Born to Buy: Empowered or Seduced?

This is the sixeenth 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 entire ninth chapter, “Empowered or Seduced?”, starting on page 177 at the subheading “Statistical Results: Consumer Involvement Undermines Children’s Well-Being” and finishing out the chapter to page 188.

born to buyThis is the next to last chapter in the book, following the previous chapter which was clearly the peak of the book’s argument. Here, Schor addresses most of the arguments that the marketing industry puts up in their defense concerning marketing to children.

I actually found this chapter to be pretty thought provoking because in the end, it’s all about the moral accountability. It is extremely difficult to legislate “ethical” ads without basically banning all ads (and that’s never going to happen), so we’re left with a reliance on the moral accountability of the industry, and if you have a client demanding results or else your head will roll, it’s pretty easy to see how someone would bend the moral rules a bit to keep their job.

The Three Arguments of the Marketers

Schor basically breaks down the arguments in favor of child marketing into three pieces.

Ads and Products Help Children to Feel Powerful
On page 179, Schor states:

It says that kids need to feel independent and master their environments to feel in control of their parents. Lisa Morgan argues that “kids want to be in control in a world where they create their own rules … we always try to put them in situations where they … demonstrate mastery of a specific situation.” Gene del Vecchio contends that “kids have very little control over the world in which they live. Therefore, they love to gain any measure of control over their sphere of existence … Control touches a strong need that children have to be independent.”

I agree with this point in general, but I disagree with where marketers take it. Marketers argue that this need for control is fulfilled through things like the power to choose a particular product over another. I argue that this need for control can be fulfilled through free play, not through having your child choose what kind of prepackaged food to buy.

When I read this, I actually imagined Calvinball. For those unfamiliar, Calvinball is a game from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes in which the young boy, Calvin, makes up the rules of this game as he goes along. The analogy is pretty clear – being able to make up the rules of Calvinball as he goes along lets him feel powerful over that game, giving him that sense of fulfillment that the quote above is talking about.

Go out in the yard and play Calvinball with your kids instead of letting them feel “power” by choosing between two products on a store shelf.

Ads Create Other Benefits
On page 181:

… advertising is justifiable because it creates other benefits, such as free television, better products, and economic growth and employment. Psychologically, these are the most powerful arguments because they reinforce the utter inevitability of advertising.

Schor breaks this argument down quite well, pointing out that advertising is actually paid for by consumers who pay a premium for a name brand – that premium pays for the ads and thus for the programs supported by the ads. Also, ad campaigns are expensive, and thus without an established product or a huge company behind a rollout, it’s hard to advertise a new product – this reduces competition and innovation.

Advertisements don’t carry any hidden benefits except for the bottom line of the advertiser.

It’s the Parent’s Fault!
On page 183:

Industry’s final line of defense is that parents always have the option of protecting their children from advertising. They can turn off the television and just say no. When parents let their children watch, they are giving tacit approval. Of course, the proliferation of marketing in schools and other public institutions undermines this claim, but it remains a mainstay in the industry’s arsenal of arguments.

This is easily their most compelling argument, and they’re right – letting children watch television is a choice that parents do control, and when they allow their children to watch television or absorb consumer culture, the parents are opening the door themselves and letting the marketers into the room.

This doesn’t justify marketers using a heavy arm to market to kids, of course, but parents do have the power to seriously restrict media access, and they help the marketers when they fail to exercise that power.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover 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.