Children's Creative Thinking in the Face of Commercialism

by Rachel Eden, M.A.

I have made informed choices about childbirth, vaccinations, fluoride, diet and which diapers to use. I have read numerous articles and books about parenting, and involved myself in a community of people with similar child-rearing philosophies. All of this has helped define who I am as a parent, to pull together the values I find important, and to make conscious decisions about parenting my child in the face of conventional "wisdom."

Despite this proactive approach I find myself awakening to the realization that there is a powerful element in our midst which will do its best to undermine the efforts I'm taking to raise my child consciously.

One aspect of this powerful element has inspired ongoing discussions about the way in which the ad campaigns of companies are training our children to be consumers. The earlier a company wins the loyalty of a child, the longer that child will be attached to the products that company produces. This correlation has been studied and made effective through input by psychologists and marketing analysts. According to Dr. Susan Linn, Associate Director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center, American children influence about $50 billion of spending per year and spend $9 billion of their own money. 1 It is no wonder that corporations take such an interest in marketing to children. But, there's a second, subtler aspect to this phenomenon that has crept into my awareness more and more lately and as much as I'd like to ignore it and pretend it will go away, I can't.

This realization is that the corporate mergers over the last ten years gives these conglomerates the power not only to influence our children's minds but to monopolize the images and material that shapes their consciousness and thus tramples their own innate creativity.

The effects of commercialism are like an undercurrent that I can't always put my finger on but I'm beginning to see it rearing its ugly head in my work as an elementary school teacher and as the parent of a two-year-old. The consumer aspect bothers me—the playing with children's minds so they'll become avid shoppers—but I'm more appalled and frightened by the effect commercialism has on the creativity and innovation of our children.

The late Herbert Schiller, noted author, professor, and authority on corporate power and the media, gets to the heart of what is really happening because of corporate mergers. In a speech titled, "The Corporate Packaging of the Public Mind", Schiller explains that these mergers between corporate media systems create a "corporate packaging" designed to play on our sensory perceptions and perpetuate an outlook and consciousness shaped by the images they present. 2 The mergers are creating one framework to dominate the culture of small children. Walt Disney has merged with ABC who in turn creates a lucrative relationship with McDonald's in an effort to cross-promote their products. As Schiller points out, this is carried out to the local mall filled with the same stores owned by one chain or another and many schools align themselves with corporations in exchange for funding or supplies which brings commercialism directly into the daily lives of students. In essence, our children become conditioned by this homogenized intake and the messages being promoted "are reinforced throughout the social order." 3

I see this in my classroom of first graders and it sends a chill down my spine. I have students who can't come up with an idea for a story unless Pikachu can be the main character. It isn't the isolated incidents of this that concern me but rather a continual inability of children to conjure up their own ideas without relying on what the media has presented to them. There are students in my classes who cannot create a story unless it revolves around a TV character or superhero, whose lunch items are colorfully decorated with the latest craze from the box office or Burger King, whose entire outfit and matching backpack are walking commercials for some movie. These children are so immersed in Disney, Nickelodeon, and Nintendo that they no longer have access to their own images and creative imaginations. Instead they are limited to thinking in the images the media has provided for them.

When I see six and seven year olds at a loss for imaginary play or age-appropriate fictional writing, I feel a deep sadness coupled with a burning rage because it seems to me they've been robbed of something vitally important. What would we do without songwriters, poets, artists, and playwrights who draw on their individuality and inner depths for their creative images? Our creativity and imaginations set us apart from one another, inspire us, and provide our lives with texture and richness. If children are no longer able to tap into their own resources in this way everything begins to look bland and lifeless. And, because their minds are inundated with these media inspired images from such an early age, will today's children be forever robbed of their innate creativity?

As we drive to the grocery story or to the park I hear the sweet voice from the backseat ask, "Do you want to hear my story, Mama?" and because she knows my answer is always a resounding "Yes" she makes up a short tale. She beams from ear to ear when finished because she knows that she has just told me a story for a change. These stories often stem from her experiences, the people and places she is familiar with which she then incorporates into a tale. As I share in her glory, I wonder if there will come a time when she, too, will become so intertwined in the framework that is presented in our culture that she will lose her own images.

I have to believe that won't happen because I'll continue to encourage her creativity, teach her to question, to challenge what she sees in the media rather than accept it without thought, and continue to guide her in her own exploration. But children take in so much, often without our even realizing it, especially toddlers who by nature of their developmental stage soak up all they can. I'm reminded of this when I find my daughter reciting bits and pieces of a phone conversation I had with a friend the day before. I may have thought she was deeply involved in an activity only to find that she also took in everything I said. In their effort to learn children constantly scan the environment for clues about how things fit together and in this exploration they imitate what they see. They are receptive and eager and as a parent it can be difficult to counter the dynamics that play with their perceptions in the attempt to make children passive receptors of corporate designed images.

Without realizing the extent of this influence, I mistakenly and somewhat innocently brought the media and marketing system directly into my own home. I did this by introducing my daughter to the Teletubbies, a show geared toward children twelve months and younger through a part of the PBS "Ready to Learn" program for preschoolers. I thought she might enjoy the occasional entertainment brought about through the colorful characters with speech patterns so similar to her development at the time. I acknowledged the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under two should not watch television, and followed my own intuition and knowledge of child development by limiting her viewing time and not encouraging any regularity to her time in front of the TV. I also made the assumption that because this was a show on PBS it was educational and shielded from some of the effects of commercial television.

I should have been more vigilant when I found myself asking why there were little ditties strikingly similar to commercials before and after the show. Come to find out, PBS has linked up with corporate sponsors and product licensing to gain needed funding but by doing so has exposed young children to the same tactics corporations use on commercial television. A striking point by Dr. Linn suggests that, "In targeting one year olds, Teletubbies is not luring children away from commercial television. It is creating a new market." 4 This market serves as yet another way to ensure the buying power of children and get them attached to commercialism as young as possible. Clearly, the potential educational value is not a priority.

Because of the growing popularity of the program and the marketing potential, companies like Burger King became interested in gaining from this new market. In the name of product promotion, the Burger King Corporation created a partnership with the marketers for Teletubbies, the Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company whose goal is to create "programming and products that maintain the highest levels of consideration for positive parenting while enhancing children's lives." 5 According to a 1999 press release, Burger King proudly announced that because of this joint effort, sales of their Kids Club Meals had doubled over non-promotional periods. In this same article a spokesperson from the Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company is quoted as saying, "We are very proud of our extraordinary partnership with Burger King...the success of this promotion signifies how Teletubbies have been embraced by children and their caregivers throughout the U.S. and Canada." 6 This is an indication of what Herbert Schiller explains as an image factory, which produces the "national symbolic diet" of our music, television, movies, radio and shopping malls. 7 There is a united corporate front that begins to control the image and message flow of our society and therefore, we can see how easily an image gets turned into a marketing ploy, consequently gaining more power over the minds of children than it deserves to have.

So, I don't fool myself into thinking that my efforts will keep my daughter from being exposed to the media conglomerates and their marketing schemes. I don't plan to isolate her, to keep her from playing with children outside of our community of friends and extended family. She will inevitably be exposed to some of it but this is where my role as her parent comes in, to guide her so that what is presented to her doesn't have to dictate how she lives her life and doesn't have to become ingrained in her (she too can learn to make conscious and informed decisions). But we all have an obligation, a responsibility to teach our children to develop awareness, to ask questions, to think for themselves, and to value their own creativity, spirit, and imagination. Commercialism has become so pervasive that we often don't see it or recognize the various ways this becomes an undermining element on the consciousness of all of our children, and this is the challenge.

My daughter is passing through the tried and true stage of asking "why" after any answer I might give. I remember laughing to myself when this inquisition started because I knew we had entered into territory unlike any we'd seen so far. Through these questions she is learning about her world, constructing meaning and synthesizing of all that she sees. These constant inquiries are tiresome at times, downright exhausting at others, and I have found that there are many times I don't have the answer she's looking for. What I have discovered though, is how important it is that she keeps asking because it is a very simple but, essential question, that just might keep the Disney characters from setting up residence in the wonderfully creative and inventive mind that she has—"WHY?"

Article References

  1. Linn, Susan. (1999). The Trouble with Teletubbies: The Commercialism of PBS. The American Prospect [On-line], Available:
  2. Schiller, Herbert. (1996). The Corporate Packaging of the Public Mind (Cassette Recording No. HS-Ch 3). Boulder, CO: David Barsamian/Alternative Radio.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Linn, Susan. (1999). The Trouble with Teletubbies: The Commercialism of PBS. The American Prospect [On-line], Available:
  5. The Burger King Corporation. (1999, May). Teletubbies Ring Up Record Sales as Burger King: Tinky Winky and Friends Bagging Big Sales; Shortages Experienced. Miami, FL.
  6. The Burger King Corporation. (1999, May). Teletubbies Ring Up Record Sales as Burger King: Tinky Winky and Friends Bagging Big Sales; Shortages Experienced. Miami, FL.
  7. Schiller, Herbert. (1996). The Corporate Packaging of the Public Mind (Cassette Recording No. HS-Ch 3). Boulder, CO: David Barsamian/Alternative Radio.

About the article's author:
Rachel Eden, M.A., is an elementary school teacher, enrolled in The Parent Coaching Institute's parent coach training program She lives with her daughter near Seattle, Washington. Their favorite moments together include baking, dancing, and cuddling up with many good books!