Bling H2O: Making Unsustainable Water a Fashion Statement

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Yesterday, I wrote about a new bottled water company out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that claims to offer a more “sustainable” alternative to bottled water.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is another packaged water product that is available in Grand Rapids, Bling H2O. While not made here, it’s worth noting because it’s so horribly offensive.

It’s sold at the 1913 Room located in the Amway Grand Plaza downtown and goes for a whopping $64 dollars per 750ml bottle. It’s sold as a pure status symbol to appeal to the “super-luxury market.” Its website says:

It’s couture water that makes an announcement like a Rolls Royce Phantom… the “Cristal” of bottled water.

The water comes packaged in a frosted glass bottle that is “exquisitely handcrafted with Swarovski crystals.” The 60 crystals spell out the word “bling.” At the Amway Grand Plaza:

The restaurant serves Bling H2O with tulip-shaped flutes atop sterling silver wine coasters.

A rose is placed into every empty bottle to dress up what Chad LeRoux, director of marketing for the hotel, calls “a novelty item that you can take away with you as a memory of the 1913 Room.”

Unlike Boxed Water Is Better, Bling H2O makes no claims of sustainability. Instead, it says only that its water comes from an undisclosed source in Dandridge, Tennessee. The company says it goes through a nine-step purification process, but with no universal standards for bottled water, it’s impossible to know if it is really any “better” than other water. From there, the water is shipped to high-end hotels and restaurants around the world, a process that results in an untold number of CO2 emissions. The only real mention of the environment comes in the claim that the bottles are “reusable.”

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As if the price, packaging, and environmental aspects weren’t offensive enough, the company’s website throws in a healthy dose of sexism as well. The homepage features a woman that appears to be wearing nothing but a strand of pearls with the bottle of water propped between her heel and buttocks. The water itself is also sexualized, with the company repeatedly describing the different aspects as “pretty.”

While it might seem to be a relic of the pre-economic crisis times, Bling H2O is still alive and kicking. It just released a bargain version that goes for just $20 in plastic bottles. Of course, you’ll have to do without the crystals.

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Boxed Water: Better for the Environment?

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Bottled water has a somewhat controversial reputation in Michigan. For years, a debate has raged about the bottling and selling of the state’s water, with ongoing organizing by groups across the state in response to plans to expand water pumping and a debate in the courts and legislature over regulations.

Now, a new company is operating out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that bills itself as “part sustainable water company, part art project, part philanthropic project” that claims to offer a better alternative to bottled water.

It’s gotten a lot of hype in the media, but is it really better for the environment?

On its website, the company touts the fact that its containers are recyclable. But, you can’t recycle them in the Grand Rapids area. The containers are produced from trees in certified, sustainably managed forests and they take less energy to be produced–and shipped–than plastic bottles used by the rest of the industry. Moreover, the company gives 20% of its profits to “world water relief foundations” and “reforestation foundations” to offset the environmental impacts of its products. A lot of companies do that–Nestle gives money, Coca-Cola gives money–it’s just a way of diverting attention from the underlying problem of privatizing water.

Like most bottled water companies, Boxed Water Is Better relies on imported water, in this case it’s “carbon-filtered, purified water from Minnesota”–that means a lot of resources wasted on transportation. The company discloses that tap water is better for the earth but they say that they are offering a “better” alternative in a growing market for packaged water.

The problem is that producing such a product ultimately legitimizes the demand and makes people think that packaged water is necessary. Maybe it’s slightly better than buying water from Coca-Cola or Nestle, but in the end it’s still promoting a destructive industry.

Bottled water costs more, it’s typically no safer, and it’s less regulated than tap water. Moreover, environmental organizations and human rights activists have argued that access to safe water will be one of the pivotal issues of the 21st century. As water is privatized and bottlers move in, aquifers are dried up and water is diverted elsewhere–raising the possibility that access to water will be based on one’s ability to pay. At the same time, confidence in municipal water systems declines–so does their ability to be maintained.

How Many Earths Does Your Lifestyle Require?

For those of living in the global north–especially the United States–it’s no secret that we consume way more than we need. Moreover, much of this comes at the expense of others around the world.

A good way of exploring this idea is to take an “Ecological Footprint” quiz which will tell you roughly how many Earths would be needed if everyone in the world lived your lifestyle. For example, I live a pretty Spartan lifestyle–I don’t consume animal products, I try to grow as much of my own food as I can, I try to seriously limit my energy usage–yet if everyone in the world lived how I did, 1.86 worlds would be needed:

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While that looks good by comparison with the averages for folks living in the United States, it’s still nowhere near being within the biological capacity of the Earth. Moreover, it’s another reminder that while I can take a lot of individual actions such as riding a bike or turning down my hot water heater–those actions can only go so far when we have an economic system that is based on the destruction of the Earth.

One in Three Children’s Toys have Significant Levels of Toxic Chemicals

A review of over 1,500 children’s toys by the Ann Arbor, Michigan based Ecology Center has found that one in three children’s toys have significant levels of toxic chemicals including lead, flame retardants, and arsenic.

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One in three children’s toys tested have significant levels of toxic chemicals including lead, flame retardants, and arsenic.

For the second year in a row, the Ann Arbor, Michigan based Ecology Center has released a consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys. The guide–online at HealthyToys.org–reviews over 1,500 popular children’s toys on sale on store shelves this holiday season.

The review found that one of three toys contained “medium” or “high” levels of chemicals of concern. For example, lead was found in 20% of the toys tested this year. Lead levels in some products exceeded the federal recall standards for lead paints and will exceed new regulations that go into effect in February of 2009. The lead paint standard is 600 parts-per-million (ppm) while the American Academy for Pediatrics recommends limiting lead in children’s toys to 40 ppm. 3% of products exceeded 600 ppm.

However, it’s not just lead. 4.2% of toys contained Mercury, 2.9% contained bromine–likely due to the use of brominated flame retardants. Arsenic was found in 18.9% of products. 27% of toys were also made using PVC which creates major environmental hazards in its manufacture and disposal.

While the review highlights many potentially dangerous toys, its creators point out that 62% of products contain low levels of chemicals of concern and 21% contain no chemicals of concern.

Black Friday “Really, Really Free Market” Offers Alternative to Consumerism

A flea market where everything is free–known as the “Really, Really Free Market”–is being organized for Grand Rapids on what is traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

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This month’s Really, Really Free Market (RRFM) in Grand Rapids will take place on November 28 on the biggest shopping day of the year. Organizers hope that in the spirit of “Buy Nothing Day” the event will encourage people to build community rather than commerce:

“Instead of spending a hectic day at the mall, why not spend it with others, becoming a community.

Be a part of Buy Nothing Day, a tradition that is practiced throughout the country on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Bring anything you don’t need, leave with things you do!

Things to share:

Skills, talents, food, goods, art, anything.”

This RRFM will be hosted at The Division Avenue Arts Co-Operative (The DAAC) at 115 S. Division from 1pm to 5pm.

Summer, A Summit, and Some Sanity

Summer is easy in our western Michigan city. The Farmers Market bustles, the garden grows, the kids live outside. Lake Michigan beckons and leisurely dinners at the picnic table are the norm. We go weeks at a time without exposure to the artificial lighting of grocery stores, electronic entertainment or the seduction of chain stores or restaurants. We vow to buy and eat locally and are able to keep our promise.

Family activities come in the form of full moon bike rides, walks to parks, and outdoor festivals. Mother Nature is in full force and we follow her commands. If she graces us with a clear sky, we are out the door as fast as you can say sunscreen. If it rains, we are happy for the plants and for our friends the farmers who work so hard to bring us a cherished tomato, flecked dozen of eggs, or head of crisp lettuce straight from the ground. Something ancient and wise takes over and lives in us all deeply. Television. What television? We are tuned into something different- something much more sustaining.

Despite the crisp air, fabulous apple orchards, and drop dead beautiful colors, autumn gives us our first hint of the challenges to come. It starts with the catalogues- the gobs and gobs of stapled glossy sheets reminding us that the “holidays” are marching towards us and that their new leader is Halloween. A tradition that used to be pretty simple- jack-o-lantern, costume, candy- has morphed into an all out marketing bonanza that includes hundreds of chintzy costumes and stuff straight off the China boat with toxicity contents more frightening than any horror mask could ever be. Even more appalling are the “child” nurse, devil, cheerleader, and kitty cat costumes targeting my five and nine year old daughters all complete with short skirts and- I kid you not- assortment of matching garter bands.

We make our own costumes and throw a low key Halloween party instead. The highlight is a pieced together haunted garage that owes its existence much more to the dedication of a few highly creative mamas (and perhaps more than a few bottles of red wine) than any credit card purchased accessories.

School starts and the girls quickly catch up on what is the latest must-have gizmo or show. They come home from school talking about Hannah Montana concerts, Webkins and I Pods. We rarely indulge these things as evidenced by the creative ways our girls have had to piece together their understandings of items, games and trends that they have had no exposure to. They are far from immune to the influences however. It’s right around the fourth or fifth week of school that my beautiful nine-year-old girl comes home, and for the first time, tells me she’s fat.

Thanksgiving arrives and the tug-of-war intensifies. Every year the acquisition machine rolls out earlier and earlier trumping longstanding traditions of thanks. One has the sense that the holiday train has jumped the rails and is hurtling out of control with the massive Christmas cars overtaking all the others. This year I had the inkling that if it wasn’t for the strange representation (and incredible girth) of those ten foot high inflatable turkeys gracing yards all around our area, one might worry that Thanksgiving was in danger of being shut out all together. How this most pure of holidays came to revere televised football and “Black Friday” sales as much, or more, as time together around the table is beyond me. There’s nothing like folding hands in gratitude one day, and then pummeling strangers at 4 am the next, to be the first to get those same hands on the year’s most coveted discount appliance.

By the time the true Michigan cold sets in, I am in an all out slugfest. Winter is always the hardest. We all know that the Christmas season was hijacked by marketers some time ago yet every year the extent seems to be more and more mind-boggling. This year we were told that we could buy and receive everything from better relationships with our kids (it’s as simple as giving them the right cell phone) to the assurance of monogamy (which conveniently now comes in the form of diamond bracelets and pendants). I daydream of a new version of that POW/MIA flag flying on the back of Harley Davidson’s all over our roadways. This one sporting the bearded silhouette of Jesus in the middle.

While we are not church goers per say- I do have the standard that if I’m going to celebrate something you sure as heck better believe I’m going to know why. Despite all my efforts to the contrary- I may be losing this battle with my children. My five-year-old was in tears as she finished unloading her Christmas stocking this year. Her simple hand-knitted stocking made by her great-grandmother and filled with a mixture of fun necessities, unique novelties and special treats paled in comparison to the images she had subconsciously compiled from the few print ads and commercials that had snuck past the recycling bin and the mute button. Those scenes depicting Santa’s bounty as overwhelming heaps of every toy and box and bow imaginable had seeped in and consumed her expectations without any of us ever being in the know. The quivering lip and big tear-filled blue eyes of this beloved child (whose every imaginable need we strive to meet) would have been comical if it wasn’t so unbelievably sad.

Snowflakes fall and my oldest reads Little House on the Prairie, Where The Red Fern Grows and Naya Nuki. I find myself in tears when she talks of the thoughtful preparations for a community dance, a cherished orange at the bottom of a Christmas stocking, the milking of a cow, and ancient Native American traditions. I know I’m in danger of being called sappy and nostalgic but, truly, where has this kind of reverence gone?

I feel a strange pull to what my kids have coined the “Old Fashioned Town” exhibit at the Public Museum. No matter how many times we have strolled its reproduced cobblestone streets, musty smells and squeaky screen doors-I want to linger in this exhibit the longest. The lure of the tiny specialized shops- the grocer here, the pharmacy across the way, the artful function of the printing press- provides an enchanting comfort. I am intrigued by the bolts of fabric, the intricate beauty of a hair comb or a pocketknife – the purposefulness, simplicity and beauty of it all.

The snow piles up and gray skies dominate. I shop at Target. I try not to bring the girls with me-something in me intuiting that this retailer has a power that just may trump mine. This is a most unsettling feeling for a mother who is really close with her kids. When they are pushing the red cart, I cringe at what I’ve exposed them to. The mixed messages, the marketing targeting them at just their vulnerabilities, the needless nature of so much of it all, the waste.

We go to a new movie store to look for the fabulous 1970’s version of Pippi Longstocking with the English dubbed over the Swedish. We search futilely amid huge televisions blaring R rated film clips overhead. Violent video games are organized by the checkout at a height that anyone over the age of eight would have to bend over to see. The store is teaming with families and young children yet cleavage, crotch shots and gore meet us at every turn. Why is there not any outrage over these things? Are we that immune already? We get the hell out of there as fast as we can- a subscription to Netfix moving quickly to the top of the to do list. I feel so alone.

My husband- a doctoral student- talks about French intellectuals, post-modernism and the fragmentation of society due to the lack of any guiding narrative. I think I may know what he is speaking of. Something in me feels like it is breaking into a gazillion little pieces.

There is a huge television when we walk into our local YMCA. In the split-second it takes to walk past it, my five-year-old sees footage of a house fire- someone screaming for her baby. My husband doesn’t notice it. It haunts her dreams for weeks. Televisions are everywhere- cars, gas station pumps, family restaurants, grocery store carts and checkout lanes. I am so angry. So overwhelmed. Something in me is dying. My own fire to combat these things seems to be going out- smothered by the sheer volume of it all.

Playtimes are turning deadly as kids in our community accidentally shoot their best friends with guns. In contrast to their video games- they don’t get back up. Local fire chiefs, school teachers and city council members are getting busted for porn- for child porn- for taking pictures up student’s skirts. Boyfriends are killing their girlfriends. A mother I know left her two-year-old for an hour and he was shaken to death by the man who was supposed to be caring for him. Husbands are killing their wives- in front of their children. I am in despair.

A front-page article in our main paper profiles local school districts that are signing up for Bus Radio- a for-profit company that will install radios in school buses for free. Of course you then listen exclusively to the Bus Radio channel pumped full of the “child friendly” advertising of their sponsors. The drivers love it- the kids are “so well behaved”. Districts love it- “it’s free”. The article doesn’t ever mention the effects on kids or the opinions of their parents. The only contrast to all the glowing reviews is one reference to an organization called “The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood”. I immediately sign up.

A few weeks later I am e-mailed a notice of a summit hosted by the campaign. It is titled “The Sexualization of Childhood and Other Commercial Calamities”. Every single part of the agenda resonates with me. It is in the spring and in Boston. It is too far and too expensive of a trip but I can’t get it off my mind. My husband suggests that we both go and that we drive. My 22-year-old brother hears of the idea and offers to watch the girls. My very elderly grandparents agree to loan their vehicle for the trip. A friend of a friend in Boston offers us a place to stay. Things come together and we sign-up.

Crocuses push through the ground the week we are to leave. The first real promise that spring is on its way. The drive is indeed long but painless. A warm sun melts snow along our entire route. Trace elements of green can be seen among the many shades of brown in the fields and roadways.

On the opening day of the summit and the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, we hear Director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s, moving account of working with the man and the Civil Rights movement. He likens the current assembly to those that took place in the fifties and sixties and highlights that such gatherings are fundamental to the future of human rights and to the continued generation of change. Child psychologist pioneer and child advocate Dr. Susan Linn, also of Harvard Medical School, tells the audience that she too is reminded of not only the Civil Rights movement but of the individuals who came before the movement- the activists of the 1920’s and 1930’s- the people who didn’t come close to seeing any of the major changes on their behalf but who knew that change was needed.

Something stirs deep within me. The cold paralysis of my seasonal anguish is shifting a bit. Like those flower bulbs planted deep within the ground must at some point detect- light is out there. Start moving towards it.

The day goes on to hold plenary sessions by education professor Dr. Diane Levin, author of the forthcoming book So Sexy, So Soon, and investigative journalist and broadcaster Susan Gregory Thomas, the writer behind the fabulously titled Buy, Buy Baby. Dr. Levin chronicles the history of children’s marketing in the United States, a legacy that we owe primarily to the Reagan administration and the deregulation of children’s television in the 1980’s. This dislodged the avalanche that has been pummeling us ever sense- burying us from birth in the ceaseless barrage of promotion and product that piles up (both literally and figuratively) threatening the ecological survival of our planet and invading the most sacred dimensions of our humanity.

Dr. Levin further illustrates the effects of unregulated children’s marketing with gripping examples of gender divisions generated by children’s television and toys (Bratz dolls vs. WWF), the increasing evidence of age compression (Tickle Me Elmo Barbie anyone?) and the vital importance of distinguishing sexualization from sexuality. As a mother of daughters and an early childhood educator I want to stand up and cheer. Ms. Thomas is illuminating as well, with a reading from her book about the history and savvy of both branding and marketing Barbie in the fickle and competitive children’s retail marketplace.

Sara Grimes of Simon Fraser University provides a crash course in the virtual branding of children’s play through internet games and social networks. The evolution goes something like this: children’s television shows provide characters and “scripts” for children’s play that lead them to the purchase of licensed play toys that then have an internet or media based play component. Commercialization convinces children that product play is superior to their own imaginative play. Online sites consist of very thinly veiled advertising that promotes the purchase of additional products or, as Ms. Grimes refers to them, “advergames”. These games often revolve around the virtual purchase of more products perpetuating an endless cycle of consumption.

Dr. Michael Brody, chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry presents on the effects of playing with sex and death in video games. It is both disturbing and fascinating to hear him speak of video games as immersion mediums that visually, physically, and emotionally promote atmospheres of violence and constant fear. Dr. Brody shares that “habits of the mind become structures of the brain”- an observation I have made time and again in classrooms. The behavior and personalities of children as young as two or three-years-old show the very real impact of large daily doses of electronic media stimulation. Dr Brody goes on to demonstrate the “normalization” of violence perpetuated by video games as well as examples as to the objectification of (and violence towards) women, compulsive behavior, and the lack of empathy or altruism that result from extended video game exposure and play. There is a reason video games are used to train U.S. troops prior to going into battle. Players are not conditioned to think or to problem-solve, only to follow a predetermined story without distraction or hesitation.

Workshop sessions throughout the day highlight equally potent and timely topics that serve as top-notch primers for pretty much any angle on the commercialization of children. I struggle with making the choice of which to attend.

The day wraps up with Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, speaking on hyper-consumerism and our increasing ecological crisis. It is vital to take in the global effects of consumer and disposable societies and Dr. Schor’s illustrations and data are especially compelling. Dr. Poussaint closes with a brief talk on toxic marketing to African Americans; an incredibly destructive dimension of consumer targeting based strongly in the exploitation of under privilege and the perpetuation of the message that being black comes with inherent deficits that can be filled through the purchase of certain products and images.

These are far from uplifting topics so why am I feeling so much better? After the decompression provided by a long walk and dinner in a nice Irish Boston pub (not to mention a few sips of my husband’s Guinness) I begin to put a finger on it. All of these things I have perceived and chronicled as an educator and a mother. As a wife, daughter and granddaughter. They have names. People are writing about them and researching them. People from all across the country are speaking a language that I have intuited but struggled to articulate. I go to sleep with my head spinning- both exhausted and energized.

On the second day of the conference I have a first time crash course in hard-core pornography- and this was right after breakfast. Presenter Dr. Gail Dines did the difficult yet critical job of demonstrating the crisis that is upon us. This is a tragedy written by the highly addictive nature of the medium, the push for ever more shocking conquests and the very real evidence that this need is generating a serious increase in child pornography.

Porn is everywhere and the internet has created the perfect home for the anonymity and accessibility that feed its proliferation. Dr. Dines shares that the average age that a male sees his first pornographic image is eleven-and-a-half. That is the average mind you, meaning our boys are being exposed to representations of females and sexuality that their development cannot even begin to comprehend. Soft porn is the norm on television programming and even advertising. Most disturbing is the fact that after developing a porn habit, many men find themselves unaffected by the glut of images of women doing anything and everything and have moved on to seeking out “teen” and ultimately child pornography- the last real taboo.

The pornography industry is a shrewd, profit driven organization- always motivated by the bottom line. This means that they are willing to push the envelope as far as they possibly can to continue to find a customer base. Increasingly this means the exploitation of incredibly young looking “teens” in child-like settings, clothing, behavior and language. Proliferation of the kind of thinking and behavior that this perpetuates is unconscionable; yet, it is becoming more and more the norm. I am grateful for the call to arms provided by Dr. Dines, Wheelock College professor, author and activist. In her speed-fire twenty-five minute presentation I saw more than enough evidence to believe that the sanctity of childhood is indeed in serious peril.

Author Joe Kelly, President and Co-Founder of the nonprofit organization Dads & Daughters, follows with a timely presentation of the impact of pseudo-sexualization on boys. This is a dimension that comes up often when I speak with other mothers about the sexualization of children. Parents of boys often shrug their shoulders with a version of the “thank god I’ve got boys” statement but Mr. Kelly points out that boys and men are actually the less visible (but no less affected) victims of a hyper-sexualized culture. Pseudo-sexuality is a false, oversimplified and constructed portrayal of sexuality that leaves out all of the complexity and beauty of human relationships. The constant inoculation of pseudo-sexuality furthers spiritual illiteracy and emotional illiteracy, which unchecked, leads to emotional death in boys and men. This is a shadow dimension to the crises presenting themselves to parents and caregivers and leaves many young boys floundering, hurting and disabled as they struggle on their journey to be healthy men, partners and fathers.

I am six months pregnant and with another conference attendee joke as to whether I dare let the baby come out. I admit to her that there are times that I wish I could return all of my children to the safety and holiness of the womb. She smiles knowingly but reassures me by briefly sharing how impressed she is by her twenty-something son- by the lack of materialism in his life and the healthful pursuits that he is engaged in. I am reminded of my brother and know that as parents there is a way to cut through all of this but I also recognize that the volume of competing messages is getting stronger everyday. Confronting and challenging the commercialization and sexualization of our children takes constant vigilance, conversation and presence.

Two more plenary sessions are included in the morning, the first focused on The Failure of Self-Regulation from Big Alcohol to Big Food by public health lawyer Michele Simon from the Marin Institute and the second, Transforming the U.S. Media: Commercial Free at Last presented by Berkeley psychologist, Dr. Allen Kanner. Both presentations are tangible, substantive and helpful. To create a healthier landscape for our children we have to know what works and what doesn’t. Ms. Simon’s experiences in the world of food and alcohol leave her with plenty of ammo to destroy the myth of “self-regulation” that she defines as voluntary, vague, unenforceable, undemocratic, and biased often providing a big distraction from authentic policymaking and debate. Dr. Kanner introduces and then breaks down the fantasy of the advertising and marketing “meta-image” of the whole world coming together around corporate products. Meta-marketing narrows any sense of the future by it’s main message that we can buy our way to happiness. The goal of a materialistic monoculture lacks any of the richness or value of everyday life. Dr. Kanner offers Sao Paulo, Brazil as a beacon of hope. Sao Paulo is a commercial free city that has placed public well-being over private profit, aesthetics over ugliness, and cleanliness over trash. It is indeed an inspiring example.

After another fascinating workshop breakout we return for the final plenary sessions of the day. Dr. Tim Kasser of Knox College makes the hypothesis that the well-being of children is lower in nations with more marketing to children. Using UNICEF’s 2007 report on the well-being of children, he shows that among wealthy nations, those with more marketing indeed have higher instances of child ill-being. Amplified marketing correlated with increased marijuana use, increased teenage pregnancy, obesity, and the finding that fewer peers were ‘kind and helpful’. Dr. Kasser goes on to illustrate that marketing values reduce the likelihood of lasting relationships as there is a trend to view others as objects. Dr. Kasser’s research substantiates the observations of so many child researchers, families and educators that a child’s development is indeed intertwined with their environment.

Julie Gale, of Kids Free 2 B Kids, joined us all the way from Australia to provide some much needed comic relief, inspiration, and a reminder of what the determination of one person can do. Ms. Gale was a riot as she spoke of the “corporate sleaze and community complacency” that she has encountered in her neighborhood and beyond. So much of what it takes to counter these influences is just a dose of common sense coupled with perseverance and the willingness to ask questions and to speak out. Ms. Gale is an inspiration on all of these fronts.

Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University professor, long-time child advocate, and author of the just-released Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World, spoke on consumer culture and the obstacles that parents face. I find Dr. Carlsson-Paige’s solutions to be simple and to the point. Some examples include: no ads for kids under eight-years-old as they are not developmentally ready to understand and distinguish persuasive content and the prohibiting of toys and products directly tied to television, especially toys and action figures connected to PG13 movie ratings. These initiatives are rooted in solid child development research and would provide monumental progress towards the goal of reclaiming childhood.

Our final two speakers are Enola Aird; scholar, lawyer, activist mother and director of the Motherhood Project and Josh Golin; Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Ms. Aird reminds us that those who tell the stories determine the culture. Who is telling our children their stories? In the United States, the current narratives are undoubtedly dominated by marketing and advertising and consumption. Ms. Aird reminds us of the spiritual dimensions of the marketing crisis, the loss of the sacred, the rituals, and the rites of passage that guided humanity for so much of our history. The recognition of these dimensions in my own life, the lives of my children and the lives of so many of the classrooms and homes that I have spent time in, has been my primary motivation for making the trip to the summit. All the statistics and research aside, the preservation of the sacredness of childhood is what it is truly about and as Ms. Aird reminds us, “marketing to children has no place in a society that holds up it’s children”.

Mr. Golin brings it on home with an address that is equal parts passion, celebration and motivation. He highlights a number of significant successes made by CCFC members and the CCFC organization. These include the taking on of my latest local nemesis, Bus Radio, as well as efforts involving schools, hospitals, fast food chains, and more. I feel pride and joy in this newly found network of activism and scholarship and am reminded again of the summit introductions, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the timeless power of people coming together for change.

On our return trip, trees are budding and new colors dot the fields and yards that we pass. The landscape is transformed and so am I. I leave Boston better educated, inspired, emboldened, and most importantly, not alone. I have connected with what I have been longing for. When we exit the car for a stretch, the ground is soft and springy under my feet. I feel a similar thawing. A few hours later my youngest calls to tell me that the tulips in Michigan are coming up. Summer is right around the corner.

Mindy Holohan is a writer, parent and is hoping to start a local chapter of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. mgholohan@gmail.com

Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

In Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, author Andrew Szasz explores how and why many individuals concerned with the environment have moved from pushing for environmental regulations to shopping. Szasz explains how as a society we went from political activism to purchasing bottled water or how we moved from mass movements to shopping, and how we became concerned insulating ourselves from environmental problems rather than addressing them head-on.

To establish a framework for his discussion Szasz describes a concept that he calls “the inverted quarantine.” He uses this term to describe the response of individuals who seek to insulate themselves from conditions that they perceive to be threatening, in this case an environment that is toxic. Szasz applies his “inverted quarantine” analysis to current environmental problems arguing that as a society, individuals have sought to insulate themselves from environmental problems rather than confront them directly. He argues that this is a phenomenon that has occurred before in U.S. history, using the examples of the Fall Out Shelter Panic of 1961 and the suburbanization of the U.S. While interesting, he spends a little too much time on these historical examples, with a little less than half of the book focusing on those examples.

From his definition of the “inverted quarantine” as a concept, Szasz moves into an examination of various perceived “solutions.” He focuses on three areas through which toxins enter the body–drinking, eating, and breathing. In each of these areas, he looks at common “solutions,” including bottled water, water filters, organic foods, and “natural” health products and examines their potential to address toxic threats. Szasz analyzes all of these responses, arguing that while in some cases–particularly with organic foods–there seems to be a health benefit, they all fail to address systemic issues. He says that it is nearly impossible to completely insulate oneself from all of the toxins in the environment. Even if one drinks bottled water, eats all organic food, and uses natural products, standards are often weak and there is no guarantee that “contaminated” ingredients were not used somewhere in the process. Particularly with outdoor air, there is no way to completely insulate oneself, thereby rendering the “inverted quarantine” response ineffective.

In addition to offering what he calls an “imaginary refuge,” the belief that one can insulate themselves from environmental problems has a more sinister effect–it undercuts support for efforts aimed at addressing environmental problems. The idea that bottled water is safe undercuts public support for improving the countries aging water systems, while the domination of the organic foods market by people who eat that way for health–not political reasons–will limit its ability to take on the industrial agricultural system. The presence of “inverted quarantine” products also limits the potential for people to seek political solutions to environmental problems, because if they believe they can buy products to protect themselves, they will likely do that over organizing and consequently never develop the political consciousness that directs them to the source of the problem. Szasz also points out that in most cases, “inverted quarantine” solutions have a class dimension, as the products can generally only be purchased by those who can afford them.

Shopping Our Way to Safety offers an interesting critique of contemporary environmentalism and the shift towards consumption instead of movement building. People who wonder how we went from mass demonstrations on Earth Day to buying light bulbs will find the book interesting, as will anyone concerned about the state of the Earth.

Andrew Szasz, Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

When Media Companies become Child Predators

It seems that about once every two weeks there is a story about an arrest of a man who was caught soliciting sex from someone under 18 online. Child predators have discovered that the Internet can be a tool to prey on children. Within the past few years the web resource MySpace has come to the attention of parents and law enforcement agencies since some child predators have used that site to target underage users.

Primarily men will often pose as another youth, develop cyber-relationships, and build trust with unsuspecting children. Once this trust has been developed the child predator will often invite the targeted child to a location so that they can be assaulted or kidnapped. I think that most people find this type of behavior reprehensible and the tactic of online deception unacceptable. However, sexual predators are not the only ones who use media to target children.

Since the 1980s there has been a significant shift in how media companies and advertisers view children. Children used to be seen as audiences of only toymakers, cartoon executives and fast food companies. These days, children as young as 6-months old are considered a target for what many companies call the development of brand loyalty.

In the late 1980s child psychologist James McNeal wrote the book Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. The basic premise of McNeal’s book can be summed up in this quote, “Kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers; they have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken.” Children are in the perfect position to be taken? Does this seem remarkably similar to the thinking of online child predators?

Since McNeal wrote this book there has been a whole shift in how media companies and advertisers think about children. His framing of children primarily as customers has paved the way for an explosion in the ways that children are targetted by media companies. Mike Searles, President of Kids “R” Us says, “If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.” Nancy Shalek, President of the Shalek Agency, has this to add, “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without the product you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork of they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids.” So how does this type of thinking play out in the media world?

At Fisher Price, there is a full time staff of seven people, several with advanced degrees in developmental psychology, who every year film 3,000 to 4,000 children while they take part in focus groups or one-on-one sessions to better understand how kids respond to their toys. They don’t just make toys, put it in a box, and set them on a shelf. Fisher Price and thousands of other companies are constantly working on ways to more effectively target your kids. In fact, media companies see the branding of your children as essential to long-term marketing. That is why Donna Sabino, editor of Nickelodeon magazine says, “What we are doing here is starting in the cradle marketing: A toddler goes from Nick Jr. to Nickelodeon to TEEnick to MTV to VHI to Nick at Night.” One way that Nickelodeon will do this is through licensing products like Sponge Bob Squarepants. They don’t just create and broadcast a cartoon character, they market a whole line of products based on characters. In 2005, Nickelodeon made $750 million from the sales of licensed Sponge Bob Squarepants merchandise. However, Nickelodeon’s licensing income paled, though, beside AOL-Time Warner ($6.6 billion) and Disney ($13 billion).

Then there are companies like Big Fat Inc. which hires youth to observe and spy on other youth in order to gather “intelligence” about what young people are wearing, eating, the music they listen to, etc. Two years ago media giant NewsCorp bought up MySpace.com primarily for the purposes on data mining. What better place to find information on what people do, think, and what their buying habits are. Sue MacDonald of Intelliseek in Ohio has made data mining the focus of her company’s work. In one day alone her company analyzed 475,000 individual blog posts to gauge what they had to say about products or individual companies.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently conducted a study that looked at how food companies used TV commercials as a way of luring kids to their websites. The study found that “The vast majority (85%) of the leading food brands that target children on TV are also either directly targeting children on the Internet or providing online content likely to be of interest to them.” In addition the study found that “Almost two-thirds (64%) of sites in the study make use of viral marketing, in which children are encouraged to send emails to their friends about a product, transmitting the company’s marketing information to their peers. Embedded in these emails are news, activities and entertainment that are favorable to the brand.”

These tactics of targeting children are not just limited to media venues, but increasingly schools have become arenas to bombard kids with commercial messages. Lifetime Learning Systems – how’s that for an Orwellian name – helps companies target kids in school. Here is their little advertising pitch, “Kids spend 40% of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can’t reach them. Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well.” This translates into corporate “educational materials” that companies provide to schools for free, soda contracts, book covers, and the newest effort called BusRadio. BusRadio is a service that companies can now use to push commercial messages on your kids while they are held captive on school buses in the morning and after school.

Even video game creators and manufacturers have entered the arena of product placement and hyper-commercialism. More and more video games include the use of branded products as part of the game. Popular online multiplayer games such as “Lineage,” “Guild Wars” and “City of Heroes,” all have been inserting branded products into the game’s designs. Then there are what industry people called Advergames. Advergames are games that are produced by companies like Burger King with titles such as “Sneak King” and “Pocketbike Racer,” which were a big hit last summer’s gaming trade shows. Besides hyper-commercialism in video games, the industry is opposed to using the technology as an educational tool. A couple of years ago, Nancy MacIntyre, then LucasArts senior game director, complained about the original Star Wars game that “there was lots of reading, much to much, in the game. There was lots of wandering around learning about different abilities. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat.”

So what are we to make of all this? First, I think it is crucial that we teach kids to be critical thinkers when it comes to media. Parents, teachers and social workers should make it a priority to teach media literacy to children. Second, we all need to become more aware of how media works and what drives commercial media makers. Third, we can become watchdogs of media in our own communities. We should familiarize ourselves with the news agencies, places that show movies, radio stations, billboard companies, Internet service providers, and phone companies. Fourth, we need to be aware of the fact that these companies are constantly trying to push new legislation or deregulatory policies that are not in the best interest of the public. Lastly, we can support or make more of our own media. There are great websites, documentary makers, indie music labels, independent venues and a whole score of opportunities to make media that isn’t trying to sell us crap we don’t need or treat our children as customers for the taking.

Rapid Buses Banned from RiverTown Crossings Mall

Last week RiverTown Crossings mall in Grandville banned The Rapid’s busses from stopping at the mall entrance. Instead, the bus will now stop hundreds of yards from the mall’s entrance. The mall’s General Manager, Randy Zimmerman, said that the ban was due to “several violent incidents” blamed on bus passengers, although Grandville police dispute this claim saying that the incidents were at worst “rowdy behavior” and that nobody has been cited for the disturbances. Zimmerman claimed in the Grand Rapids Press that The Rapid has failed to address the problem—which he claims has been ongoing for the past five years—and said that to continue allowing The Rapid to drop off passengers at the mall’s entrance would “risk having something happen to a mall customer.” By forcing the bus to drop passengers several hundred yards from the mall’s entrance, Zimmerman is sending a message to bus riders–some (but not all) of whom are low income–that they are not welcomed at the mall. Similarly, it is quite likely that race was involved in the decision as well, as the urban demographic served by The Rapid is noticeably different from the middle to upper middle class demographic of suburban residents that malls depend on for ongoing profit. In the Grand Rapids Press, Dick Bulkowski of Disability Advocates of Kent County stated that the mall is “saying to everybody who rides the bus, ‘We really don’t want you here.'” and raised the possibility that the move may violate the federal Americans with Disability Act as public facilities are required to be handicap accessible. The new stop requires passengers to step onto a grassy patch of land between a road and parking lot and is likely impassible for those using wheelchairs.

In addition to highlighting the ways in which race and class determine who is welcome in public and private spaces, the banning of The Rapid also highlights the growing corporate ownership of areas commonly considered “public.” As mentioned in the article, far from being public areas in which equal access or freedom of speech are protected, malls are “pseudo-public” spaces that are corporately run in which their activities and operation are strictly controlled. Malls are controlled environments designed to encourage consumerism where everything–from the aisles to the lighting–is researched and planned to promote unthinking consumerism. As such, any activity that might disrupt these highly researched environments is generally strictly controlled. Consequently, political demonstrations, leafleting, signature gathering, or other such activities that one would usually consider as taking place in public settings—are prohibited with those engaging in such activities on mall property being threatened with arrest. Similarly, malls—unlike truly public areas—can decide who is and is not welcome and consequently may engage in activities ranging from targeting people for harassment based on their race or age (in the case of curfews) or banning “potential troublemakers” who wear political t-shirts. Beyond being a problem with malls, this is an issue that underscores the problem of corporate control of public space whether it is malls or the airwaves, as such control is at its core anti-democratic.

RiverTown Crossings’ General Manager, Randy Zimmerman, can be contacted via email at Randy.Zimmerman@generalgrowth.com or by using an online form. RiverTown’s corporate owners, General Growth Properties, can also be contacted via an online form. Media Mouse assumes that he/they would love to hear from citizens regarding his decision to move The Rapid stop.