Born to Buy: Pester Power

This is the sixth 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 final portion of the third chapter, starting at the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61.

born to buy

Trans-Toying
For several pages, Schor discusses the idea that marketers are able to turn basically anything into a toy, making it seem like something fun for a child to play with. Think about it: which would your child rather have, oatmeal that seems like oatmeal or oatmeal that seems like a toy? From page 63:

Trans-toying is most noticeable in the supermarket aisle, where packaged goods companies have gotten ingenious in their attempts to turn what we eat into things kids can play with. Frito-Lay has come up with colored Cheetos, now available in a mystery color version. You have to eat them to see what color your mouth and tongue become. Lucky Charms changes what it does with every box. Quaker Oatmeal contains dinosaur eggs and other hidden treasures. And Ore-Ida has come out with Funky Fries, which are blue, or sugar coated, or cocoa flavored.

This is a pet peeve of mine, one that Born to Buy has just given me a perfect excuse to rant about. If you can’t identify what the food product is and how it’s produced, you shouldn’t be eating it. But even if you lower that standard for yourself, you should never feed this stuff to your kids.

Whenever you put a plate of food in front of your child and in front of yourself, your child is getting more than just energy for the day. They’re getting nutritional building blocks for their growth, a stage in their lives that they’ll never be able to repeat. They’re also getting cues on how they should eat as an adult, because if it’s junk you’re giving them and junk you’re eating, it’s junk that they’ll believe is good. Actions speak louder than words.

Sure, maybe you think carrots are atrocious and you’d rather eat a Mickey D’s double cheeseburger. That’s still no excuse to put chocolate-flavored french fries in front of your kid. Read what’s on the ingredients label before you give it to your child – if you wouldn’t serve a great big plate full of one of the ingredients to your child, why would you give it to them at all?

Michael Pollan sums up a great eating philosophy in just seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By food, he’s referring to actual real food, not high fructose corn syrup or whatever ungodly ingredient is used to make Cheetos stain your tongue blue.

A Misunderstanding of Wealth
On page 64, Schor really nails one particular problem with rampant consumerism in America:

Other research has found that people who watch more television have pronounced biases in their perceptions of how wealthy Americans are, because television disproportionately shows wealthy and upper-middle-classs lifestyles. Heavy viewers think that affluence is the norm, vastly exaggerating the proportion of the population with swimming pools, maids, and other luxuries.

In other words, television paints wealthy and upper-middle-class lifestyles as the norm and heavy watchers believe that it is the norm. The people on television become the Joneses to catch up with.

I read this portion of Born to Buy on a Friday morning, so just to test it out, I went downstairs and flipped through every channel that I thought a teenager might stop on. I saw a show about a $10,000 birthday bash for a four year old girl (Party/Party on Bravo), a “documentary” about Angelina Jolie’s life (True Hollywood Story on E!), a show about models infighting with each other (America’s Next Top Model on MTV), a show about a woman getting a $6,000 makeover (Style Her Famous on style.), a sitcom about a family with a butler living in Bel-Air (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on TBS), and two different channels showing music videos, each depicting individuals wearing more gold and diamonds than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Regardless of your feelings on the entertainment value of these programs, they all focus in on a lifestyle that is above the financial capacity of almost everyone in the viewing audience. If you watch such programs over and over again, your sense of “normal” begins to reset.

It makes sense why luxury products will pay for product placement on shows. If you see show after show where people are driving a shiny, expensive car, you’ll begin to see that car as normal. If you see everyone drinking bottled water, you begin to see that as normal. If you see everyone listening to an iPod, you begin to see that as normal.

I’m not claiming people are stupid by any means. Most people can pretty clearly identify what’s going on in an individual situation. The problem is when you see it over and over again – it begins to ever so slowly shape your sense of normal.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the whole fourth chapter, “The Virus Unleashed,” starting on page 69 and ending on page 84.