An Interview with Joel Bakan on Childhood Under Siege
David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 30th 2011
Author, attorney, and filmmaker Joel Bakan talks about corporate marketing to children. Joel Bakan is professor of law at the University of British Columbia, a Rhodes Scholar, and former law clerk to Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada. He is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning book and film The Corporation, and also of the 2011 book Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. Baken says that he became a parent with the idea that it is his job and his responsibility - it is not the government's or the state's - to sort of look after his kids and make sure that they are doing okay. But as he went through raising them, he started to realize that there was this kind of third force that was coming in between him and them, and making it very difficult for him to be a good parent. He felt that he was actually losing control of the ability to make the right decisions and make the right choices. And it led him to this realization that people parent the best that they can in the conditions that they are given, but increasingly those conditions are being dictated by corporations, and that, therefore, in order for people to be good parents, they have to do more than just try to do the best they can within the conditions; They actually have to try to change those conditions and make them more amenable to good parenting. In other words, people have to actually become active citizens around these issues. He believes that good parenting actually now includes activating yourself as a citizen and trying the best that you can to deal with these conditions that are increasingly hostile to good parenting.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show, we'll be talking with author, attorney, and filmmaker Joel Bakan about corporate marketing to children. Joel Bakan is professor of law at the University of British Columbia, a Rhodes Scholar, and former law clerk to Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada. He holds law degrees from Oxford, Harvard, and Dalhousie universities. An internationally renowned legal authority, Bakan has written widely on law and its social and economic impacts. He is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning book and film The Corporation, and also of the 2011 book Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.
Now, here's the interview.
Joel Bakan, welcome to Wise Counsel.
Joel Bakan: Thanks for having me on.
David: Well, I've been reading your 2011 book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. But before we get into your book specifically, I'd like us to touch on your wonderfully disturbing documentary film The Corporation. It's one of my all-time favorites. Am I correct that that film was also based on a book by the same title?
Joel Bakan: Yeah. The full title of the book was The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
David: Okay, and how do you really feel?
Joel Bakan: Exactly.
David: And how did you come to do that book and film?
Joel Bakan: Oh, it was a long story, but I'm a legal scholar, fundamentally, and one of the areas I teach in is commercial law. And so I teach about corporations and I've studied corporations from a legal perspective. And one of the things that always struck me, even from the time I was a law student taking Corporations 101, was the strange nature of the corporation as an institution.
Because what we as a society have done is created an institution and imbued it with a mandate that says that its directors and managers are legally obliged always to pursue the self-interest of the collective entity known as the corporation. And that includes exploiting others in order to serve those interests, neglecting the needs and interests of others in order to serve those interests, without any real internal brake or restraint. And so I had done psychology as an undergraduate, and I come from a family of psychologists, and -
David: Oh, good, because this is psychological show.
Joel Bakan: Well, yeah.
David: I didn't even know that.
Joel Bakan: Well, my father, Paul Bakan, did a lot of work on the left and right hemisphere of the brain, and my uncle, David Bakan, wrote a lot about psychoanalysis, and my mother was a psychologist, so this was all at the front of my brain. And as I was learning about corporations and this uniquely self-interested character, I couldn't help but think this is really similar to a human psychopath.
And so I went and looked at the DSM-IV and what the various characteristics were: inability to feel concern for others, inability to obey social conventions or legal conventions, inability to feel guilt or remorse. And I thought, wow, that fit this institution to a T. And not only that, but the law actually confers upon corporations all the rights and duties of personhood, so the corporation is actually a legal person. So I thought, well, if we put this legal person on the couch, it would be pretty clear what the diagnosis would be.
David: Yeah, lacking any conscience, it would be a psychopath.
Joel Bakan: Yeah.
David: That was one of the points that stuck with me. It's actually been several years, I think, since I saw the film, but that point about the legal personhood really stuck with me. And also, I remember something how it was an unexpected byproduct of legislation designed to ameliorate the effects of slavery. Do I have that right?
Joel Bakan: Yeah. I mean the short story is that the corporations were created as persons in the common law of both England and the United States and various other places based on that system. But in the United States, the corporate person then was able to avail itself of Constitutional rights, which then enabled it to challenge various forms of regulation and legislation by virtue of the 14th Amendment, which in turn was put in place in order to protect emancipated slaves from persecution. And when you look at the actual numbers of cases, many more corporations availed themselves of the 14th Amendment over the years than did emancipated slaves.
David: Wow. That seems so ironic. The film had a big impact on me personally. Do you know if it's been a catalyst for any sort of change in the legal landscape in relation to corporations?
Joel Bakan: Well, I think it's used by groups who are proposing that kind of change, and it's also very commonly used, as is the book, in the curricula of various business schools. So it does have a wide circulation, and we do hear sort of anecdotal accounts of people who have been inspired by it to do this or that. But, no, I don't have any actual sort of direct, you know, "because the film did this, this change happened."
But I like to think that it was an intervention in a broader debate that has hopefully given people some knowledge and power. When I look at what's happened since the film came out in 2005, from one account or from one perspective, it was an abject failure because from 2005 to now the power of corporations has only increased, and the various kinds of harms and havoc that they wreak on the world have also increased. So from that perspective, I guess we kind of failed in our mission.
David: Well, along those same lines, were you as shocked and upset as I was when Congress gave lobbyists carte blanche on what they could spend in their lobbying efforts? No ceiling at all?
Joel Bakan: Well, yeah.
David: To me, that was like announcing that our government is for sale.
Joel Bakan: No, absolutely. And that's very much related to what we were just talking about. The legal basis of that decision was that, because the corporation is a person, it should have the same rights that individuals have in terms of participating in the political life of the country, which is totally bizarre. Because the reason why we deemed corporations to be persons, say, 200 years ago was in order to enable them to do things like own property, enter contracts, to do the things that have to be done by an economic entity.
But to then say that that somehow confers upon those persons actual political rights completely belies the reason for conferring personhood on corporations in the first place, and takes it much further than it was ever intended to go. It's like if you believe that the moon is made out of green cheese, it's like mounting a NASA mission to go up there and start mining green cheese. That's effectively what we've done.
David: And also these are persons that don't have a normal life span. They can live for a long time.
Joel Bakan: That's exactly right. They're immortal unless they self-destruct, as we've seen some corporations do recently. But they are immortal. It's interesting that there are - in theory, a corporation can be dissolved, a form of capital punishment, by the attorney general of the state or by a legislative body, because they're not creations of nature like human beings. They're simply creations of law, and they can be as easily undone by law as they can be done by law. But generally we don't see that happen except in very extreme cases. I mean I think even Enron continues to exist as a corporate entity, though not a viable or functioning business.
David: So I gather there's a more or less straight line from that book and film on the corporation, to your current one on how big business targets children. Can you take us through your internal process of the one leading to the other?
Joel Bakan: Well, it's a tortured process. I mean there's no question that the issue of children was featured in the original project, though it was not a central feature of the original project. And as I was doing that project, I thought this is something that I need to revisit. But a couple things happened that made that kind of abstract thought turn into a concrete reality, and one is watching my own two kids sort of grow up in this world of constant corporate intervention in their lives.
And I guess I became a parent with the idea that it's my job and my responsibility - it's not the government's or the state's - it's my job and my responsibility to sort of look after my kids and make sure that they're doing okay. But as I went through raising them - the process from the time they were about 5 years old until now they're 14, in particular - I started to realize that there was this kind of third force that was coming in between me and them, and making it very difficult for me to be a good parent. Whether we were talking about toxins in the environment, which I couldn't control their exposure to, and even if I could, I didn't know how to; or we were talking about increasingly toxic media - a violent sexual life, enticing, addictive; or we were talking about doctors who were saying, "Oh, if your child is having some problems at school, just put them on medications. That's the solution."
All of these different ways I was feeling that, as a parent, I was actually losing control of the ability to make the right decisions and make the right choices. And it led me to this kind of profound idea, really - I thought it was profound - that we parent the best that we can in the conditions that we're given, but increasingly those conditions are being dictated by corporations, and that, therefore, in order for me to be a good parent, I have to do more than just try to do the best I can within the conditions; I actually have to try to change those conditions and make them more amenable to good parenting. In other words, I have to actually become an active citizen around these issues. So the good parenting actually now includes activating yourself as a citizen and trying the best that you can to deal with these conditions that are increasingly hostile to good parenting.
David: Wow, that's a really key point, that last one, I think. Backing up a little bit - we'll touch on a lot of the specifics that you mentioned - but backing up again; both corporations and children gained legal status as persons, and you trace some of the history of that.
Joel Bakan: Yeah. This is one of the kind of great ironies. I mean I've already talked a little bit about the history of corporate personhood. It was really that you go back to the mid-19th century, and this is the sort of - when industrialization is really taking off and you need a vehicle to raise large amounts of capital, and - to build a railroad, for example. And the existing business structure at the time, the partnership, just couldn't do that because, in the partnership, the people who were investing in the business and owning the business were also the people who were running the business. And there were just practical limits as to how many people and therefore how many investors you could have.
So the genius of the corporation is that it kind of split the atom between owning a company and running a company, and that's really the fundamental principle of the corporation: is now you can have thousands, millions, of people owning the company as shareholders who have nothing to do with the company, and a few people running the company as managers and directors. And the reason you needed personhood is because all the real people were saying, "Hey, I don't want be liable for any stuff that happens as a result." You know, if the company goes bankrupt, if it pollutes a river, "I don't want to be liable," say the shareholders.
And the managers and directors say, "Hey, we don't want to be liable either." So the rabbit out of the hat was, well, what we'll do is we'll say that the corporation itself is liable. But in order to make it liable, the law only recognizes rights and duties on people. So, in order to create an entity that can actually hold rights and actually hold legal responsibility, we have to deem it to be a person. So we get the corporate person, and then we get [crosstalk].
David: Yeah. At what point did children become persons? I gather that they weren't always that way.
Joel Bakan: No. It was really the same - it was around the same time, the mid-19th century, that there was a clash between ideas coming out of the European Enlightenment and thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote at length about childhood, and wrote about what a unique time it was in terms of taking an individual through a process of development, and what vulnerabilities that created, and what responsibilities it created for society. So there were those ideas that were out there.
And at the same time, kids were leading intolerably horrific lives; many, you know, working as miners at the age of eight, and we know the stories: working in the garment district in New York City in the sweatshops and so on and so forth. And so these ideas kind of clashed and you have a movement developing in the late 19th century that says society has an obligation to children. And that kind of crystallizes in the form of law. And for the first time, you start to see laws recognizing the rights of children and the responsibilities of governments and society to serve the needs of children.
And this crystallizes in terms of United Nations international law. It crystallizes in terms of the domestic laws of countries which banned child labor, which create consumer protection laws, which provide public schools to all children. And so you really have this kind of renaissance of childhood, almost a creation of childhood as a legal category and children as legal rights holders. So, yeah, there is this parallel development, where children become legal persons and corporations become legal persons, which, of course, sets up the possibility of a clash between the two.
David: Yeah, and also, just as there was that unintended consequence of the 14th Amendment that was designed to benefit former slaves, it seems like the personhood of children in some ways has backfired on us. It started out to - in the early 1900s, you pointed out, that someone declared it to be the "Century of the Child," and yet things seemed to have gone off track. What happened to make them go off track?
Joel Bakan: Well, things went sideways around 1980, and it was really part of a much more general movement politically and ideologically in the United States and elsewhere towards what I describe as neo-liberalism, and many economists describe it this way too. And it's basically the idea that the state should get out of the business of trying to protect the public interest by imposing restrictions on economic activity and economic actors. And it's manifest in ideas like deregulation and privatization.
And so the notion is that the economy should be free to operate without legal constraints. The assumption is that market principles will ensure that it operates for the good of society. And that is a real shift from the thinking that preceded it over the course of the 20th century, which saw a much broader role for governments, both local and federal, to enact and impose various kinds of restrictions on economic activities in order to serve other public interests.
So we've seen some recent catastrophes. We saw the economic crisis of 2008. We saw the near destruction of the Gulf of Mexico. And many people, including many people within government and within business and people like Alan Greenspan, for example, will say that the 2008 collapse was in large part a result of deregulation. And the report to President Obama about the Gulf of Mexico fiasco also attributes the problems there to an absence of good regulation.
And basically what I say in my new book is that the destruction of childhood may be sort of the largest crisis and the least containable and the most profoundly impactful of this shift to the view that governments and society should get out of the business of trying to protect the public interest through law.
David: Wow. You also quote Nelson Mandela as saying there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children. So how do we measure up on that report card?
Joel Bakan: Not very well. I think that what we as a society have decided over the last 30 years is that it's inappropriate and illegitimate for us as democratic citizens to demand that the governments that represent us and that are responsible to us try to create conditions that make good parenting possible and that protect and promote children's interests. And so I think that backing away from that project, the notion that there really isn't a role for society as a whole - it's just really up to parents to do the best they can in the conditions that they have - that notion I think reflects a fairly bad report card in terms of Nelson Mandela's criteria.
David: Yeah. Towards the end of the book you say there's a real disconnect between the values that we tend to champion - we have high-minded values about children and their worth and so on - but there's a real disconnect between the values that we pay lip service to and the actuality. And we can document that as we go through some of areas where you see corporations targeting children. So let's start with advertising to kids in school, for example, junk food; there are other examples that could be brought forth. Say a bit about that.
Joel Bakan: Well, I mean, ideally, you don't want to have a McDonald's ad on the side of a school bus. You don't want Revlon to be providing curricula to schools that talk about how you can distinguish a bad hair day from a good hair day; or a Big Mac being used to illustrate the four food groups. Schools are an obvious place that marketers want to get at kids in, because they, firstly, are a captured audience - I mean kids have to be in school - and if a teacher provides a corporate-produced curriculum they have to engage with it.
David: I seem to recall that there's a corporate-produced television channel that's in the schools, and that presumably -
Joel Bakan: Channel 1.
David: Yeah, Channel 1? And they provide some I guess some semi- or educational content.
Joel Bakan: Some "news," and I think it's 2 minutes out of every 12 of advertising. And kids are required to watch it as part of the curriculum, and that requirement is part of the deal between Channel 1 and the school in order for the school to get free equipment, which is basically what's in it for the school. I mean, there are so many facets to the issue of schools, and one of them is that schools are being underfunded and they're pursuing - they're turning themselves into platforms for advertising in order to get some revenue.
Now, some of the studies - and there are some great studies by a fellow named Alex Molnar at Arizona, at the University of Arizona, and they basically show that, in the end, schools aren't getting very much out of this, and that the amount of time that is spent by students ingesting advertising rather than learning actually leads to a net cost to these kinds of programs. But putting that aside, for the schools, it's a lure. There's cash involved, there's equipment involved, and that looks good to schools that are being defunded.
But what are we doing when we're turning our schools into platforms for marketing and advertising, especially for marketing and advertising products that aren't necessarily good for kids, in terms of whether it's junk food or whether it's chemically laden cosmetic products? These are real questions we have to be asking ourselves in terms of why we're providing public education, what we're trying to do when we provide public education.
David: And this goes actually all the way up to higher education. I, for 35 years, taught in a publicly funded California State university, and we were increasingly in recent years being told that we had to be entrepreneurial.
Joel Bakan: Absolutely.
David: That the faculty had to become more entrepreneurial and figure out ways to draw money to the school. And then we saw things like credit card companies, banks, on campus pushing credit cards on young essentially adolescents whose brains haven't matured to the place yet where they can handle a credit card. And it's like drug pushers on campus. I was shocked.
Joel Bakan: No, absolutely. And I mean I teach on a campus where that stuff's happening too, but it has even more profound implications. And I talk in the book about a 1980 law, for example, that essentially changed the whole profile of medical research in particular by suggesting that universities and researchers could own patents and take out patents in the inventions that they came up with. And that - and I document in more detail - had a profound shift on medical research, the short story being that it opened the door for pharmaceutical companies to come in and create partnerships and spin off companies and whatnot in terms of doing medical research.
And it really opened the door to the massive intervention of the pharmaceutical industry in medical research; sort of took down what used to be a wall between scientific research and pharmaceutical company influence, and led to the situation that we have today where much pharmaceutical - in fact most pharmaceutical research - is being done either in partnership with a pharmaceutical company, or through funding by a pharmaceutical company, or by the pharmaceutical company itself, or by a private research organization hired by the pharmaceutical company.
So, over the space of 30 years, as a result of this law, we've gone from a situation where pharmaceutical research is being done primarily by independent researchers in universities and public hospitals to it being done primarily by pharmaceutical companies. And the implications of that are profound.
I mean it's not just credit cards on campus, it's not just trying to sell McDonald's hamburgers in schools, but here we have a commercialization that's happening right at the core of pharmaceutical research, and I link the problems generated by that to what I refer to as an over-medication and over-diagnosis trend in terms of kids and psychotropic drugs. So it's a sort of, you know, connect the dots kind of thing that's going on in terms of corporate involvement in both K-12 and in higher learning.
David: Well, just a couple of days ago, I read in my local paper that schools in California actually changed their curriculum and textbooks to be more favorable to the plastics industry. They actually rewrote certain portions of textbooks because of threatened legislation to limit plastic bags.
Joel Bakan: Yeah. And I'm not familiar with the sort of behind-the-scenes inner workings of that, but you can be sure that the plastics industry was lobbying heavily behind that, that perhaps there are - it wouldn't surprise me that there are linkages between the plastics industry and schools in terms of funding programs and curricula programs. I mean this has become very, very common.
And you go right down the line. It's not only the influence of private industry on public schools, but it's the actual reformatting of schools into private entities; that we're seeing much more involvement of large education management organizations, publicly traded; corporations that are running schools in contracts with governments; a standardized testing industry that is growing by leaps and bounds each day. I interviewed a fellow named Benno Schmidt who is the former head of Edison Schools, which was created by Chris Whittle, who also created Channel 1, so there are many linkages here. And Benno Schmidt said, you know, education is the second largest segment of the U.S. economy, behind medicine.
David: Oh, boy.
Joel Bakan: Ahead of military production, ahead of auto production. And for most of the 20th century, education was off limits to corporations. It was firmly in public hands and run in accordance with public principles. And it makes perfect sense - you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist - from the perspective of corporate America that here is a potential area of profit making that we want to get our hands on.
Joel Bakan: And many of the education reforms that we see happening today are being lobbied very heavily by this burgeoning education industry. And I'm not saying that's the entire reason why we're getting standardization and the privatization and charter schools, but it is a large impetus behind those changes that there's simply money to be made in those hills.
David: Wow. You know, one of the things that shocked me as I was reading your book was in relation to child labor. And, you know, we thought that the child labor laws of the early 1900s, that that whole situation had been settled. But you point out that even in your own British Columbia, where you live now, that there are very young children working in - I forget what the industry was.
Joel Bakan: Well, here's the sort of medium-sized story of what that's about. Beginning about 20 years ago, countries across the globe began signing up to a treaty that had been sponsored by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. And basically what that treaty said, is that the minimum age for work should be 15 years old, and that if conditions warranted it - you know, in advanced economies - it should be 16 years old. And most of the countries in the world have signed on to it, including some of the poorest, so if you go to Afghanistan or Haiti, for example, the minimum age for work there in those countries is 15.
If you go to the United States, the minimum age for work in the agricultural sector is 12. And if you go to many farms, you will find kids 12 years old working legally in horrific conditions, often for very long hours, often encroaching on their schooling, sometimes killing them. There are notable instances of youth dying in the fields, making them sick, injuring them - hundreds of thousands in the United States of kids working in the agricultural fields.
And 12 is the legal minimum, but because the laws are so poorly enforced, there are many kids a lot younger than that working in the fields, and there was recently an ABC investigative story on 5-year-olds working picking blueberries for 12 to 14 hours a day in the hot sun; the employers wanting to employ young children because they have smaller fingers and are better able to get at the fruit.
So this is happening in our own backyard. I mean, while the U.S. government sanctimoniously talks about the horrors of child labor in the developing world, in our own backyard we have some of the worst child labor happening in the world. And I mention my own province of British Columbia because recently the laws were changed in Canada in this particular jurisdiction to allow children as young as 12 to work in any industry except for a bar or a mine.
And I guess I use that as an example in my book, and I ask the question - which I don't know the answer to - is this the trend? Are we moving towards greater acceptance, whether on U.S. farms or in my province of British Columbia, towards greater acceptance of young children working? Are we going back to the future, so to speak? Are we going back to the 19th century practices of allowing children to work often in exploitative conditions? Or is the UN treaty that more than 150 nations, but not the United States and Canada, have signed on to - is that the trend? Are we moving in a more protective direction? And I honestly don't know the answer to that question.
David: Wow. Now, what about electronic media such as TV, games, videos, Facebook, social networking, cell phones? You point out that kids these days are spending as much or more time on these activities as school. What -?
Joel Bakan: Yeah, I -
David: Yeah, go ahead.
Joel Bakan: Well, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study - and it was a very robust study, a large number of kids were tracked over a period of time and in considerable detail about exactly what media they were using and how much. And the result was that kids are spending ten hours a day on average engaged with electronic media. And there's a little trick to that in the sense that the actual amount of time they're spending is eight, but because they're often simultaneously using more than one media, that accounted for another two hours.
So conservatively we can say eight hours a day on average kids are spending on electronic media, which is roughly twice as much time as they spend in school. And if you calculate it out, I mean if they're on media for 8 hours a day, if they're in school for 5 hours a day, if they sleep for 8 hours a day, that's by my math 21 hours of the day. That only leaves three for doing anything else.
David: Well, I seem to recall - and I'm not going to know the exact statistic, but there's some shockingly low statistic for the amount of time spent talking with parents.
Joel Bakan: Right.
David: Like it's under an hour.
Joel Bakan: Right. Which makes sense. I mean, when you add up all these other activities, it makes sense. And I guess the story I tell in the book is essentially before roughly the late 1950s, the only way that marketers could get at kids was through things like comic books. Before television was in American homes, that was - comic books and magazines was it. Not a very powerful medium, and not one that could really get around parental oversight.
So if you fast forward through the introduction of television, the introduction of cable TV, the introduction of desktop computers, then laptop computers, then social networks, then smartphones and tablets, what you have is a technological development or evolution that goes from marketers having virtually no access to kids as an independent and separate audience from their parents, to kids being tapped into commercial media for wherever they are and all the time, on their smartphones. And not only commercial media, but very compelling commercial media in the form of games, of social networks, of virtual worlds.
That is a radical shift in how kids are spending their time. Then when you factor into that analysis the kind of content that is being pitched at them, essentially what you have is - you know, the fundamental principle of marketing to children is identify what their unique emotions are and then target those emotions in ways that will help you sell products. And what marketers have realized is that sex and violence - this is no surprise - are enticements for kids.
David: Yeah, I'm shocked at the sexual and violent themes that keep trickling down to younger and younger children, and the term "family values" has a whole aura of meaning around it that I don't particularly subscribe to, but, jeez, there's got to be something called "family values" that is important.
Joel Bakan: Well, you know what? Maybe this'll take us off track a little bit, but I think it's an absolutely crucial notion, and that is that there seems to be little room for intelligent thinking about values and family values between the kind of traditional moral conservatism that's usually attached to that idea on the one hand, and on the other hand a kind of, you know, well, it's all free speech and we need to allow it all. It puts people like yourself or myself who are maybe coming from a place that isn't a morally conservative place and have some sympathy with the free speech arguments, it puts us in a difficult place. There is no place for us to talk about values any more.
And it's one of the things that I really talk about in the book, that we need to have a kind of discourse around the values of childhood that don't necessarily align us with the conservative moralism, but at the same time are somewhat skeptical about the claim that we have to just allow it all, that we have to allow our daughters to be targeted with marketing for lingerie at the age of five, which is an example I just recently came across.
David: Oh, wow.
Joel Bakan: So I really think that that is the discussion that we in America and in Canada - I mean that's the discussion we need to be having. Can we come up with a discourse around values that sort of falls between these two extreme positions? Do we really need to take either of those extreme positions, or can we come up with a more intelligent debate? And that's part of what I'm trying to do in this book, is to try to create a place for that debate.
David: Yeah, good. We've touched on the pharmaceutical companies a bit, and I think you touched on the over medication of children. The pharmaceutical companies have been good at creating new markets for themselves by creating new diagnostic categories and also announcing new uses for old drugs. Perhaps you can share the story of Robert Spitzer and his journey from orgone box to his involvement in the DSM-III. I thought that was interesting. I wasn't aware of that history.
Joel Bakan: Yeah, he's a fascinating man. He's a psychiatrist who taught, and I think is professor emeritus now at Columbia University, who begins his journey as a quite neurotic young man who is put into this strange machine that's supposed to create certain kinds of energy fields in order to deal with anxiety, which is the invention of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich; and later becomes - and I suggest in the book perhaps because of these earlier experiences, he becomes an advocate for making psychiatry a true science. So it's a kind of I guess what psychiatrists, psychologists would call a reaction formation against his early years.
So he becomes a sort of advocate for psychiatry as a true science, as a true medical science. And he's given the task of creating the DSM-III. And the DSM-I and the DSM-II, which preceded DSM-III, have virtually nothing about children's unique psychological difficulties, so there was no real child psychology that was in the DSM-I and DSM-II. And, of course, as most of your listeners will know, these are the kind of bibles of psychiatry, the diagnostic manuals where the official disorders are listed.
So Spitzer, in putting together the DSM-III, basically adds numerous pages. Sort of, you know, there was like one page on childhood disorders before, and in the DSM-III there are, I don't know, maybe 60, with various kinds of disorders, chief among them ADD, which is a new diagnosis in the DSM-III. And so he's kind of the father of modern child psychiatry. Then fast forward to the DSM-IV, and all of these childhood diagnoses are further broadened.
Now, what's also happening at this time is what I was discussing before, and that is the sort of legally sanctioned intervention of pharmaceutical companies into the process of psychiatric and medical research. And so this kind of creates the perfect storm. On the one hand, you have these new child disorders being created. On the other hand, you have pharmaceutical companies getting into research with their obvious bias towards more and broader diagnoses. And so it's a perfect storm for creating new drug regimes, new drugs, new childhood disorders, and therefore new markets for the pharmaceutical industry. And that process continues on and is continuing on as DSM-V is now underway and in process.
And one of the really - the sort of end of the Robert Spitzer story is that he has become one of the leading advocates against DSM-V's expansion of the diagnostic brackets of mental illness. And he has charged, along with the fellow Allen Frances, who shepherded DSM-IV - these two are saying DSM-V is broadening, beyond any reason, diagnostic brackets of mental illness, and that this is a bonanza for the pharmaceutical companies but ultimately not in the best interests of patients, including children. So it's a very interesting story from father of child psychiatry to one of the leading critics of the expanding brackets of diagnoses.
David: Yeah, that's fascinating, and that's something that I wasn't aware of, so I'm really glad you've brought that to our attention. You know, still on the pharmaceutical thing, I was shocked by your account of drug companies hiring former cheerleaders as drug reps. Tell us a little bit about that.
Joel Bakan: Well, yeah. I came across that in a New York Times article quite a while ago, maybe 2006, that drug companies, with the help of a company called Spirited Sales, which is kind of a job broker company, actively recruit among cheerleaders in order to have sales reps who can go into the doctors and try to convince the doctors to prescribe particular drugs. And it's not, I guess - I guess it's not an obvious stretch. A cheerleader is somebody who has various qualities, including physical attractiveness, to try to get people to cheer their team, and I suppose in doctors' offices, they're doing roughly the same job of cheering particular drugs.
And the sort of larger story is that - and there have been some recent revelations of this - but the larger story is that the drug companies exert considerable influence over doctors by sending in these drug reps who often their main asset is charmingness and physical attractiveness and offers of free dinners and various perks, rather than sort of uninterested scientific information. And their job is to go in and visit doctors and give them free samples and get them prescribing their drugs. And it's just one of many tactics that are used by pharmaceutical companies to effectively market their products, often under the guise - and a very thin guise often - of science.
David: In the interests of time, I'm going to skip over a couple of the categories that we could have discussed - for example, environmental toxins - and I want to move to something that I've been aware of and concerned about because I'm not only a father but now a grandfather - and the Disney Corporation and the princess phenomenon. I don't know if you've seen Peggy Orenstein's newest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
Joel Bakan: No, I haven't. I haven't read it. No, I've heard of it, yeah.
David: Yeah. I think that's one you'll want to take a look at. I tried to get an interview with her, but I guess she's so consumed with promoting her book right now I couldn't get to her. I just read I think a recent New York Times story saying that Disney is laying the groundwork to capture a whole new group of potential customers, newborns, by partnering with Our365, a portrait company that pays hospitals in exchange for exclusive rights to take and sell baby pictures. Disney will be able to market its newest line, Disney Baby, directly to new mothers in hospital maternity wards. Isn't that something?
Joel Bakan: Well, I mean, with all of this, I think you have to step back and say, okay, if you're working in Disney or if you're working in any corporation, your job is to come up with whatever is likely to turn a profit. Your job is not to think about whether it's good for society or it's good for individuals; your job is to think about whether you can sell it to them. And if that means partnering with a company that's taking pictures of newborns, if that means marketing lingerie to four-year-olds, if that means putting McDonald's advertisements on the side of school buses, just use your imagination to come up with anything that's going to make money.
And the trick to the mental experiment is take away all consciousness, take away all sense of whether this is good for anybody. Take away all of that, take away all moral constraints, and just think "Will this make money?" And then maybe a subsidiary question, "Will we get away with it? Is it legal? Will it create a backlash?" But if you put yourself in that frame of mind, then all these things that are coming out don't seem that surprising.
David: Yeah, they're natural extensions of the basic underlying idea. Now, in your last chapter, you talk about corporations that attempt to manipulate our perceptions and trust by sponsoring environmental or activist sounding programs. In other words, they're presenting themselves as "good" corporations, as corporations with a conscience.
Joel Bakan: Right.
David: Can you comment on that and give an example or two?
Joel Bakan: Yeah. There are a number of things that are going on here, and we're thinking of campaigns like Unilever's campaign to challenge dominant images of female beauty, sort of challenge the norm of thinness and all of that. Or McDonald's having us save the rainforest campaign kind of thing, or save endangered species type of thing. Or the Bayer Company sponsoring youth events on making the environment better.
There's a lot of this going on, and there are two elements to it that I remark upon in the book, and one is that, again, if you put yourself in this place of thinking what is the best way that I can make money, one of the most powerful emotions of young people is idealism. That's something that, when you look at the span of history - including recent history like what is happening in Libya, what has recently happened in Egypt - any kind of mass movement for social change, the engine is going to be youthful activism and youthful idealism.
So, again, if you're a corporate marketer and you're thinking what are the unique emotions of youth that we can target, idealism is going to be one of those. So one of the things you see among youth marketers are campaigns that aim to suggest that if you buy this product, you will be part of an earth-saving, planet-saving, environment-saving, child-hunger-ending project. So that consuming a particular product kind of makes you politically aligned with something that serves your idealistic instincts.
And it's a very powerful market, especially to teens, who naturally feel idealistic. It's also a way to attach their idealism to the idea that corporations are their allies rather than the problem, that obviously as corporations are doing all this good, then we shouldn't, as idealistic youth, be challenging corporations. They seem to be the good guys. They seem to be part of the solution. So it's a way of ensuring or diverting youthful idealism away from the obvious fact, if you look at it under the cold light of day, that to a large extent in the world today corporations are part of the problem in terms of environmental destruction, in terms of exploitation, injustice, and so on and so forth.
So those are two kind of payoffs that companies get from working with youthful idealism. And I suppose a third is that if companies are able to position themselves as good guys, they're less likely to attract the ire of regulators; that if what companies are saying is "You don't need to regulate us. We're capable of regulating ourselves," then these kind of social responsibility campaigns lend some credence to that notion.
The problem with all of it, as I argue in this book and in The Corporation before it, is that corporations are not made to be good in those ways. They're made to make money. And that these kinds of campaigns are and must be, in terms of the legal obligations of those who concoct them - the managers and directors - they must be purely strategic. And they're, therefore, going to be limited at best and deceptive at worst. And so that's the basic argument that I make.
David: Well, I just read in yesterday's paper about an effort here in California to change the DNA of at least some corporations a bit. They're talking about something called a "benefit corporation." I don't know if you've heard of this, but the idea is that some corporations that are aiming either towards social good or environmental changes, environmental goods, will be relieved of the burden of having to - of the possibility of being sued by their shareholders. In other words, that they won't be held to the standard of having to benefit the shareholders.
Joel Bakan: Yeah, it's a common trend across some states. Connecticut is one. They're called corporate constituency statutes, and basically the notion is that it gives license to the directors and managers to do things that don't necessarily directly benefit shareholders. And, as you say, they get relief from being sued. So it kind of modifies the fundamental self-interest principle.
The evidence suggests that these laws don't make much of a difference because companies are working in a competitive environment to get both consumers and shareholders. To the extent they start taking measures that are ones that these statutes allow - that cost shareholders in effect - in order to pursue social good, to the extent that happens, shareholders are going to dump their shares and especially institutional shareholders, which increasingly are important whether they be pension funds or banks or whatever, because the problem is that your typical pension fund, the trustees of that pension fund have an obligation to always do what's in the financial self-interest of their beneficiaries.
So if those trustees see a company that is acting in a way that doesn't yield the most economic gain for shareholders, then they'll move on to a different company. So while the law permits that kind of action, the market is going to punish corporations that do that. And so with the exception, I think, of a relatively small number of companies that have shareholders who want to sacrifice returns in order for social goods to be pursued, with the exception of those kind of companies, I don't think you're going to see much change through these laws.
David: Oh, that's too bad. I was feeling hopeful.
Joel Bakan: It is. And I don't want to be pessimistic. I do think, as I argue in this book and in The Corporation, that there are ways to control corporations, but I don't think this one is particularly effective.
David: Okay. Now, do I understand that this book will also become a film?
Joel Bakan: Yeah, I'm working with a team to turn it into a film, which I think we're probably - I mean from now until the time it actually is out there and in theaters, it's probably at least a year and a half. I did The Corporation differently. I worked on the book and the film at the same time, so they came out at the same time. But for a bunch of reasons, this one I did the book first and now we're going to go make the film.
David: Well, I'm certainly going to keep my eye out for that film, and I'll look forward to seeing it. And I think you kind of gave us our marching orders in terms of what we should be doing about all of this as citizens, but maybe you'd just like to restate that succinctly here at the end.
Joel Bakan: Well, I guess the succinct statement is that I think, given the world that we're in today and given the degree to which corporations have license to target our children, to be good parents today, we have to do more than simply parent well. We also have to work to change the conditions that are increasingly hostile to being good parents, and that means we have to become I guess more active as citizens around all of the issues that I talk about in the book.
David: Well, Joel Bakan, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.
Joel Bakan: Thank you for having me on. I enjoyed it greatly.
David: I hope you both enjoyed and learned from this interview with Joel Bakan. I think it's pretty clear where my own sentiments lie. As a father, grandfather, psychologist, and citizen, I find myself in substantial agreement with the concerns he raises here. Thank goodness that we have someone of his intelligence, training, and courage to challenge big business. As citizens and voters, I think it's important to do what we can to reclaim a substantially less commercialized childhood. If you haven't seen his earlier film, The Corporation, I highly recommend that you do so. It's available for both disc and instant streaming on Netflix. I'm personally looking forward to the film Childhood Under Siege when it comes out. You may also want to visit Joel Bakan's website, which is simply www.joelbakan.com, and Bakan is spelled B-A-K-A-N.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Joel Bakan is professor of law at the University of British Columbia. A Rhodes Scholar and former law clerk to Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada, he holds law degrees from Oxford, Harvard and Dalhousie universities. An internationally renowned legal authority, Bakan has written widely on law and its social and economic impacts. He is the author of the critically acclaimed and award winning book and film, The Corporation, and also of the 2011 book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.