protesting psychologists' involvement in children's advertising was written by Commercial Alert, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization. The letter calls marketing to children a violation of APA's mission of mitigating human suffering, improving the condition of both individuals and society, and helping the public develop informed judgments.

Urging APA to challenge what it calls an "abuse of psychological knowledge," the letter asks APA to:

  • Issue a formal, public statement denouncing the use of psychological principles in marketing to children.

  • Amend APA's Ethics Code to limit psychologists' use of their knowledge and skills to observe, study, mislead or exploit children for commercial purposes.

  • Launch an ongoing campaign to investigate the use of psychological research in marketing to children, publish an evaluation of the ethics of such use, and promote strategies to protect children against commercial exploitation by psychologists and others using psychological principles.

"The information psychologists are giving to advertisers is being used to increase profits rather than help children," says Kanner, who helped collect signatures for the letter. "The whole enterprise of advertising is about creating insecure people who believe they need to buy things to be happy. I don't think most psychologists would believe that's a good thing. There's an inherent conflict of interest."

Advertisers' efforts seem to work. According to marketing expert James U. McNeal, PhD, author of "The Kids Market: Myths and Realities" (Paramount Market Publishing, 1999), children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year. Teen-agers spend $100 billion. Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents.

The effect this rampant consumerism has on children is still unknown, says Kanner. In an informal literature review, he found many studies about how to make effective ads but not a single study addressing ads' impact on children. Instead, he points to research done by Tim Kasser, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. In a series of studies, Kasser has found that people who strongly value wealth and related traits tend to have higher levels of distress and lower levels of well-being, worse relationships and less connection to their communities.

"Psychologists who help advertisers are essentially helping them manipulate children to believe in the capitalistic message, when all the evidence shows that believing in that message is bad for people," says Kasser. "That's unethical."

Driving out psychologists

Psychologists who help companies reach children don't agree. Take Whiton S. Paine, PhD, an assistant professor of business studies at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. As principal of a Philadelphia consulting firm called Kid2Kid, Paine helps Fortune 500 companies market to children.

Paine has no problem with launching a dialogue about psychologists' ethical responsibilities or creating standards similar to ones used in Canada and Europe to protect children from commercial exploitation. Such activities will actually help his business, he says, by giving him leverage when clients want to do something that would inadvertently harm children. What Paine does have a problem with is driving psychologists out of the business.

"If you remove ethical psychologists from the decision-making process in an ad's creation, who's left?" he asks. "People who have a lot less sensitivity to the unique vulnerabilities of children."

Others who have read the proposal point out that psychological principles are hardly confidential.

"We can't stop alcohol or tobacco companies from using the basic research findings and theories found in textbooks and academic journals," says Curtis P. Haugtvedt, PhD, immediate past president of Div. 23 (Consumer Psychology) and an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University in Columbus. "The same issue exists for all sciences: the information is available in public libraries."

The problem with trying to regulate the use of psychological principles is that "people acting in ways psychologists find objectionable probably aren't members of APA anyway," says Haugtvedt, who received a copy of the Commercial Alert letter. He believes that having general guidelines as to appropriate uses and areas of concern would be beneficial to all parties.

Daniel S. Acuff, PhD, for example, draws on the child development courses he took during his graduate schooling in education to advise such clients as Disney, Hasbro and Kraft. His book "What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids" (Free Press, 1997) draws on child development research to show product developers and marketers how to reach children more effectively.

To Acuff, the letter to APA is not only an "unconstitutional" attempt to limit how professionals make their living but also a misguided overgeneralization.

Since Acuff and his partner started their business in 1979, they have had a policy guiding their choice of projects. As a result, they turn down assignments dealing with violent video games, action figures armed with weapons and other products they believe are bad for children. Their work focuses instead on products that they consider either good for children or neutral, such as snacks and sugary foods parents can use as special treats. The letter to APA fails to acknowledge that psychological principles can be used for good as well as bad, he says.

"I don't agree with black-and-white thinking," says Acuff, president of Youth Market Systems Consulting in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "Psychology in itself is neither good nor bad. It's just a tool like anything else."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.