Updated on 04.24.08

Born to Buy: Habit Formation

Trent Hamm

This is the eleventh 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 seventh chapter, “Habit Formation,” starting on page 119 and ending after page 129 at the subheading “Who’s Responsible: Parents or Advertisers?”.

born to buyWhen Sunny Delight first came on the market in our area in about 1989, my best friend at the time became borderline obsessed with the stuff. I personally thought it was awful – it tasted like a mix of stale orange juice and pure Karo syrup, but my pal would regularly choose it over orange juice, even bringing a jug of it with him when he came over to our house because it was so much “better” than orange juice.

At the time, I just sort of nodded my head and would occasionally drink some of it, at one point even convincing my mother that I liked the stuff, resulting in her buying it a few times when it was on sale. Eventually, though, she got the hint: I simply didn’t drink the stuff unless my friends were around.

Was it marketing, or did my friend really like Sunny D? When I read through this part of Born to Buy, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Kids Versus Adults

From page 122:

Themes of kid empowerment and antiadultism are used to sell ostensibly mundane items such as snacks and cereal. [Food advertiser Amanda] Carlson described the agency’s approach for one sugary snack: “It’s empowering because it’s a snack that’s really very kid-proprietary, it’s not for adults … sometimes it’s licensed so it has shapes that only kids would like. There’s also an element of separation in there because it separates me from you: This is my snack. It’s a little irreverent. It’s something your mom might not want you eating, so that gives you power.”

When I first read this book, shortly after the birth of my first child, this section didn’t really make much sense to me. Sure, I had memories of childhood where I did things with my cousins and with my friends that were very much kid-oriented – we played with toys, had an old beat-up shed as a “clubhouse,” and so on. What I didn’t really remember was how that extended to food.

Already, with my son just two years old, I see it. Just last night, we had homemade pizza, and as it was being assembled, I realized that at least part of the ingredient selection for the pizza was due to my son’s preferences. He loves black olives, far more than his mother does, so I moved the black olives around so that a little more than half the pizza was coated in them (I like them, too). On the other hand, he doesn’t like mushrooms, so I moved the mushrooms around to only cover part of the pizza (I like them, so they covered part of the “black olive” section). In effect, it wound up almost being three pizzas in one – one piece with light black olives, one piece with heavy black olives, and another piece with heavy black olives and mushrooms.

My son was immediately able to identify which portion of the pizza was his – lots of “tires” (as he calls black olives) and no “mushy rooms” (as he calls mushrooms). It was a distinct portion just for him – different than what mom and dad were eating. I think this distinctiveness was part of the appeal – it’s a sign of independence and freedom.

Right now, the bridge hasn’t been made to food marketing, but it’s easy to see how it would be. “This is a pizza for kids!” it would say, and it would show off his favorite ingredients and probably come with a toy car and a premium price. It offers that same sense of independence and distinctiveness – natural things that growing children strive for.

No wonder kids want junk food that’s marketed to them. It tugs on their natural developmental tendencies.

Food as Addiction
On page 125, Schor makes a great case that the marketing of junk food to kids often uses adult behavior as a model, but transforms it into something palatable for kids:

If the idea of food as drugs sounds far-fetched, consider the findings of Wynne Tyree, director of research at JustKid, Inc.: “Kids say they use sugar like adults use coffee – to give them a boost. Since coffee isn’t allowed, and they have no other means to ‘get them going’ or ‘give them energy,’ they use soda, chocolate, candy, and sugary fruit drinks. It gives them the jolts they say they need throughout the day.”

In other words, some of the marketing relies on another natural aspect of childhood development – emulative play. Kids often pretend to be adults – think of a little girl taking care of her doll. Now, imagine a kid observing their zombie-like parent stumbling into the kitchen in the morning, eager to get their fix of coffee to help them get started.

It’s a behavior that kids are going to emulate – when they feel a natural energy lag, they’ll do what their parents do. They’ll find something that will pep them up, and marketers are quite happy to provide them with a boost in the form of a really sugary soda or an energy drink. Why do you think many soda ads and energy drink ads depict people burning a lot of energy in a very loud fashion?

I’m not condemning adults drinking coffee – I don’t drink any, but my wife often does. I am saying, though, that it makes sense that children would want to emulate it and, from there, marketers would take advantage of this natural emulation that children perform.

These examples have one thing in common: they take advantage of natural child development. Almost all children exhibit a certain set of natural behaviors – it’s part of the development of their mind as they grow. Sure enough, marketers are on board each step of the way.

What can you do to help? Be a model parent. Eat healthy foods so that when your kids emulate you, they eat healthy, too. Don’t exhibit substance addictions unless you’re fine with your children emulating it. They look to you for many of their cues – don’t give them bad ones.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the latter half of the seventh chapter, “Habit Formation,” starting on page 130 at the subheading “Who’s Responsible: Parents or Advertisers?” and finishing out the rest of the chapter.

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  1. Michael says:

    Someone who equates model parenting and eating healthy isn’t a model parent.

  2. Jesse says:

    Michael, I’m not sure what you mean there. Obviously modeling healthy eating is an important and worthwhile thing to do for your child.

    If you’re implying that Trent meant that is the only requirement to be a model parent, I think you’re building a pretty weak straw man argument.

  3. Brooke says:

    Oh, I so remember those “Kid Cuisine” tv-dinners. What an enticingly unhealthy meal. And we used to beg for them any time we were going to be left with a babysitter!

  4. chris says:

    I can attest that marketing plays a big role in the appeal of sunny d. But not so much in the preference over Orange Juice. But the preference over off brand sunny D. As a kid I loved sunny D because it didn’t have pulp and was a little more tangy than orange juice. If they had the no pulp oj they have nowadays i’d have loved it as a kid.

    However, whenever I’d have tampico or other off-brand Sunny D things despite there being no taste difference I was convinced in my head that it just wasn’t the same.

  5. Greener Pastures: Responsible Personal Finance says:

    I agree with your conclusion completely. Part of being a model parent is setting healthy examples, and promoting healthy habits at an early age. What a baby and/or child learns is imprinted on them more strongly than behaviors learned at later ages.


  6. Todd says:

    This is interesting discussion, but I really feel like the “kids vs. adults” or “separation” argument must be overplayed in the book. I have not read the book, but, the review here leads me to believe the “us vs. them” sentiment is a central tenet.

  7. tightwadfan says:

    I don’t know about the conclusions in this chapter, my own experience and memories are different. Marketing would often have a strong effect on me wanting to try a food, but if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t ask my parents to get it a second time. Some commercials could turn me off wanting to try a food in fact. I and my siblings liked Sunny Delight (we still do, I think it’s the tanginess) even though the commercials were cheesy. Also when Polly-O string cheese came out there was a particular commercial that was so annoying I refused to try the cheese for several years. I ended up really liking that too when I finally did try it.

    There are tons of sugary junk foods that I loved as a kid that I no longer touch (wax soda bottles anyone?), but I didn’t love them because my parents wouldn’t eat them or I saw them as “my food”. I loved them because I had a huge sweet tooth and now my taste buds have changed.

  8. Carrie says:

    I recently finished a book called “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children” by Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes. I think that the message in that book very much lines up with your concluding thoughts about being a good role model for children’s diets. One of the tips for healthy children is “Don’t buy into marketing for kids.”

    In particular, “Lunch Lessons” addresses the issues of the school lunch program, and how we as parents and others invested in our children can take steps to change the food our kids eat. (And it includes recipes!)

    Anyway, that’s kind of beside the point of this particular book discussion, but I thought it was interesting to be reading these two side by side.

  9. Andy says:

    I think chris makes a good point about on-brand and off-brand foods. Off brand just isn’t the same when you’re a kid.

    Also, it is important to recognize that kids aren’t thinking about their health 60 years down the road. Sugar tastes good, so they want to eat/drink it. It isn’t all marketing that makes them want this stuff.

  10. Adrian says:

    Kids will emulate their parents’ desire for coffee, or other more effective things, like the wonderful Provigil (modafinil), which I believe you can get a free trial for (even though it’s prescription only) via this site ;-)

  11. Saving Freak says:

    Isn’t the problem really with kids watching too much TV and thus seeing more marketing? We were only allowed to watch an hour a day and that was enough to influence us toward the wrong choices for food. I can remember not knowing what the latest and greatest junk food was because I hadn’t been sitting in front of the TV and my friends had.

  12. Lenore says:

    It was interesting to me that you created a personalized section of pizza for not only your son but also yourself and your wife. Seems adults can be picky and as accustomed to our single-serving society as kids. At least you save money by making your own pizza and distributing the ingredients so they won’t be picked off and wasted. Thank goodness you’re aware of your son’s innate desire for autonomy and how marketers will manipulate it as he grows up. I think it’s crucial to start telling kids as soon as they can understand about the sneaky, illogical and exploitive techniques advertisers use. We’re all products (pun intended) of an environment deluged with commercialism and emotional manipulation. Basic consumer education should include strategies for tuning out and debunking advertising’s lies.

  13. Kate says:

    “What can you do to help? Be a model parent.”

    I understand what you’re saying here, and agree with it. But I think the better point is that EVERY parent is a model parent, for better or for worse. Even if you don’t want to be a model for your kids, you are. Parents of teenagers often think they don’t listen to their parents. Maybe they don’t obey, but they are listening and watching – and your actions do speak louder than your words. Those are the years when kids are sophisticated enough to identify where your injunctions don’t match your behavior, when your hypocrisy is showing, and when they’re old enough to challenge your judgments, values, and conclusions. Doesn’t matter, even though it drives you crazy. You’re still their most important models, for better or worse.

  14. Mary says:

    It’s funny that you mention food being like a drug. Food, including sugar, acts on the pleasure center of the brain. Chocolate has a compound that is similar to thc. Food has the ability to release endorphins just like exercise, gambling, etc. Not to mention MSG that is added to just about every processed food. Now sugar hasn’t been proved to cause hyperactivity to the point where it is directly linked to ADHD but it does give one a quick boost, similar to caffiene, the most used drug of all.

  15. Dave says:

    I have a friend who’s exactly like your childhood friend, except he’s, well, an adult. But if you want to know his favorite soda at the moment, it’s just whatever’s on TV, be it C2, Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lemon, or whatever. He’s like an advertising sponge.

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