Updated on 07.29.14

Born to Buy: Empowered or Seduced?

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Andy says:

    It seems to be all about finding that line about what is ok and not ok for advertisers to do. Honestly, at this point I don’t think they are doing that much wrong – I am happy to have my tv cheaper because others will pay a premium for brand names (I’m not saying I never do, but I have gotten over the brand name thing to a degree). I think good parenting can overcome most of the bad side effects of advertising. Of course, the kids without good parents suffer, but they have more problems than advertising.

  2. Michael says:

    Yes, except Calvin was usually outwitted by Hobbes and Roselyn, so while he obviously enjoyed Calvinball he probably never felt powerful.

    …but really, I agree with you and the book. One argument marketers make is that their work increases the number of products sold, which leads to economies of scale, which means a lower price for the consumer. Translation: you save money if others pay. Meanwhile they are probably saving money because something is being sold to you. It does not really work to anyone’s advantage unless, of course, one’s goal is to own as much as possible.

  3. Matt says:

    The advertisers final arguments are probably the most compelling – its not the TV thats raising our children but the parents. If parents do not have enough gumption and control to say no when they should the advertisers should not be held accountable.

    Alcohol producers for example advertise their products just like any other company but should they be held responsible if someone abuses their product? I personally don’t believe so – there is a point where people need to be personally accountable for their actions. This definitely applies to parents and how they raise their children. If they decide that the TV is a good baby sitter and leave their child in front of the TV for hours on end there should be no surprise that the child will pick up on the advertising (good or bad).

  4. Michael says:

    “I have a bunch of free coupons for free sandwiches at McDonalds. I don’t eat at McDonalds. What should I do with them? about 6 hours ago from web ”

    You should give them away on TSD.

  5. Miranda says:

    My son sees advertisements for things he wants. He can choose to ask for something for Christmas or his birthday, or he can choose to pay for it himself. Which means he has to save up the money. While the ads certainly show him potential things he could have, it doesn’t mean that he will have them. He’s already learning to think about what he sees on TV, and decide whether it’s worth getting. A lot of the time, when he thinks about what it would take to get something, he decides it’s not worth it.

  6. James says:

    I am little bit concerned that Schor’s analysis gives advertisers a bum rap. The fact that consumers do pay a premium for advertised products in no way diminished the benefits of advertising companies to the general public, e.g. free tv, better products, etc



  7. Greener Pastures: Responsible Personal Finance says:

    Advertising could possibly be justifiable IF there were no blatant lying involved on the part of the advertisers.

    Shame shame shame. You can’t trust them as far as you can throw them.


  8. David says:

    Hi there,
    No offense, but this extremely lengthy series on this book has been the least enjoyable aspect of your blog to date. I love the one-article book reviews, and one-topic articles that you do. Running 16+ articles on the same book, though, has me skipping past your blog more and more. I glance at the page and if I see that baby in the bag, I close up that browser tab instantly (except this time obviously). I think that the book club format that you are trying out here would be better served in a different forum because it is so different than what I look for in your blog.
    Thanks for all of your other great content, though!

  9. Dave says:

    How many more of these articles are we going to see, Trent?

    – Dave

    (different than the David above, and glad that someone else noted!)

  10. James says:

    Hi Lisa,

    No company should be permitted to lie, thats fraud. Why should this be a special criteria for advertisers?

  11. "Mo" Money says:

    advertising is big business that pays for free TV and radio. It is our responsibility to discern what ads are for us to accept or reject.

  12. Lisa I. says:

    While I agree that parents are at fault to some extent, parents are more out of control than ever. Yes, you can limit your child’s access to media but that is only true to a certain extent. Especially once they go to school. The only way to truly have control of what your kids are seeing is to move out of town, home school the kids and turn off any and all access to media (TV, internet, newspaper, magazines, ets). And while that is possible, it is not a practical solution for most parents. Advertisers have an easy out with saying it’s the parents’ fault. They know good and well that they have done anything and everything they can to get around parental controls.

  13. palm says:

    I would find the “parents are responsible” argument a lot more compelling if it were actually possible for me to control my kids’ access to advertising. But with schools putting Channel One in the classrooms (to expose kids to ads), contracting with Coca Cola and telling kids they can’t wear Pepsi merchandise, etc., that claim loses all credibility. My high school sold advertising space in the bathroom stalls. If my mother had known about this she’d have blown a fuse, but I never thought to tell her because I was too young to realize there was anything wrong with it.

    Advertisers spent their all day dreaming up ways to undermine my efforts to raise my son, many of which I’ll miss just like my mom did. I’d be thrilled if the US put more restrictions on marketing to children.

  14. Jen says:

    Calvinball! Gotta love it!

  15. mrsmonkey says:

    from “born to buy”

    “advertising is justifiable because it creates other benefits, such as free television”


    where’s my free tv???


    okay…having worked in advertising for many many many years, I can tell you there is no purpose to it other than to make you buy stuff, especially stuff you know in your heart you don’t need. that’s precisely the point of it…to overcome your mental obstacles. advertising is truly the parasite of the american dream. I loved doing it…it’s an insane business. but it’s really sludge.

  16. Mary says:

    I disagree with the concept that marketing to kids, giving them choices, etc. fulfills the ‘need’ for control. Yes, it is healthy for everyone, even young children to have some control over their environment. But the scales have to be balanced because if anyone is given too much control…well it’s like having an extra 100lbs on one side of the see saw…throws everything out of whack.

    The idea that kids should be able to have some sense of control over parents (which are usually their first authority figures) is absurd as well. I know this world isn’t perfect but, if it were, there would be mutual respect and everyone would have adequate control over their own lives. That’s not to say that kids can control going to school but life suks, it’s training for the real world. Who wants to get up and go to school OR work on an daily basis?

    And to send them messages that they can have control over parents (authority) doesn’t fly. Maybe this contributes to the prevailence of ODD and conduct disorder, something unheard of when I was a kid (and I’m only 30). I could just see a kid carrying that “you’re not the boss of me” attitude…Yeah officer, so what. You can’t tell me not to skip school, don’t tell me not to shoplift, I am the master of my life…

    The fact is that childhood is one of the most important stages in socializing youth to play their roles (gender, etc.) and to follow societies spoken/unspoken laws. I don’t think we’re doing a good job at the moment but we can thank individual parent(s) and the new babysitter: TV. Of course there’s more to it but in a healthy family system everyone is given choices, all family members care about each other and spend time together etc.

    Now I have to say that the filth on tv (hey it’s free!!!) appals me. I stoped watching that junk years ago. But even 10 yrs ago my grandfather would get disturbed by the content on the TV. And they’ve become increasingly lax on the language, words that were once taboo on network TV are now common place. Even shows geared toward pre/teens show them wearing skimpy clothes, dating, being materialistic. In fact some of the ‘kosher’ disney type programing has become grooming for values, morals, behaviors,etc. that we used to deplore. And childhood is the worst time for this kind of influence.

    So yeah, I have to say that this book and Trent’s commentary is pretty acurate. Maybe some ppl think this is a boring topic but I find it very interesting, I think this has been my favorite series so far. Keep it up Trent!

  17. Mary says:

    Yeah, Right! TV? Free? That’s great, I like your comment mrsmonkey. You make a good point. I don’t think I qualify for the free TV (although you would think giving every household a complimentary TV would increase profits…)

    However, when they finally start passing them out, you can have mine : )

  18. Ashley says:

    I personally am enjoying the breakdown of the book. I read it after the first smaller article that Trent wrote, and enjoy seeing it broken down in anothers perspective.

    It’ll be over soon for all those complainers. Besides, there is always another article accompanying the review in the email.

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