It's known as advertising, but we may as well call it psychological warfare. Our entire society is a free-fire zone for nonstop commercial assaults. Everyone is in the cross hairs -- no matter how young. And quite a few professionals with formal training in psychology have enlisted in the never-ending war.

        That's what worries the 60 psychologists and psychiatrists who have just sent a letter to the American Psychological Association. While the prestigious APA says that it seeks to "mitigate the causes of human suffering," the letter's signers contend that "a large gap has arisen between APA's mission and the drift of the profession into helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them."

        In the midst of "the sale of psychological expertise to advertisers to manipulate children for monetary gain," the signers add, "the profession does very little to protect innocent children -- the people it is supposed to help -- from the psychological cajoling and assaults that it itself helps to create."

        One of the nation's foremost advertising agencies, for instance, "hired clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists to log more than 500 hours of interviews and observations of nearly 200 children between the ages of 6 and 20," the industry newsletter Selling to Kids reported last spring.

        In 1998, the international trade magazine Kidscreen noted that the same ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, "has carried out what it describes as `a global review of child development with child psychologists.' It claims this will help shape proprietary tools that can make advertising relevant to kids."

        For the ad industry, "relevant to kids" is shorthand for fully exploiting the vulnerability of young people.

        When marketers gathered in New York for the "Advertising to Kids" conference a year ago, it seemed natural that psychologists were among the featured speakers.

        Now that several dozen psychologists and psychiatrists from around the country have gone public with their concerns, the potential hot potato has landed at the headquarters of the American Psychological Association. So far, there's no comment. At the APA's office of public communications, Rhea Farberman told me that the letter would be referred to an APA board for review.

        What happens after that is anyone's guess. But as of now, in the United States, the letter has been virtually ignored by mass media -- despite wide distribution by the consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert.

        The letter certainly deserves a lot more attention. It asks the American Psychological Association to:

  • "issue a formal public statement denouncing the use of psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children";

  • amend the APA's ethics code to "establish limits for psychologists regarding the use of psychological knowledge or techniques to observe, study, manipulate, harm, exploit, mislead, trick or deceive children for commercial purposes"; and

  • "launch an ongoing campaign to probe, review and confront the use of psychological research in advertising and marketing to children."

        Perhaps most importantly, the letter's signers are calling for a campaign that would include "the promotion of strategies to protect children against commercial manipulation and exploitation by psychologists and those who use the tools of psychology."

        As a practical matter, the huckster cat got out of the school bag long ago. The shrewdest manipulators of the public may not have any scholarly initials after their names. In any event, the best way for all of us -- of any age -- to defend against commercial manipulation is to get wise to it.

        "It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing," Raymond Chandler wrote a half-century ago. "There is more than one way to conquer a country."

        At the end of the 1950s, author Vance Packard asked a question that resonates even more ominously today: "By encouraging people constantly to pursue the emblems of success, and by causing them to equate possessions with status, what are we doing to their emotions and their sense of values?"

        Thirty years ago, author Felix Greene declared: "Advertising is nothing more than a technique to keep people in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with what they possess and in a permanent state of itchy acquisitiveness."

        Commercial advertising is about psychological manipulation. As such, the "better" an ad is, the worse it is. Whenever we forget that -- even for a moment -- we're in peril.

Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News.