Born to Buy: The Virus Unleashed

This is the seventh 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 whole of chapter four, “The Virus Unleashed.”

born to buyThis chapter basically dissects how exactly a children’s fad is marketed – in this case, a potential fad in the making called POX that was doomed by very bad timing. Thus, I found it worthwhile during this section to think about fads when I was a kid – and I couldn’t help but think about Wacky Wall Walkers for some reason.

For those unaware, Wacky Wall Walkers were a short-lived fad circa 1983. They were simply sticky seven-legged things that looked like an octopus, but if you chucked them at a smooth wall (like glass or some wallpaper), they’d seemingly “walk” down them, meaning they’d slowly fall down the surface to the floor.

The piece of the puzzle I remember was racing down the cereal aisle with my brother, each of us seeking to grab a box of cereal that contained one of these precious toys. They were only in Kellogg’s cereals, and I recall them not being in every box, so we’d dig through the boxes looking for ones that indicated that they contained a Wall Walker.

What I didn’t fully realize then is how ingenious this really was for Kellogg’s. These Wall Walkers couldn’t have cost Kellogg’s more than a nickel wholesale, but adding that nickel’s worth of an item to the cereal and combining it with a great advertisement campaign made the Wall Walker – and thus the cereal – something that I had to have.

Alpha Kids
Schor, starting on page 71, discusses an interesting branch of marketing to children (with my own bolding for emphasis):

The plan called for identifying what are known as alpha kids, or as Matt Schneider, president of Target Productions, the company that coordinated the operations for this campaign, called them, alpha pups. These are the coolest, most socially dominant, trendsettingest kids in the community. In this case, the kids were found through an elaborate, labor-intensive process of interviewing thousands of kids on playgrounds, in arcades, and at other kidspaces, and asking, “Who’s the coolest kid you know?” until they got to the one that said “Me!” […] They had identified 1,527 boys who fit the criterion of ultimate cool and were willing to participate in the program. They boys attended an “indoctrination” where they watched a video about POX, became official “secret agents,” and accepted a secret mission and set of instructions on how to “infect” ten friends. Then they were given a backpack filled with tattoos, shirts, and hats, plus ten POX units, which they had to pass along to a a list of friends whose names would then be provided to the company. In return for their cooperation, each kid received $30.

You can read more about the POX marketing effort here.

In a nutshell, their marketing plan went far beyond simply selling on television – they actually went into the neighborhoods, identified the “cool” kids, and then bribed those kids to play with and talk about POX. They gave the kids each ten free units (to give to all of their friends) and $30 cash – basically, a bribe. It’s pretty easy to see how that kid would then go home and hand out the toys to the people in his inner circle – the “cool kids” – and then they would use their possession of these items as a symbolic badge of something the cool kids have, thus pressuring the other kids to have them, too.

In other words, the marketing here is directly tied into a child’s need for social acceptance. The “cool kids” have these toys, so they’ll want one too – except the cool kids were given the toys and basically paid to play with them.

For me, this takes marketing to a whole new level, one that I can’t really control as a parent. When a child’s interaction with his peers is interfered with by marketing, it becomes really clear to me that it’s important to equip your children with some good consumer skills and social skills – and equip them young – so that they see right through this kind of thing. It’s all about the education.

One of the quotes that has deeply driven me in my life comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

A person’s color, gender, religion, or family background is not the important part about them. Neither are the things that they have. This is true on the playground and in our daily life when we think about trying to keep up with the Joneses.

It’s only the content of the character that really counts, and that’s the one lesson I hope I can teach my kids, more than anything else. If you really get that, then the alpha kid influence really doesn’t mean that much at all – it doesn’t matter what stuff a person has, it matters what kind of character that person has.

Cashing in on Friendship
It goes beyond the “alpha kids,” too. From page 77:

An even more serious consequence is the corruption of friendship itself. Marketers are teaching kids to view their friends as a lucrative resource they can exploit to gain products or money. They even counsel kids to be “slick” with their friends.

A bit of background: this snippet is actually discussing a specific instance of this very marketing technique, called Girls Intelligence Agency. GIA basically gives products to girls, then instructs them to have slumber parties where they distribute the product to the other people there and then solicits reactions from them. In other words, the girls participating in GIA have become paid marketers to their friends, whether they directly realize it or not.

One reaction a person might take from this is a desire to simply withdraw from all of it. I know I feel kind of strange thinking of my daughter going to a friend’s house for a slumber party and then having the host of that party shilling for some random consumer product to my daughter in an environment where she feels safe and relaxed and has probably let her guard down. It’s the “guard down” aspect that worries me. I think Schor says it well on page 78:

But friendship is important precisely because it is insulated from commercial pressures. It is considered one of the last bastions of noninstrumentality, a bulwark against the market values and self-interested behavior that permeate our culture. It’s part of what we cherish most about friendships. And that’s precisely why the marketers are so keenly interested in them.

What’s the solution to all of this nonsense? Point it out to your kids. Educate them. It’s pretty evident that normal interaction with society, even if you keep television out of the picture, will result in marketing efforts targeting both you and your kid. The best way to respond is to be prepared, and the best way to do that is to not isolate your kid. Expose them to the world and teach them to ask critical questions – I know that’s something I’ll strive for as my kids get older. That doesn’t mean you should fire up the ol’ television as soon as the kids get home, but it does mean that a good education in every respect – and that includes consumer education – starts at home.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will be a fun one, covering the fifth chapter, “The Commercialization of Public Schools,” starting on page 85 and ending on page 98.