The XX Factor

Who’s Worse, Marketers or Parents?

My morning media cruise offered two competing visions of our nation’s kids: too fat and too sexy, and the now obligatory pendulum of blame for both. The changes in diet and habit that have led to a childhood obesity epidemic are regularly traced back to the rise of junk food, but are marketers (now slipping under the marketing-to-kids radar with online games, quizzes, and apps ) or weak parents (permitting kids to play said games, and funding the junk food purchases) more to blame?

And ESPN’s poor LZ Granderson was assaulted in an airport recently by the sight of a hotly dressed 8-year-old and moved to raise his voice in attack on the girl’s feckless mother (although he does say “parents”). Our ire, he says, “really should be directed at the parents who think low rise jeans for a second grader is cute. They are the ones who are spending the money to fuel this budding trend.” Margaret Hartman of Jezebel fired back: “Granderson asks, ‘What adult who wants a daughter to grow up with high self-esteem would even consider purchasing such items?’ Perhaps an adult who’s learned from marketers that her own self-esteem should come from her ability to remain wrinkle-free and squeeze into a tiny, low-cut dress.”

Of course, neither of those competing visions of responsibility really lets parents off the hook. We are either irresponsible or helpless in the hands of the marketing machine that pushes both junk food and sex on us 24-7. In Hartman’s version, we’re victims, too, unable to see anything clearly, not even ourselves. Of course, I say “we,” although it’s pretty clear from both Granderson’s piece and the NYT article that they’re not talking about all parents, but only those parents who aren’t savvy enough to worry about these things.

Ultimately, neither end of the blame-allocation spectrum offers much besides catharsis. (I admit to indulging in an LZ-style mental rant directed at the mother of a 6-year-old in a leopard-print bikini just a few days ago.) Hemming in the marketers requires regulation, administration, and oversight, expensive no-nos every one. Correcting for those weak parents is even more difficult. Nice as it would be if they’d just listen to LZ and toss the halter tops and midriff-flashing “Juicy” pants, or skim the New York Times and note that those online games sponsored by Pop Tarts might be behind the three boxes in the shopping cart last week, I have to suspect that it might take more-and “more” probably involves social programs and education, which don’t come cheap, either. 

Worse, it’s unclear which of those pricey options works (a question journalist Peggy Orenstein, former Nickelodeon executive Tom Ascheim and  New York Times opinion-page columnist Virginia Heffernan will discuss at a DoubleX /92YTribeca Forum next week: Cinderella Ate My Daughter, SpongeBob Ate My Son: The Reality of Marketing to Kids ). Opinions are plentiful. Answers aren’t easy, especially when nothing fits neatly under a conservative or liberal banner. But the girl at the heart of the New York Times’ piece on online-game marketing sounded out the problem loud and clear as she read aloud the warning on a banner above her fun: ” ‘Hey, kids, this is’ … I don’t know that word.”

The word was “advertising.”