Born to Buy: Who’s Responsible, Parents or Advertisers?

This is the twelfth 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 latter half of the seventh chapter, “Habit Formation,” starting on page 130 at the subheading “Who’s Responsible, Parents or Advertisers?” and finishing out the chapter, ending on page 139.

born to buyI’ll be frank: I feel that the responsibility for consumer education falls squarely on the shoulders of parents. Parents are the ones that make the choice to turn on the television and allow their children to watch it. Parents are the ones that allow their children to drive purchasing decisions. Parents are the primary educators of their children. Most important, parents are the ones making food choices, and they’re the ones choosing to put prepackaged foods or fresh foods on the table. Add those up and it’s pretty clear to me that marketing is like a never-ending flow of water – but parents are the tap, able to slow down or turn off the flow as desired. You’re a parent, you’re responsible.

I’m a parent of two kids and I know quite well that this is a difficult stance to take. It’s really easy to get irate at marketers and blame them for creating clever packaging. I’ve watched my son nearly bounce off the wall for specific treats already – and I’m aware that the biggest part of that is clever methods by marketers. Seriously, what child wouldn’t want smiling, cheese-flavored fish crackers in a brightly colored bag? The marketers make it tough – they make the crackers out of whole grain and the nutrition facts on the package indicate that they aren’t entirely unhealthy…

And that’s where the rubber meets the road. I’m a parent. I’m the one making that purchasing decision. Beyond that, my son is sitting there taking cues from me – parents are the first role models that a child has, not the marketers. It’s up to me to make the right decision – all marketers do is make that right decision a little bit tougher.

Schor’s Counterargument
Schor makes a strong counterargument to this case on page 130:

A second industry theme is that parents can “just say no.” Paul Kurnit takes the view that “if you don’t want your child to eat pre-sweetened cereals, don’t buy them. If you don’t want your child to eat at McDonald’s, don’t take your child to McDonald’s. I mean, on some level it is truly that simple.” [Child marketer Amanda] Carlson concurs: “They [the parents] should set the guidelines. They should set precedents. They should be good examples, which they’re not, in terms of how to eat healthfully.”

A careful look at industry practices suggests things aren’t as simple as Kurnit and others claim. The soft drink companies have demanded exclusive access in schools. The chains dominate highway rest stops, airports, malls, and other public places, so fast or junk food is usually all that’s available. Agriculture and food lobbies have pushed through food disparagement laws in twelve states where they’re politically powerful. (These laws make certain statements about food products illegal.)

The argument that Schor is making is that governments have given the food industry unfair advantage over consumers, and I do agree that these moves do make it harder for parents to make good choices.

in defenseBut the answers are out there and they’re not really very hard to follow, either. In Michael Pollan’s excellent book on modern eating, In Defense of Food (which I discussed a while back), he basically boils down everything a parent needs to know about a healthy modern diet into just seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Obviously, a bit of clarification is needed here – by “food,” he means not prepackaged stuff, but as much fresh stuff as you can get into the diet. Stick to the fresh produce section and the meat counter at your local grocery – that’s where the vast majority of your grocery shopping should be.

What about the convenience situations, like when you’re on a road trip and the only easy options are fast foods? That’s easy, too – plan in advance and pack a “road picnic.” It takes about ten minutes and enables you to stop off at a nice park to eat a meal instead of at Mickey D’s. If you just want to cure the munchies, pack a bag of baby carrots or a 100% juice box instead of an order of fries and a giant Slurpee.

What about emotional contradictions, with things like GoGurt? On page 131:

Carlson explained that the marketers are “using words like healthwholesome. Teddy Grahams are probably wholesome … You have the goodness of graham … There’s definitely a halo. I mean, parents will look at Lucky Charms and say, ‘Well, it’s oats.’ They look at Go-gurt that has twelve grams of sugar and say, ‘Well, it’s yogurt. It’s got that bacteria in it that’s good for you.'” Taking advantage of these emotional contradictions has contributed to a pervasive loosening of parental rules around food. Faced with the barrage of food advertisement, too few parents have been able to hold their ground.

When I read this, I don’t blame the barrage of food advertisement, I blame the inability of a parent to walk down the yogurt aisle and compare the nutrition facts label between several kinds of yogurt and make the choice that’s best for their kids. Reading, understanding, and knowing how to use a nutrition facts label is vital for any parent in the modern world – if you can’t do that or are unwilling to, you’re shortchanging your child.

Sure, there are obstacles, but the ultimate responsibility is up to the parent.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the first portion of the eighth chapter, “How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being,” starting on page 140 and continuing until the subheading “Patterns of Media Use” on page 153.

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