The influence of consumerism on my children has been a concern to me for a long time. From the moment I first held my son, I realized that I had a deep responsibility to raise him with strong values and the ability to reason through information presented to him, and I feel exactly the same way about my daughter. To me, modern consumerism is just a bunch of noise attempting to drown out this message, using any number of ploys to convince my children to not make well-reasoned decisions, particularly when it comes to material goods and money.
Born to Buy focuses in on those very issues. It’s written by Juliet Schor, who also wrote The Overspent American, a book focusing on adults and consumerism that I reviewed a while back and quite enjoyed.
Much like Schor’s earlier book, I found Born to Buy thoroughly well-researched and insightful, but did it really open my eyes to the relationship between consumer behavior and my children? Let’s dig into the book and find out.
Digging Into Born to Buy
One quick comment: this book is fact-packed and well researched. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming and I found myself reading it in chunks and on occasion tracking down referenced source materials to find out more. To me, this is a good thing; to others, it may come off like drinking from a fire hose.
The book opens with a historical perspective of the history of marketing, going back to the nascent days when children weren’t marketed to at all, forward to the period between World War I and World War II where marketing for child-targeted products were pitched at the parents, on to today where most advertising is targeted at children in some way or another.
The Changing World of Children’s Consumption
To be honest, I found this chapter depressing. It cites a huge number of studies to show that children are more involved in consumer-oriented decision making than ever before, but that’s not led to a good result. Children often tie their own self worth to the material goods around them, to a level far unprecedented compared to previous generations of children. A majority of children in the United States are directly involved in the consumer decisions of the family (things like automobile purchases) and their sense of identity is somewhat based on the outcome of those decisions.
This leads to several things: children today are more likely to have emotional and mental disorders and are much more likely to be out of shape and overweight. The psychology of materialism and materialist values has negative effects on an adult mind, but on the mind of a child who has not yet learned many of the things adults take for granted, the effects of materialism can be tremendous – and feelings of insufficiency that are pervasive in modern marketing lead children to a negative self-image (that, of course, can only be pacified through more consumer goods).
From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live: The Content of Commercial Messages
Here, Schor focuses on the variety of themes found in commercial messages and, again, as a parent my stomach felt uncomfortable. Children’s advertising focuses on a number of basic techniques: representing adults as repressive and “uncool” (something that can be battled with the latest consumer product), using older children as a sign that an item is “cool” (encouraging children to emulate older children rather than their peers), and various other techniques.
Schor goes into particular detail about Nickelodeon, the child-oriented television network, and why it is extremely effective at creating great marketing targeting children. The entire network encourages those themes – children are somehow more intuitive, intelligent, and “cool” than the adults and emulation of trends from older children (often an echoing of the marketing going on on MTV). These themes are pervasive throughout the programming, so when the ads appear espousing these same themes, the products are seen as much more acceptable and desirable – after all, wouldn’t the kid in the television show also enjoy this product?
The Virus Unleashed: Ads Infiltrate Everyday Life
This chapter focuses primarily on detailing the marketing strategy behind a toy called P-O-X, which failed to take off in the marketplace in 2001 mostly due to bad timing connected to 9/11. The marketing methods involved with this toy were quite impressive. Perhaps most impressive was the use of “alpha children” to be marketers for the product – Hasbro actually gave the toy to children who were peer-identified as “cool” and paid them to give even more of them away to their friends.
What’s the conclusion from this? Children can no longer trust normal methods of information. Marketers are quite willing to find every avenue imaginable to reach a child, and the methods that parents and children used to be able to rely on for unbiased information have become clouded. Thus, it’s more important than ever to actually research a product and get multiple opinions on it than just trust what the “cool kid” says – he may actually be paid to say it.
Captive Audiences: The Commercialization of Public Schools
Marketing also filters heavily into the public school system, from things like Channel One to advertising messages slipped into the classroom content to school administrators directly allowing advertising in schools. School (at least public school) is not a safe haven from marketing – in fact, for many, school is a place where they are exposed to more marketing.
While I am aware that this goes on (I certainly was exposed to it in the mid 1990s in school), what bothers me more than anything is that the reason for most of these programs is inadequate government funding for education. I understand completely why schools have to do things like this – if you want your school to have revenue so they can afford modern textbooks, you may have to sell ad space, because the government certainly isn’t stepping up to the plate.
Dissecting the Child Consumer: The New Intrusive Research
Why is marketing so effective? Here, Schor provides some big clues: there’s some amazingly thorough research going on behind marketing. Schor relates the use of brain scans, home monitoring, videotaping and quantitative and qualitative analysis of child responses, and numerous other scientific analyses that are used solely to develop better models for convincing children to want products.
It’s no wonder that children are so susceptible to marketing. The marketing models developed by these organizations are incredibly well conceived, detailed, and are targeted towards the specific psychological areas where children are weakest. Ads hone in on areas of insecurity, triggering them in whatever way is needed to evoke a positive response toward the product and encourage more sales.
Habit Formation: Selling Kids on Junk Food, Drugs, and Violence
Even more disturbing, many of these techniques mix thoroughly with elements that are simply not good for children, things like drugs, violence, and junk food. Junk food, tobacco, and alcohol advertisements directly target children, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. These ads intend to plant the idea of the product in the minds of the children so they will not only desire the product themselves, but encourage their parents to purchase it.
Even violence is marketed, through games like Grand Theft Auto and violent films. Even though I have no problem with these products existing, I am bothered by the fact that many of them are marketed directly towards children. I have no reason to believe my children will not make sound moral choices in their lives, but that also doesn’t mean that an eight year old child should enjoy shooting realistic depictions of people as a pastime.
How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well-Being
What does all of this culminate with? Since many forms of media are designed by marketers to have psychological hooks into the minds of children, many children wind up addicted to media, addicted to consumerism, and prone to emulating the behavior that they see. Schor goes through a mountain of data outlining this, and the results aren’t pretty.
Exposure to consumer culture is directly related to a greater tendencies to lie, to cheat, to steal, to be overweight, to reject parental authority and guidance, to be violent, and to exhibit signs of greediness. Why? All of these psychological hooks within marketing push children down this avenue. They come to believe that they need the products, and they’re shown that antisocial behaviors are often the best way to get them.
Empowered or Seduced? The Debate About Advertising and Marketing to Kids
Who’s to blame for the pervasiveness of marketing? The obvious answer is to point the finger at the marketers, but that’s not exactly the entire picture, either.
In many cases, parents are to blame in that they allow media to become a surrogate parent. When you find it “easier” to plop your child in front of a television for a few hours so you can do something else, it’s not a healthy situation. Similarly, when you can’t (or don’t) rationally discuss consumer purchases with your child, that creates problems as well, and when you exhibit consumer-oriented behavior (lusting after items), you teach your child that such behavior is good.
Society as a whole is somewhat to blame as well. We’ve de-focused from adequate education funding, requiring schools to allow marketers in to be able to afford good educational materials.
Decommercializing Childhood: Beyond Big Bird, Bratz Dools, and the Back Street Boys
So how can one opt out of this trap. Schor offers a lot of guidance in this closing chapter, so I tried to boil it down to several points that can be taken away.
First, parents need to create rules about television and stick to them. Limit the amount of time your child can watch television each day. In fact, at our house, we’re getting very close to abandoning the television altogether, leaving just a DVD player to watch films and programs without commercials and a game console (the sole thing keeping us from this is the difficulty in watching live events).
Second, parents should walk the walk as well. If you restrict the television your children watch, you should restrict the amount you watch as well.
Third, parents should limit their child’s exposure to junk foods. Learn how to cook at home and avoid the garbage. A piece of candy once in a while is fine, but Mickey D’s every other day is a very bad thing.
Fourth, parents should discuss these issues with the parents of their child’s friends. Let them know that you don’t want your children watching a ton of television if you feel strongly about it. Perhaps you can find parents who feel much the same way as you do.
Finally, and this is the most important thing you can possibly do, spend more time with your kids away from media. Participate in sports with them. Read with them. Play board games with them. Talk to them. Do projects with them. Anything that you can do with your child in a non-marketed situation is a good thing and it will reap great benefits for you and your child.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
If you have children and can tolerate reading that is a bit dry in a few places, Born to Buy is a must-read. It demonstrates in a clear, fact-based manner the diversity of ways that advertisements and consumer behavior influences your child in profound ways, for better and for worse, and it provides a lot of great advice for parents concerned about these issues.
The book was quite dense, but it was incredibly thought provoking for me as a parent and as a consumer. I’ll admit that since I’ve read this book, I have witnessed many of the things discussed in the book – and they deeply bother me. In fact, this book made me inch ever closer to a completely television-free home.
Born to Buy is the fifty-first of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.