Updated on 05.08.08

Born to Buy: Decommercializing Childhood

Trent Hamm

This is the seventeenth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the first half of the final chapter, “Decommercializing Childhood”, starting on page 189 and continuing until the subheading “The Invention of Modern Childhood” on page 200.

born to buyThe final chapter of Born to Buy focuses on solutions, with the first part focusing in on solutions from a broad perspective, mostly calling for Congress to enact legislation.

Thus, this is the portion of the book I disagree with the most. I firmly believe that the best solutions start at home because, frankly, you can have a great deal of impact on one child, but it requires a huge amount of politial groundswell to even enact the simplest changes in terms of legislation. Not only that, I would actually oppose some of the stuff that Schor proposes here.

Let’s take a look.

Let’s Legislate Morality!
Here are a few of Schor’s suggestions, from pages 195 through 197:

Congress should pass a federal act mandating disclosure for all sponsored product placements in television, movies, books, radio, and the Internet.

Congress needs to address whether advertising to children is warranted at all.

Congress should also request a General Accounting Office or FTC report, similar to those that have been done on school commercialism and the marketing of movies and video games, which catalogues the full range of current marketing practices.

Congress should enact comprehensive legislation to restrict school commercialism.

I only agree with one of these four. Can you guess which one?

For anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while, it’s probably pretty clear that I’m only in favor of that last one. Children go to school for the purpose of being educated – their minds are opened by teachers who are supposed to be filling them with tools to navigate our complex world. When marketing starts being slipped in there, then you’re taking advantage of the teacher-student relationship and undermining the entire point of schooling.

What about the other three? Why would I oppose things like those? I’m largely indifferent to the first one, except that it would create costs for actually enforcing it – the FTC would have to hire people to make sure this was enforced and it would largely be ignored anyway, so it comes off as a waste of taxpayer money to me. The second one has a lot of problems, particularly in terms of restricting freedom of speech – when you start banning things and restricting freedoms, it’s easy for “ban creep” to occur until you’re blocking things that people should have access to. The third one is similar to the first one – a lot of money is spent on something that very few people will ever look at. By the time it’s compiled, marketing techniques will have evolved and all that research will be outdated at the taxpayer’s expense.

For the most part, I think it’s a waste of time to legislate things, especially on a national stage, that aren’t cut and dried – all such laws do is create more business for lawyers and eventually get overturned by a judge who can’t make a reasonable decision on such a sticky issue. For example, an advertising ban would be a giant restriction of freedom of speech, for example, but to only ban children’s advertising requires a law that defines a very unclear area that can’t be enforced well and will quickly be trampled over. The only legislative solutions here are far-reaching enough that anyone who values free speech would oppose it because of the other restrictions it would trigger.

Instead, the answers that are most useful are closer to home. If you want to ban advertising in schools, start in your local school district. Advocate for a ban on ads in schools coupled with a tax levy to help the schools recover the lost income. That’s one good way to start.

Next time, in the last section of the book, we’ll look at solutions that are closer to home.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the last half of the final chapter, “Decommercializing Childhood,” starting on page 200 at the subheading “The Invention of Modern Childhood” and finishing out the book.

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  1. Johanna says:

    So, do you oppose all restrictions on advertising, then? Because we’ve got plenty of them already, and as far as I know, they work just fine.

  2. Serendipity says:

    I have to agree that I don’t think dramatic government intervention is a workable or even effective answer. I really wish the author had come up with a more multi-faceted solution. Too many people might be turned off at this heavy-handed conclusion and not focus on the other valuable points of the book. Perhaps you might consider publishing a parents’ guide to marketing if you get the itch to write a second book…

  3. Andy says:

    I completely agree with you on this – the government is not the answer!

    If you trust adults with the responsibility to be able to choose what to buy and not buy and decide how they are affected by advertising, then I think it is important to realize that kids don’t have serious disposable income with which to make purchases – that is up to the parents (who as the book showed are influenced by their children). But it is ultimately the parents’ decision on what to buy and not buy. And theoretically, when the children grow up and have the income, they will be mature enough to make these decisions.

  4. MouthyGirl says:

    I agree that trying to get legislation to do what parenting should do is a very bad idea. We can’t get our legislators to keep their own noses clean, how can we expect them to keep the nation free from these things, and isn’t that our responsibility anyways?

    I think that it’s always easy to say, Get the government involved, in lieu of a real solution like – start teaching your kids what’s what and be sure they’re adequately prepared for the world as it is, not a sheltered view of it where the government’s hand is broad and regulatory. That’s too close to communism to me.

  5. typome says:

    The author DOES suggest “closer to home” alternatives later on in the chapter. But I do think it’s very important to not only make change closer to home but to government as well. We need to elect politicians who don’t listen to big business and instead have their constituents’ interests in mind. That is a benefit of targeting Congress for change. Imagine a dual-attack, where parents are making change in their own communities AND having Congress change their ways.

  6. terry says:

    There was a bill introduced last year in Congress to band junk food advertising on kids programs. I don’t see it as an infringement on first amendment rights. Already there are a lot of restrictions on advertisements on children’s programs to prevent companies like Disney from turning their “shows” into giant commercials. For example, a Disney tv show can’t have a lot of ads about Disney toys or other Disney company products, and there has to be a certain amount of content vs. commercials in a show. When they violate these rules, they have to pay FCC fines.

    The FCC has a lot more rules than you might think about commercials and tv content. I remember when I was a kid I saw ads for Flintstone vitamins– now vitamin companies are banned from advertising during kids shows because kids were eating the vitamins like candy.

    So it wouldn’t be too hard or too costly for a junk food commercial ban.

  7. imelda says:

    I can’t agree with you on this. If you acknowledge, after reading this book, that marketing is severely harmful–harmful enough to cause psychological damage en masse among children–then how can you oppose government regulation? Think of all the parents who don’t have the information about this that you do. Think of all the parents who don’t care. Then think about what will happen to their kids. It’s always the easy answer, I think, to say “leave it to the parents.” Parents aren’t perfect, they don’t know everything, and quite frankly, they aren’t always there.

    As for the efficacy of such legislation–Johanna makes a good point in comment no. 1. We have plenty of regulation on our media–no more cigarettes on kids’ shows, if you’ve noticed. These regulations work fine and make sense. Moreover, while I don’t know much about it I’m pretty sure several countries in Europe have successfully enacted legislation restricting advertising to children.

  8. Interesting article in today’s NY Times to the effect that MTV is cozying up to advertisers even closer: content and advertising are to become indistinguishable.

    Good reason not to watch MTV. Or television in general. But you can’t stop your kids from watching this junk in other people’s homes, you can’t stop them from being blasted with it in today’s schools…and maybe this is stuff that kids shouldn’t be exposed to all the time. It’s not about whether kids have disposable income to buy stuff right this minute. It’s about what they’re socialized to think is important and how they will be trained up to think and behave over the years. Maybe, just maybe, attempts at mind control by commercial interests SHOULD be regulated.

  9. James says:


    Thanks for posting this information in detail on your blog. To be entirely honest with you and your readers whenever an author calls for sweeping government intervention like this, it makes me want to blow my stack.

    Governments are typically inefficient and their policies often have unintended consequences. In addition, why should congress infringe on the constitutional rights of advertisers simply because what the sell is unpopular?

    To address the kind of action Schor wants to take, something like one of Ralph Nader’s PRIGs would be a far better choice, involving the federal bureaucracy will just make things worse.

  10. Izabelle says:

    “Moreover, while I don’t know much about it I’m pretty sure several countries in Europe have successfully enacted legislation restricting advertising to children.”

    No need to look that far away from home! The Canadian province of Québec (which shares a border with the staes of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) has a legislation, through its consumer protection board, banning direct advertising to children under the age of 13 since April 30, 1980.

    Certain provisions exist so that advertising kid-centric product is allowed, but the person addressed in the commercial must not be under 13, and the ads must be non-flashy (read: reasonably realistic). Ads for products that can also appeal to kids as well as adults must be aired on shows that have an audience of less than 15% in the prohibited age group.

    This law has been in effect for most of my life; I have to say I was somewhat shocked as a child when I got to watch an American channel for the first time, with their flashy toy ads all over the place. Ours have always addressed the parent, trying to sell them the toy (does not mean the kids are not somewhat seduced, but there really is a difference as there is no playing on the “cool” effect).

    As for free speech, I do not see how limiting acarefully planned media message infringes in any way on one’s right to express themselves. I work in marketing (in a field that I chose for its ethics) and trust me, there is a very thick line between a sales pitch and an opinion. Anyone who pretends otherwise is likely trying to sell you something (!).

  11. aMotherSite says:

    I agree with you that only 4 should be enacted. It is amazing how commercialism is full fledge in the children’s faces all day from Kindergarten up. Read and you are rewarded with a pizza, need a drink and you can pick any type of drink you want from a specific brand, and if your school does not allow soft drinks, then you are offered water or juice from a specific brand as well… and don’t forget the sports where the score board is plastered with the company that paid for the device.

  12. DivaJean says:

    I think I agree with Trent’s take on the concept of legislation over advertising. Govt is big enough- the time and money it would take to carry out the first three recommendations could be better spent in the education system itself and a myriad of other things. And I also agree that advertising trends go faster than anything an agency could keep abreast of. I did not read the book, but in your posts, there hasn’t been much about product placement. This is a HUGE deal in films and tv shows with the advent of Tivo’ing past ads. Did you know that the most recent version of “Miracle on 24th Street” doesn’t take place in Macy’s because Macy’s wouldn’t cave in to paying placement costs and the film studio called that bluff and changed the name of the department store? I can just well imagine what tv shows and such stand to make from inserting product into their shows.

    I agree on keeping advertising out of our schools. Channel One and pouring rights in schools are two big evils.

  13. Lenore says:

    I agree, Trent, that the only feasible solution among those presented is restricting advertising in schools. Promoting products in a state-funded educational setting is a bit like requiring school prayer. There are as many different brands as there are religions, and it’s not the job of teachers in secular institutions to advocate one over another.

    Another strategy might be a national public service campaign exposing common advertising ploys and promoting saving over reckless spending. If one TV commercial out of a thousand showed how to recognize and resist logical fallacies, the next generation of consumers would be smarter, more confident and less gullible or prone to accumulating needless debt.

    Our society is slowly waking up to the obesity epidemic and realizing we can’t go on eating the way we have been. We still need to address the consequences of financial gluttony and stop encouraging rampant spending.

  14. dj says:

    Nutrition, learning, & behavior – Shorts – Is about Paul and Barbara Stitt (founders of Natural Ovens – but sold it) funding a 5 year project in Appleton, WI, to get junk food out of a school and serve healthy foods. The results were amazing. Kids could think better, better attitudes, less dropouts, less drugs, less behavioral problems.
    Paul Stitt was a biochemist in the food industry. Barbara was a probation officer for juvenile court. They put their careers and money where their mouth is.

    Corporations would not spend millions for a 30 second Super Bowl ad, if it didn’t have an affect.
    Direct that at young minds is unconscionable. But corporations will find a way, if not through funding sports, they’ll write the books and your math problems will be, “if Jimmy likes Pepsi, and Sally likes Coke, should Jimmy buy 2 Pepsi’s or get a new friend.”

    The late night shows, with Kimmel and Leno, have started doing live commercials on their shows because people aren’t watching the commercials. And movies have product placement. If the TV is on, how do parents explain the side affects of pharmaceutical drug ads, or those E.D. ads! Magazines are 3/4ths advertisement. It is so pervasive.

    If “no child is to be left behind”, “families first”, and “it takes a village” are more than words, we should do something, but it has to be a combination of better parenting and legislation.
    A good parent can and does say no, a good parent takes their knowledge and educates their kids. After all, these kids are going to be in the real world someday, so it’s parents’ job to equip their kids. Education does not stop at school.

    The scary part is when you hear the neuropsychology professional scanning brains to see how shopping and ads affect them. Icks!

  15. Pamela Munro says:

    As a child, I was brought up to be very media aware & to realize that advertisements were meant to entice me, whether I liked it or not. That, almost cynical discrimination has served me well over the years. The best tool that any parent can give a child is that critical stance vis a via the media – because who knows what twists & turns which we cannot predict will show up on the media horizon in their lifetimes. Being encouraged to be aware and critical and think independently, will serve them better than merely quarantining them from ads. They should be encouraged to turn them off themselves!

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