Q&A: Joel Bakan

Question Mark IconYour last book argued that corporations are like psychopaths. The new book, Childhood Under Siege, is about the corporate targeting of children. What’s the link? When I was on the lecture circuit for The Corporation, this issue came up over and over. I had two young kids at the time (they’re teenagers now), and it became very real to me how much power and influence corporations had over their lives—how they get sucked into brands, online worlds, Facebook; how commercialized their lives were, their desire for junk food and so on; their peers on psychotropic drugs; the slashes to public funding of their schools. It’s powerful to see your children subjected to forces over which you have little control. I agree with Nelson Mandela that the keenest revelation of a society is the treatment of its children. It became a way of developing a broader social critique.

Are you simply bemoaning generational change? My parents liked Frank Sinatra and their parents thought they were crazy. I liked the Who and the Beatles; now we have Lady Gaga. Each generation should challenge older generations culturally, intellectually, socially—that’s where progress comes from. What I’m talking about is a new phenomenon, a powerful cultural, social, and economic force that has its sights set on children as markets, one that’s far from having their best interests at heart.

Corporate branding in schools is an obvious example. People tend to stay with their first bank, their first credit card, so the earlier you reach them the better. There’s a new genre of ads where it’s kids who tell viewers how cool the car is—marketers have discovered kids are the most persuasive salespeople for their parents. Targeting kids is great for marketers; targeting them at school—where they are captive audiences and where, at least in their minds, the messages are sanctioned—is even better. The bigger issue is the trend towards turning schools into fully corporate enterprises, a trend well underway in the U.S. and, if we don’t resist it, likely to make its way here.

Why is it a bad thing? When corporations are running schools and providing curricula, their concern is not with educating children or creating democratic citizens with humanistic values. Corporatized education involves lots of standardized multiple-choice tests because they’re cheap to mark, and hence profitable, for the corporations that sell them. Big class sizes? They’re efficient. Providing the best education, however that’s defined, is very different from providing the most revenue for the education management organizations, testing companies, and curriculum manufacturers playing larger and larger roles in K-12 education in the United States.

You’re highly critical of pharmaceutical companies for targeting kids. The language of psychopathology has become common among children: “My friend acted out today, he’s got ADHD and he’s depressed, he’s on Zyprexa.” Big Pharma has billion-dollar marketing budgets, pays doctors to endorse favourable studies, buries unfavourable ones. This sort of corruption, which we’ve seen in the tobacco and financial industries, is even more disturbing  around children’s health. Of course there are times when kids can be helped by pharmaceuticals, but we’ve gone way beyond that, and corporate profit is the driving force.

And the sexualization of children starts at an incredibly early age. Early sexualization in girls—through Disney and Nickelodeon, music videos, shows like Toddlers & Tiaras—creates an obsession with appearance, cosmetics, the latest fashions. Once you’ve sexualized young girls, you’ve created a huge market for those products. The problem is not so much introducing children at appropriate ages to knowledge about sex, but rather the process of cultivating objectified, emotionally detached, exploitative, and commercialized ideas and emotions around sex.

Ironically, the marketing guy who puts “So many boys, so little time” on little girls’ underpants would never think of his own daughter that way. As a hockey player I wasn’t very big, but I was nasty. Things that would get me two years in jail on the street got me two minutes in the penalty box. Then you change out of your equipment and you’re a decent person again. It’s like that with the corporate executive. He’s not that way at home. But when he’s on the ice, he takes all the cheap shots he can get away with. That’s the game.

How do you change that game when most people seem to want it? Most people want a decent life with meaning, economic and social security, a sense of values. They want to live in an environment that doesn’t give their kids asthma or make them obese. But we’ve come to see ourselves as individual consumers, and perhaps investors, rather than citizens.

Where are the parents in all this? They fill the prescriptions, let their kids spend hours online, buy them endless stuff. We’re responsible, certainly, but we’re parenting in conditions that make it hard to do a good job. Parents make choices about what their kids eat, for example, but those choices are heavily influenced by what children want, ask, and nag for, which is heavily influenced by billions of dollars’ worth of marketing intended to undermine parents’ authority and influence.

Can’t you simply explain to your kids that a Big Mac is lousy food and refuse to buy it for them? Sure, but you’re up against a billion-dollar industry shouting at your kids that it’s cool to eat a Big Mac, that everyone’s doing it, they’ll be left out if they don’t.

Are you more tapped into your kids’ lives than your parents were into yours? When I was a teenager and came home at 3 a.m., my parents had no idea where I’d been. Parents today, on one level, are more in touch. A lot of them monitor Facebook, phone or text all the time. But on another level they have far less authority. We cannot fully monitor what kids are doing online, especially as they get older and online goes mobile. The dazzle of brands, commercialism, sex, violence, texting, chatting, picture and video sharing, gaming, and so on is far more compelling than lectures about citizenship and responsibility, or school, or anything else.

Ten years ago, who could have guessed that social networking would take off? Remember in the 1950s and ’60s? TV was going to allow democracy to flourish, inform citizens, provide commentary and analysis. You’d be laughed out of the room if you suggested that now.

And the internet’s following suit? TV producers could never have dreamed of the kind of eyeballs and engagement you get with social networks and gaming sites. There’s important work to be done figuring out what that engagement is doing to our kids’ sense of social relations, responsibility, commitment—values that require consciousness, not just consumerism.

Do you see any cause for optimism? People may read this book and say I’m a cynic, but there’s no point developing a critique of society, trying to make it better, if you think we’re lost. I believe we strive for love and meaning in our lives—consciousness. We’re easily distracted, but I don’t think that side of us ever disappears. I believe we want something more from life than what’s being delivered by corporations.