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Why Politicians Want Children To Be Seen And Heard

President Obama signs a series of executive orders on gun control Jan. 16 surrounded by children who wrote letters to the White House about gun violence. They are, from left, Hinna Zeejah, Taejah Goode, Julia Stokes and Grant Fritz.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
President Obama signs a series of executive orders on gun control Jan. 16 surrounded by children who wrote letters to the White House about gun violence. They are, from left, Hinna Zeejah, Taejah Goode, Julia Stokes and Grant Fritz.

President Obama will visit Connecticut on Monday to keep pushing for new federal gun laws. The poster children for this campaign are just that — children.

The president has invited kids to the White House to watch him sign new executive orders on guns. And the images of the kids who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School are a constant reminder of the toll gun violence can take.

And it's not just the gun debate. Right now, children are also central to campaigns on immigration and same-sex marriage — demonstrating their effectiveness as political messengers.

A Time-Honored Tactic

In Miami in 1977, Anita Bryant started a campaign against gay rights. She gave her group a name that would resonate with parents in Florida and around the country: Save Our Children.

"Please join us in voting for the human rights of children — voting for decency," she urged during her campaign.

Kids are still a key part of this debate, but more often they show up on the other side, as part of the push for gay rights.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage last month, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that California alone has some 40,000 kids living with two moms or two dads.

"They want their parents to have full recognition and full status," Kennedy said. "The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?"

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia brought up kids, too, but in another context: "There's considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not," Scalia said during arguments. "Some states do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason."

On almost any issue, kids can make an argument more compelling.

"Kids are more of a blank canvas," says Elizabeth Wilner, who studies political advertising for the firm Kantar Media CMAG. "The standard prejudices and thoughts people might bring to a particular issue tend to get left by the wayside when they're watching an ad that features a kid."

People can easily pass judgment on gays and lesbians or condemn those who came to the United States illegally. It's much harder to dismiss their children.

"I think it immediately unfangs the opponent," says Mark Fitzloff, an executive at the advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy. "Because what are you going to do? You're going to attack children? I mean, it's a smart chess move to anticipate your opponent's next move and pull the power out of it."

That's one reason the DREAM Act kids have been such an effective face of the immigration debate. They came to the United States illegally through no fault of their own. And people have seen that message online more than half a million times in this video.

"I was like, 'Wow, I don't have a Social Security number. That means I'm undocumented,' " a student named Mario says in the video.

'Innocent Children'

Republican political consultant Steve Grand says kids also make an issue less abstract. Children make any controversy become real and relatable.

"Once you get to know someone's kids, all of sudden now there's a personalization that takes place," Grand says. "In gay rights and in immigration, I think so many Americans didn't know anyone personally. All of a sudden, now — Oh, there's the gay family. But they have a kid. And the kid plays with my kid. And, hmm, there's really nothing wrong with them. And, in fact, I kind of like them."

Kids are also synonymous with innocence. Every person interviewed for this story brought up the phrase "innocent children."

And that innocence can also be a useful tool, says Pippa Seichrist, president and founder of the Miami Ad School.

"Anything bad that happens is worse if it happens to a child because they're fragile and they don't have control over anything," she says. "They're at the world's mercy. So we have this feeling to protect them and to want to make something better."

That's one reason Obama mentions kids every time he talks about gun violence.

"The only way this time will be different is if the American people demand that this time, it must be different," he said in Denver last week. "That this time we must do something to protect our communities and our kids."

On these three issues — gay marriage, immigration and gun control — Democrats are using kids most. But Republicans have also used children effectively.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney focused on children to make a point about the national debt during last year's presidential campaign.

"Dear Daughter," the ad began. "Welcome to America. Your share of Obama's debt is over $50,000, and it grows every day."

Especially after years of bitter, negative campaigning, children bring a freshness to the political debate. And research shows that consumers and voters enjoy watching kids — certainly more than they enjoy watching politicians.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 8, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly indentifies Republican political consultant Steve Grand as Steve Green.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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