Four colorful, chubby creatures are what transformed Susan Linn from a concerned parent into an ardent activist.
For years, she had worried that advertising and marketing were saturating children’s lives, from the toddler she met who idolized Britney Spears to her daughter’s grade school concert of Disney music. But when PBS began airing “Teletubbies” — a TV series Linn viewed as falsely claiming to be educational for babies — she reached her limit.
Driven by her outrage, the Brookline resident created a small Boston organization aimed at protecting kids from corporate marketers. In the 15 years since, in real-life David-versus-Goliath fashion, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has repeatedly taken on some of the world’s largest companies and won.
It has notched victories — including against Hasbro Inc., McDonald’s Corp., and Walt Disney Co. — with only four full-time employees, no in-house legal team, and an annual budget of just $370,000 last year.
“They’ve gotten well-funded corporate giants to change their marketing campaigns and practices,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which worked with Linn’s group to get Kellogg’s to stop advertising certain sugary cereals during children’s programming. “And they’ve had the successes they’ve had despite how small their staff is.”
Now Linn is leaving the organization she founded in 2000, handing the reins to a deputy who will continue its ambitious goal of ending marketing to children altogether.
“I’ve been living and breathing CCFC for 15 years, and I’ve used my particular strengths to take us this far,” said Linn, 67, who will step down at the end of this month to write and teach. “What we’ve done is lay the groundwork for a larger movement, and I feel that I’ve done my job.”
Originally called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, the organization has racked up a lengthy list of achievements. It prompted entertainment giant Disney to offer refunds on its “Baby Einstein” videos on the grounds they could not truly turn toddlers into geniuses. It prevented toy maker Hasbro from releasing a line of toys based on the racy pop group The Pussycat Dolls.
It stopped fast-food chain McDonald’s from advertising on report cards. It defeated legislation in several states that would have allowed ads on school buses. It put the company Your Baby Can Read out of business for deceptive advertising since, simply put, babies cannot read no matter what educational products their parents buy for them.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has a two-pronged approach to taking on corporate Goliaths. It sometimes files complaints with federal agencies, typically in partnership with Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation. It also wages antimarketing campaigns and demonstrations.
At a children’s marketing conference several years ago, it attracted public attention by holding an antimarketing gathering in the same hotel at the same time. And to counter the “Golden Marble” awards, recognizing excellence in advertising to kids, it distributed “Have You Lost Your Marbles” awards to companies targeting children.
“From the beginning, we saw marketing to kids as a social-justice issue,” Linn said. “Kids are being bombarded with these commercialized products, and they need opportunities in life to develop critical thinking and not have all their likes and dislikes driven by corporations.”
Linn says research shows children are especially vulnerable to marketing because they cannot distinguish between advertising and programming. And marketing, she argues, is a factor in body-image disorders, youth violence, substance abuse, and other problems.
The organization’s work is increasingly critical, Linn said, now that children encounter marketing in almost every aspect of their lives — no longer just on TV, but on screens of every kind, from DVDs to tablets to “advergames.” It’s also creeping into schools.
Linn, who has Harvard graduate degrees in education and counseling psychology, began her career as a ventriloquist and became a puppet therapist at Boston Children’s Hospital. She founded Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood while working at the Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center.
Her group was housed there till 2010, when it was ousted due to its host’s concern about the legal implications of its aggressive advocacy. It relocated to office space within Third Sector New England, a Boston nonprofit that gives it operational support.
Linn’s successor will be her associate director, Josh Golin, 43, who has been with the organization for 12 years and has a master’s degree in child development from Tufts. His shift to advocacy came after working in the film industry and becoming dismayed by a McDonald’s product-placement scene in a children’s movie.
Golin said he plans to carry on Linn’s work yet increasingly target not just “bad actors and bad products, but really focus on raising awareness of how a commercialized childhood is bad for children, and the benefits of commercial-free time.”
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s ongoing campaigns include efforts to reduce children’s screen time; a federal complaint against the Google children’s app YouTube Kids, which it says should be held to the same advertising rules as the TV industry; and an attempt to block the release of Mattel’s Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi-connected doll that can record children’s voices and analyze that audio, which the group argues puts children at risk of exploitation.
“I think it’s important,” Linn said, “for the world to have an organization like this.”