Born to Buy: Habit Formation

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.