Born to Buy: The Changing World of Children’s Consumption

This is the second 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 part of the second chapter, “The Changing World of Children’s Consumption,” which appears on pages 19 through 29.

born to buyReading this section really pounded home one fact into my mind: this is a big issue. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake when it comes to the purchasing decisions made that involve your child, and given the unethical things people are willing to do for much tinier sums, how is it surprising that companies will target that huge market with whatever message will get their point across.

One scene from my own childhood kept coming back to me. Hardee’s, a fast food chain, was including small plastic figurines of the California Raisins in their kid’s meals. These little plastic toys, pressed out of a factory somewhere, likely cost Hardee’s a penny or two a pop. Yet I was insistent – insistent – on collecting all ten of them. I had to have them, and after several weeks of nonstop cajoling, I did eventually collect the complete set of them after lord knows how many trips to Hardee’s. Any time we’d get close, I’d start shouting loudly from the back seat, “IS THE NEW RAISIN OUT YET?” and not let it go until either my mother gave in, drove a bargain with me, or wound up ordering me that it was simply not happening.

I was ten years old and not really mature enough to consider the actual food quality and nutritional value of a fast food value meal, especially as compared to the value of a two-cent plastic raisin toy and the financial state of my parents. It’s not a value judgement I was equipped to make or even able to look at rationally, and that in itself is why I’m reading this book.

No wonder the marketers are all over the youth group.

Here are two bits that really stood out at me this time.

Do You Believe In Numbers?
How big is that market? On page 23, Schor drops the following fact:

[James] McNeal estimates that children aged four to twelve directly influenced $330 billion of adult purchasing in 2004 and “evoked” another $340 billion.

In other words, children aged four to twelve are primarily responsible for $670 billion in annual purchases. I tried to get a grasp on what that number actually meant, so I turned to census data from 2000 and assumed that all of the children between the ages of 0 and 9 there had become the set of children aged 4 to 12 in 2004 (in other words, they aged four years from 2000 to 2004). That data indicates that there are roughly 40 million children in that four to twelve age group discussed above.

This means that the average child (aged four to twelve) in the United States in 2004 – just one child – directly affected $16,750 worth of purchases. That’s in one year. If you choose to believe that there’s not money to be made in marketing to children, think again – if you can start a fad, you’ve got access to more money than you can imagine.

Think of that fact from a marketer’s perspective. They would only need to alter one dollar of that influence to bring in $40 million to their product. And what’s one dollar, really? Thus, a savvy marketer will pull out all the stops to convince that child to advocate for a particular brand – they’ll toss up commercials making that brand appear cool to kids, play self-esteem games with them, and even use sources that parents trust for marketing, like the Children’s Television Workshop or the Boy Scouts of America.

With Monopoly Comes Uniformity – and The Wal-Mart Versus Target Battle
On page 28, Schor throws down this comment after noting that most consumer industries are dominated by two or three companies:

Economic theory predicts that when two opponents face off, the winning strategy for both entails their becoming almost identical. This model explains why gas stations congregate at intersections, why Democrats and Republicans cleave to the political center, and why Coke and Pepsi are hard to tell apart with a blindfold. What it means for consumers is that true variety and diversity of products is hard to find.

In other words, when there are just a small number of companies competing in a market – and that’s true for a lot of specific items in the United States – those companies will find the optimum strategy for their product that ensures the balance of sales and expenses that results in the most profit. Once that point is discovered, everyone will trend there, leaving marketing being the only major difference between the choices.

The only real difference between Wal-Mart and Target is marketing. Some people pride themselves on shopping at Wal-Mart because they get “bargains,” when quite often Wal-Mart’s prices are basically the same as their competitor. On the other hand, some people won’t shop at Wal-Mart because they don’t treat their employees well – when, in truth, Target does the same things and gets a free pass. The difference is all in the marketing – Wal-Mart has been more directly confrontational with organized labor, so organized labor spends marketing dollars trying to create a more unfriendly image for Wal-Mart, when the truth is that almost all of their practices are shared by Target, too.

The comments in this thread basically illustrate my point. For the most part, the commenters are just parroting the marketing of the two companies. The “Target is classier than Wal-Mart” marketing meme is spread far and wide and justified in many creative ways – it’s a matter of brand perception and marketing, not the reality of walking into the actual stores themselves. In the area where I live, the nearest Wal-Mart is a substantially nicer shopping experience than the nearest Target, for example.

In short, I’m completely indifferent about which one I would choose. They do so many things identically that it makes little difference which one I choose to shop at, so I generally choose the one that offers the best prices on the items I’m buying. This is something I hope to teach to my children: brand doesn’t always mean what everyone says it means.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the second half of the second chapter of Born to Buy (“Playing Less and Shopping More”), covering pages 29 through 38.

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