Born to Buy: From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live

This is the fourth 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 portion of the third chapter ending at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias,” including pages 39 through 51.

born to buyAt this point, Schor’s book delves deep into marketing of children’s products, and as I read through this chapter, I couldn’t help but repeatedly see it echoing in my own life.

During my own childhood, advertising was a repeated influence on me in ways that I really only understand as an adult. I wanted products and food based on the cues I got from advertisements and clever packaging. The sad thing is, many of the tricks still work on me as an adult. It’s a constant psychological battle – a fight between the reality of our own hopes and dreams versus the reality that we’re being sold.

Let’s dig in.

Same Trick, Different Pony
On page 44, Schor writes:

In contemporary marketing, the naturalization of consumer desires has been codified into a set of timeless emotional needs all children are believed to possess. Standard practice consists of matching those universal needs to particular products and advertising messages, in which the role of the ad or product is to satisfy the need. Kids need to be scared to help them overcome their fears, so make a scary movie. Kids need to belong, so suggest that if they buy brand X, they’ll have friends.

That last sentence reminded me of the huge advertising push for the BK Kids’ Club when I was a young lad. Looking back on it, it was pretty clear that those ads were selling me on the idea that if I went to Burger King, I’d have friends via the BK Kids’ Club. Saying that as an adult is patently silly, but it worked like a charm on a lonely ten year old boy. I hinted about going to Burger King regularly and built it up to a big event in my mind when we would go.

The funny thing is, advertisements work the same way on adults, just using different techniques. Car commercials show some attractive individual driving a car (like a current one in which a woman of apparently Brazilian descent purrs about being a “new kind of woman” who needs a “new kind of car”) and thus subtly hints that this is the car that the beautiful people drive. Humor is used in a similar fashion – we laugh and get positive feelings towards the product.

This is part of the bargain when watching television – or exposing yourself to any media. The difference between adults and kids, though, is that many adults have the tools to realize this manipulation. Do my kids? I don’t think so, but I want to teach them the skills before they fall into the traps – that means watching some television with them, but keeping the amount pretty small.

The Costs of Being Cool
Schor, on page 47, states:

In a recent survey of 4,002 kids in grades 4 through 8, 66 percent reported that cool defines them. […] although cool is hard to pin down, in practice it centers on recurring themes, and these themes are relentlessly pushed by marketers in their conception and design of products […] One theme is that cool is socially exclusive, that is, expensive.

In 1997, the younger sister of one of my friends wanted a Tickle Me Elmo for Christmas. 1997 was the year where the toy went bonkers in popularity, triggering parents to actively seek out this toy – and often go too far doing it. I was part of a melee in Des Moines attempting to get one. Part of the desirability of this toy was the fact that it was exclusive. They were hard to get, and having one was a symbol that a child could show off to prove their “coolness” (as much as it applied to that age range).

This desire of “coolness” is something that’s pretty hard for parents to avoid. I know – I was something of a social outcast in my school days and I really don’t want my children to have some of the low points of that experience. It’s truly not fun to be picked last every time at soccer or to be ridiculed for something completely out of your control.

Marketers know this, and they sell to this. That’s why the most successful toys market – at least in part – to parents as well. They sell parents on the idea that just this one little purchase will go a long way towards putting an aura of “cool” on their child in their peer group.

That’s a powerful weapon, and frankly, as a parent, I’m searching for ways to combat it. It’s easy to talk big now and say how I’ll never give into such crass marketing. It’s entirely another to see my child come in the door in tears because he was picked on at school, and then to observe that the trendiest item for a child that age is something I could easily acquire, something that could wipe those tears away and make the social ladder something bearable again.

I’m not battling the expectations of my own children – I’m battling the expectations of peers. Anyone got any battle tactics?

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the next portion of the third chapter of Born to Buy, starting at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias” on page 51 through the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61.

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