Updated on 04.11.08

Born to Buy: Pester Power

Trent Hamm

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

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.

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  1. Bobbi says:

    “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.”

    Thank you! I love you. I don’t get to talk to many people who feel this way. I am learning so much from your blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. caryn verell says:

    ditto! keeping up with the jones’ whether it they are real or virtual is a major part of the problem many “low to middle middleclass” americans have these days….as well as the ones’ who want it and want it now, no matter what it is or what it cost. me? i can get by on far less than what i actually have and be quite content, thank God (and that is not really much at all). the commercial about the guy on the riding lawn mower who is in debt up to his eye balls really impressed me with the the way the world has become.

  3. Lisa the non-lemming says:

    The whole concept of our perceived norms being influenced by media, etc. is more widely influential than most people realize. There is a ton of great research out there about it. I work in college health, so most of what I read in this realm has to do with college student alcohol consumption — which is not nearly as bad as most people perceive it to be. Two-thirds of college students consume 0 to 5 drinks a week. Surprised?

    But when we limit media’s power over us by being a savvy consumer of it (or by shutting it off as completely as possible), only then can we start to correctly understand the actual norms. Media literacy should be a required course for every human exposed to it. But then again, the ignorance of how influential the media actually is helps keep the great unwashed masses in it’s thrall. Go, lemmings, go!

  4. Vered says:

    “Read what’s on the ingredients label before you give it to your child”.

    Actually, you should get in the habit of checking the label before you place stuff in your grocery cart. If you don’t have it at home, the temptation to eat it is removed.

  5. !wanda says:

    I watch television very rarely, only on airplanes and on vacation, so watching it is sort of like visiting another planet. I feel sorry for those people in the makeover shows. Yes, they’re given many thousands of dollars to buy new clothes or whatnot, but the old stuff gets thrown out, and now they’re going to have to pay so much money to maintain their new appearance.

  6. !wanda says:

    Also: I saw a woman on the subway the other giving her child a bottle filled with fluorescent orange liquid. I found it really, really disturbing. She seemed to be a decent mother in other ways- she was with her partner, and both her girls were decently dressed with their hair nicely done. But why would someone make such bad choices on behalf of her children when those children were too young to influence those choices?

  7. George says:

    Television does do a lot of brain washing. My brother in law does not allow his kids to watch TV most of the time. Their kids are really smart, read a lot of books. So much TV marketing is aimed at kids these days. From food, to vacations, to clothes. Parents who work long hours feel guilty and tend to buy their kids whatever they want to try and rid themselves from the guilty of not spending enough quality time with their kids. Not to mention parents are tempted to buy stuff for their kids that they always wanted but could not get themselves as kids. Look at all the kids TV Channels. They are loaded with TV commercials about Toys, kids concerts, etc. Children do have a lot of influence about how adults spend their money.

  8. Wanda…

    For you all you know that could have been Pedialyte, or Gatorade. Be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions.

    Trent…I agree with you. We’ve tried our best to feed our daughter healthy foods. So much so that she ASKS for fruits and veggies.

  9. New York Travel Beat says:

    I was just talking about this very thing with my husband and how much media and what your neighbors are doing starts to sink into your head, whether you’re aware of it or not. I recently read an article about ‘cohousing’ which sounds a lot like being in a neighborhood association, except everyone lives in townhouses, cars are parked outside the ‘compound’ leaving the rest of the community open to pedestrian walkways, community center, etc. Since most of the homes are all the same, I wonder how much of ‘keeping up with the joneses’ ends up being stripped away. I suppose you can still fill your house with tvs and ipods and fancy furniture, though.

    As far as media literacy, I was a video editor in advertising for 6 years before I got into writing. What goes on behind closed doors with clients is eye opening. They know exactly what they’re doing in terms of marketing, how far they can push the envelope, and what they can get away with. Listerine got sued a few years back for saying it was the same as flossing.

  10. !wanda says:

    @andy matthews: Should that young of a child, maybe two, still drinking from a baby bottle, be drinking Gatorade? Pedialyte makes sense- I did not know about the existence of this product before your post.

  11. Mark Krusen says:

    Trent,this is why I don’t like to watch commercials. They are trying to bend your mind to think that we just “have” to have what they are selling. I’m sure that, subconsciously we’ve all bought things because of an advertisement we saw on Tv or read in a magazine.

  12. Anna says:

    This give me a chance to air one of my pet peeves: The Extreme Home Makeover show. Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving a struggling family a decent new livable house, as far as I can see — even one with special accommodations for a special-needs kid or adult. But I am repeatedly disturbed by several aspects of this show:

    1. Overbuilding — creating a palace that is far in excess of actual needs and even reasonable luxuries, and that often sticks out in the surrounding neighborhood.

    2. For the children especially, building their own rooms around their fads and whims of the moment, which may change in the next year or two when they get interested in something else, and then are stuck with the artifacts of an outgrown interest. Children should be encouraged to develop wide interests, and a neutral room with space for collections of bird feathers or sports equipment or dance slippers or any other kind of gear will give them that flexibility.

    There’s a balance between satisfying needs in a pleasurable way, and going over the top. This show does not strike that balance.

  13. Shymom says:

    I saw a show this weekend on HGTV where they go around looking at homes to buy and take a designer along to show how they could remodel them to make them “better”. One woman walked into a kitchen and said (I’m paraphrasing here) something along the lines of “This is an acceptable kitchen.” and the designer chimed in with “For $75,000 it could be FABULOUS”

    If it is already acceptable why spend so much money and natural resources for fabulous? I’ve lived in a neighborhood of small houses for the last 13 years. When we moved here a lot of the houses were owned by people who had been her for 20 or more years before us. For the first 10 years we lived here everything was fine. Unfortunately, 3 years ago the Jones’ers started moving in and people are rebuilding like crazy around here. They see it as improvement. I, and some other neighbors, see it as wasteful, self-aggrandizement.

    My next door neighbors are tearing down and doubling the size of their home. They are including a formal living room and dining room that one of the owners admitted that they would probably only use twice a year.
    What a waste!

  14. partgypsy says:

    Yeah, the designer clothes and fantastic spreads tv characters have is one of my pet peeves. Remember I love Lucy? Or The Honeymooners? Contrast that with “Friends” where you have a bunch of 20 something people living in NYC (some of them out of work, or working in coffee shops) still somehow living in these spectacular fully furnished apartments! Along with rampant consumerism there is no wonder that young people have a skewed sense of what is normal.

  15. Danica says:

    We are not subscribers to cable or satellite TV. On local channels in our area, most commercials are for prescription medications. It is normal to see 3 or 4 drug commercials in a two minute commercial break.
    One drug uses a cartoon bee as the spokes person. This “innocent” bee looks very similar to the characters from PG rated “Bee Movie”. The drug must be safe, right?
    Gee….I wonder why prescription drug abuse is becoming more popular with tweens and teens?

    As a side note, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is a must read for anyone that eats.

  16. Nathan says:


    I was about to make the SAME comment about Extreme Makeover Home Edition but you beat me to it. It’s great to help people, but is building them a mansion really helping? Can these families afford the utilities and upkeep on a home that’s WAY beyond their means??

  17. karishma says:

    I watched a show on HGTV the other day where a family was looking for a house. The median home price for the area they were looking in was $1 MILLION! They ended up buying a fixer-upper 4 bedroom(which was in really bad shape, including needing foundation work) for $750K.

    My question is, are we to assume that the median income in this town is $400K (and if so, can I move there and expect to make that much?) or is it just that they are all up to their eyeballs in debt?

    We’re looking for our first house ourselves at the moment, so I know how much of a draw home-ownership can be, but seriously, how do people sleep at night with mortgage payments that big?

    We’ve been pre-approved for a mortgage that’s twice as big as what we’re hoping to be paying, and I still don’t see how the bank expects us to actually pay that amount every month given our income and current expenses.

  18. monkeysmomma says:

    The show that I find very disgusting is “Sweet Sixteen” on one of the music channels. It features a teenager getting ready to turn 16, and the demands that they place on their parents for the best party ever. Their wish is their parent’s command.

    They act like spoiled brats, talk disrespectfully to their parents and are generally obnoxious. Their parents buy them expensive cars, designer dresses, throw a huge party and sometimes hire celebrities to appear at the parties. Upwards of a million dollars is spent on this spoiled CHILD.

    It hurts me to know that there are people in this world who are so selfish that they would spend this kind of money for one birthday when there is so much good they could do with this money.

  19. KoryO says:

    Reading these comments makes me happy that we have a DVR and are loading it up with programs from Animal Planet and the Food Network. I can zap the commercials, and the ones that do sneak by aren’t usually the typical “parents, especially male parents are stupid” garbage.

    I’ve also managed to tape some kids’ movies off of Starz that are commercial free. My boy’s favorite right now is “Babe”, with a showing of “March of the Penguins” a close second.

    That said, all the shows on HGTV are pretty much the same. Take a house, add granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and hardwood/pergo floors, and it magically is worth another 50k over what was spent. Well, at least according to their real estate “experts”, anyway….

  20. Shymom says:

    Karishma said…..

    I watched a show on HGTV the other day where a family was looking for a house. The median home price for the area they were looking in was $1 MILLION!

    My question is, are we to assume that the median income in this town is $400K (and if so, can I move there and expect to make that much?) or is it just that they are all up to their eyeballs in debt?

    I live in an area like this and may be able to give you something of an answer. First off, the median income is $119,669 according to the 2000 census. So unless you are highly skilled, at a very marketable job, I wouldn’t assume you would make very much more than that.

    Our home has just about tripled in value in 13 years. If we were just starting out now, we would not be able to afford to buy here. We aren’t alone, a recent local newspaper article said that 90% of the people who live here wouldn’t be able to afford to if they didn’t already own their homes.

  21. Meg says:

    I grew up without cable in a relatively small town in Alabama. Then I went away to college in Dallas and was SHELL-SHOCKED at the rampant consumerism. All people did was spend money! Everything was so expensive ($200 purses? $2000 purses??

    But it was amazing how quickly my standards adapted. My version of “normal” might not have changed much, but my idea of “nice” did. Suddenly a “nice” dinner out cost $50 per person, a “nice” department store was Neimen Marcus, a “splurge” at the mall was an item of clothing over $200, a “nice” car cost $50,000+.

    You may rationally know what “normal” really is, but your surroundings totally determine your standards of what is acceptable to YOU. Once you’ve gotten used to designer clothes, fancy meals, or a luxury car (either by having it yourself, constantly seeing ‘regular ppl’ on TV who have it, or being surrounded by other people who have it), it’s hard to accept anything less.

  22. Rob in Madrid says:

    I used to roll my eyes at Trent’s anti TV rants until I visited a family with 4 kids and two TVs and all I heard from the father was

    “Change that Channel your not allowed to watch….”

    While the younger kids watching a seperate TV seemed oblivious to the fact the mute button is to be used during commercials. I finally took away the remote. Drove me mad.

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