Updated on 04.22.08

Born to Buy: Inside the Child Brain

Trent Hamm

This is the tenth 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 the latter part of the sixth chapter, “Dissecting the Child Consumer,” starting on page 109 at the subheading “Inside the Child Brain” and continuing through the rest of the chapter.

born to buyMost of this section covers the nuts and bolts of how companies engage in research when it comes to children and, quite frankly, most of it comes down to money. Many of the more intense research programs pay the children (or parents of the children) when they “volunteer” to participate in a focus group or another marketing research program.

I found two quite interesting pieces in this section.

Is Marketing Research Child Labor?
On page 115, Schor mentions:

Watching the bedraggled crowd at one focus group site as the evening (a school night) wore on, I wondered why this phenomenon has stayed out of public view. We don’t let eleven year olds staff fast food joints at 8:30 on weeknights. Why hasn’t there been any discussion of their work at the local focus group facility?

I think I can actually answer that question. It’s because information work – white collar work – is perceived differently than labor. In other words, work in a focus group is seen as existing under different rules than work in a fast food restaurant.

You can see it quite often in the adult world, where IT workers are required to have their cell phones on at all times. On the other hand, factory workers clock out and completely forget about their workplace. Businessmen are chained to their Blackberries, but waitresses go off duty and forget about the restaurant. Construction workers leave their cranes behind at the end of the day – but other workers come home with a briefcase or a laptop in hand.

Unfair labor laws exist all over the place for blue collar jobs, but not for white collar jobs. Why is this? In the past, blue collar jobs were the ones that could be exploited for profit, as white collar jobs merely existed to manage the work of blue collar jobs.

In the information economy, though, white collar workers are now doing much of the actual productive work, but the perception that white collar jobs don’t demand any labor protections still exists.

It’s this same perception that allows children to be at the focus group until very late, earning their pay for being in the marketing program, but they’re not allowed to flip burgers at the restaurant.

An interesting double standard, isn’t it?

Childhood Friendships for Fun and Profit!
Another interesting aspect of all of this pops up on page 116:

I encountered other troubling aspects of the research process, such as the use of one child to recruit others. In these cases, full disclosure to both children and parents is much harder to ensure. The research cannot be certain about how a situation is being described and the preconceptions friends are coming with. The recruiting child also has a financial incentive to get others to participate, which raises the potential for exploitation.

This sounds an awful lot like multi-level marketing to me – Amway/Quixtar for kids, in other words, where people make income at least in part by recruiting others into the system. The only catch here is that it’s kids effectively doing it to other kids – they’re convincing playground chums to sign up in order to make profit for themselves.

It’s hard enough for adults to distinguish social marketing techniques – have you ever been seduced by a salesman into buying a product, for example, or witnessed it happening? It’s even worse when you introduce such factors to kids who are at least as prone to social acceptance and don’t have the years of life experience needed to build up a good filter against such marketing.

There are times when I genuinely feel uncomfortable about the issues I face raising my kids today.

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

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  1. Michael says:

    White collar workers still aren’t doing the actual productive work.

  2. Ryan says:

    “Businessmen are chained to their Blackberries, but waitresses go off duty and forget about the restaurant.”

    Careful with the sexist writing, however unintentional it may have been.

  3. Sara A. says:

    I believe that money made from focus groups is not considered wages, it is considered a gift (similar to if they had given you a hat or a shirt for filling out a form). Since it is not wages, I don’t believe child labor laws would apply.

  4. Mister E says:

    Blue collar workers still do all the actual productive work. And forcing someone to be available to late hours via Blackberry is incomparible to making someone physically stay on site working past the point of exhaustion in a mine or a factory.

    I work in a white collar job myself and I’m not saying we don’t deserve certain protections but come on, apples and oranges.

  5. Jesse says:

    I spend quite a few hours physically on site working past the point of exhaustion producing applications as a programmer.

  6. tightwadfan says:

    I think another reason focus groups are not considered child labor is because they are usually one-time events, whereas working at a fast food place or retail store would require several hours a week on a continuing basis.

  7. Andy says:

    I agree with most of the comments that there are significant differences between the circumstances. But still, I think Trent’s point stands that at least from the perspective of kids working in focus groups, there is a bit of a change in standards.

  8. Mister E says:


    I don’t doubt that and I don’t mean to say that you or I or any other white collar worker shouldn’t benefit from some protection under labour laws.

    The examples in the post refer to IT people and businessmen (or women, whatever) expected to be available via cell phone and Blackberry’s and I maintain that that is apples to oranges as compared with a factory worker on a line somewhere.

    Even if you as a programmer are expected to physically stay late (and not just be available over the phone as in the post) it is still different in my opinion. Sitting at a computer (as I myself spend most of my day doing) is not comparable as “work” to someone who spends their day on their feet quite possibly around dangerous materials or equipment. Putting in a long day in a chair and getting tired is not the same as putting in a long day on your feet labouring and physically working your body on a construction site.

    I believe that is the case with the children in the focus group as well. Although I think there are better things that an 11 year old could be doing at 8:30 on a school night than taking part in a focus group, it is not the same at all as working in a real job flipping burgers. The focus group is likely a one time thing that they signed up for knowing the hours that would be required in advance. They likely spend that time in relative comfort answering questions and being treated quite well for the privilege of picking their little brains. If one of them wanted to up and leave in the middle of the session that would quite likely be allowed with little or no argument and when it is over they all go off on their merry 11yo ways with a few dollars in their pockets and a good feeling about being in on something that their friends are not, albeit a little later at night than they ought to be. Flipping burgers involves heat generating appliances or even open flames, possibly sharp tools and grease and very likely not being allowed to leave until all the work is done regardless of the hour, and of course being there on a regular schedule not just one time.

    Again, I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t be protected against abusive employers regardless of your field. But I maintain apples and oranges as far as the examples given.

  9. Lizard says:

    As a white collar worker, I don’t think I’d want to see “fair labor” laws constrain my work. My employer understands work-life balance and encourages us not to work more than 40 hours a week. But sometimes I get “in the zone” and am super-productive for six hours one evening, and then cut my next work day short. If I were under strict labor laws, I wouldn’t be able to keep working “in the zone”.

    Many child athletes are worked a lot harder than these focus group kids, and aren’t getting paid.

  10. Jillian says:

    I think sitting at a computer all day can be just as dangerous as being on your feet working with heavy equipment. I for one am terrified of DVT and blood clots, plus I often find it takes me a while to adjust back into the real, 3D world when I leave my computer, which can be pretty dangerous if I get straight into a car.
    Granted, it’s nothing a few minutes of getting up and walking around every now and then wouldn’t fix, but when you’re stuck on a problem it’s very easy to lose track of time…

  11. imelda says:

    Yeah, I don’t really see how you could call a focus group child labor. Those kids aren’t working to support themselves or their families, presumably? They’re not being locked in a warehouse for 8-10 hours at a time doing physical labor. Sitting in a room, playing with toys and giving your opinion for a couple of hours isn’t really work.

    The white collar vs blue collar question is more interesting. Certainly, blue collar workers are much more frequently taken advantage of. They’re also, generally, paid crap wages. (hope I’m not offending anyone; I know there are plenty of exceptions, but physical labor is the least compensated) So they certainly deserve protection under the law. And like someone above just said–Blackberrys vs. waiters? Apples and oranges, Trent. People with Blackberrys are generally not being exploited.

    OTOH, there are plenty of people who feel forced, by their office culture, to work excessive hours and do drudgery work that falls outside of their responsibility. Maybe that’s not okay…maybe that’s something we need to think about changing. You’ve given me food for thought on this one.

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Being in a focus group is an exchange of time and energy for money, no different than any other job.

  13. Anna says:

    Whether or not it is child labor, it is most certainly child exploitation.

  14. It wasn’t the central theme of your post, but the difference with information work is pretty big. The hardest thing is that the work day never ends when the work is still going on in your head. When you’re not paid by the hour but expected to produce a lot of results there is a lot of pressure to work long hours and you don’t get overtime pay. Being part of a focus group at least has a time constraint on it, but I think it should be the parents reigning things in rather than more government laws.

  15. mbhunter says:

    That was an enlightening book. A bit scary, but enlightening.

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