Updated on 04.27.08

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Heather says:

    Of course parents are responsible for raising their children. And the nutrition labels are a really excellent step at giving parents a tool for evaluating products and making these choices. But I also think that marketing products to children can be unethical. This is not an “either”/”or” blame game. We don’t let tobacco and alcohol market to children (well, at least children in the US) for a very good reason; it WORKS. Personally I’d be for “disbarring” any psychologist that works with any commercial marketing effort that is aimed at children, and I’d also favor banning junk food commercials from children’s TV.

  2. Rick says:

    The argument that one can’t help it because junk-food makers have exclusive access to supplying vending machines is completely bogus. I can’t remember the last time I ate something from a vending machine (even a coke machine). As with anything, any time you depend on someone else, you’re dependent upon the choices they make for you — and that includes the foods you eat. That’s why you have to bring your own food. For work I *always* bring in a brown bag lunch. It’s cheaper that way, and I can control what I eat. I’m not dependent upon what the vending machine has in stock today.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that once again, I totally agree with Trent.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “I can’t remember the last time I ate something from a vending machine (even a coke machine).”

    I think the argument is that it’s more of an issue for children who haven’t had a thorough level of consumer education and maturity yet.

  4. Harm says:

    Of course, if you pack juice boxes for the
    kids, one has to make darn sure you don’t
    leave them on the ground…..I don’t expect that
    needs to be said to readers here, but
    evidently far too many parents will pack a
    snack for junior, and leave the remnants and
    wrappings lying all over……….grrrr…..
    (my folks taught me to question all ads….kind
    of a ‘question authority’ attitude, to a degree)
    it worked, so far ;)

  5. Ryan McLean says:

    It is a good question to ask.
    I always buy things I don’t need and this will make me think about that more. Cheers

  6. Andy says:

    I agree that it is on the parents, although it certainly cannot be easy to always say no to the bad food/products that your children want. But you’re right, it is on the parents.

    One issue that I am thinking about though is allowances? If you pay your kid an allowance and say that is for him/her to spend on whatever he/she wants, can you still restrict them from buying bad food or succumbing to commercialism? Stopping them from eating unhealthy things seems more reasonable than stopping them from buying something not harmful but is still directly because of advertising.

  7. E.T.Cook says:

    The assertion that anyone is to blame for our own behavior other than ourselves is insulting, and is rife with irresponsible thinking.

    What happened to our society where accountability is a thing of a past?

  8. cv says:

    I volunteer with children in foster care, so I have a different perspective on this: what happens to the kids whose parents don’t take responsibility, because they were never taught these things themselves, or because they’re alcoholics, or because they’re just plain bad parents? I can’t in good conscience just ignore the millions of children who will end up with eating habits that will set them up for a lifetime of health problems because they were unlucky enough to be born to parents who aren’t doing their jobs.

    I think that the government has to set some minimum standards to keep kids from falling through the cracks. That means limits on junk food in schools, no marketing to a captive audience of public school kids, and maybe limits on what kind of products can be advertised on kids tv shows.

  9. Mary says:

    The assumption that the responsibility falls directly on the parents is only true to a point. I totally agree that parents are the first line of defense against predatory marketing schemes. However, parents can’t keep their kids in a bubble and they’d get in a lot of trouble if they locked the kids in the basement…kids are going to encounter these things at school, thru friends, etc. The best way to keep them away from marketing would be to keep them away from all forms of media and home school them. But, even if you have an ongoing dialogue and inform/educate kids about health, consumerism, media, and so on, they will still formulate their own opinion and, at some point might reject everything they’ve been told. Parents must be an active part in fighting these marketers but at some point, the ones puttining out these products and promoting them must be held acountable. They know what they’re doing and it’s not right!

  10. I think advertisers are slimy folk- they fool all of us on a regular basis, never mind children. You’re dealing with blatant misrepresentation and outright lying.

    Not to sounds too self righteous, but it’s just not right.

  11. Izabelle says:

    “One issue that I am thinking about though is allowances? If you pay your kid an allowance and say that is for him/her to spend on whatever he/she wants, can you still restrict them from buying bad food or succumbing to commercialism?”

    I would say that this is where letting kids learn from their mistakes falls in. An allowance spent on food cannot be spent later on a coveted toy; I see in this an extra opportunity for teaching responsible consumption.

  12. Barbara says:

    2 points:
    I aware that many (many, many) do not question the daily decisions for what their children are experiencing. They just do what they do, what their parents did, or whatever. The children of these parents are the most susceptible to marketing. It seems to work, or marketing would not be what it is.

    My husband and I formed this rubric:
    The first no is the easiest. From the beginning, with each opportunity to decide what our child would learn of the world, we decided in the moment based on what we thought the long-term consequences would be. Example: candy. My first-born did not even eat candy until his 4th year. He went trick-or-treating 2 times before he knew what was going into his bag.

    We don’t know many parents like us, even now that our children are teenagers.

    Visit my blog for bit more about parenting a lot more opinions on services for children with disabilities. www dot therextras dot com

  13. NP says:

    It bothers me that the makers of Gogurt won’t cut back on the sugar. I really like the product delivery as do my kids, but I just won’t buy it any more and haven’t in a few years due to high fructose corn syrup. I purchase lower-sugar brands, but the most prevalent brand has Dora the Explorer on the label, and my kids are embarrassed to eat it at school…so it sits in the fridge uneaten.

  14. Elsie says:

    The way I see it, it’s like the metaphor used for likelihood for getting cancer: genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. However, in this case, advertisers “load the gun” in that they plant this “desire to have” in kids’ minds, and then it’s up to parents to “pull the trigger”, or, give in to the whims of their kids–or NOT.

  15. zen says:

    It is the parents’ responsibility to educate their child to make smart choices when being bombarded by marketing – plain and simple.

    Will kids still eat junk food? No doubt. Will they think twice about eating it all the time? If you raise them right. Kids are consumers, and it’s up to someone they trust to tell them that marketing is hype, advertisements are bogus, and parents NEED to step up to the plate and put their health first to show their kids that they, too, can escape the vicious consumer cycle.

  16. Lenore says:

    As a single person with no kids, I have a hard time figuring out what’s healthiest at the grocery store. If I had to read nutrition labels while a couple of grabby, greedy munchkins clamored for brands they’ve been brainwashed to buy, I’m sure I’d make a ton of mistakes. Consumers have to scrutinize ingredients because of deliberately deceptive food packaging claims and manipulative marketing. Tighten wording regulations for the food industry, and I bet we’d see more Americans able to tighten their belts. Sure, frazzled parents can try to better educate themselves and their children about nutrition, but we’d all be better off if buying food stopped being so confusing.

  17. Christie says:

    I definitely agree that parents are responsible, but I’m wondering how many parents out there are completely ignorant about what makes food healthy. I know tons of parents who buy and cook really bad food all the time, and eat it themselves as well. Even if they did look at the back of labels, they wouldn’t know the first thing about interpreting the information. For example, people are taught that fat is the worst thing you can eat, so they see a pack of Twizzlers that says “fat free” and they buy it, thinking it’s healthy. I’m convinced that a lot of people don’t know the first thing about what true health is, and the amount of widespread misinformation via the media only makes it worse. What I want to know is – how do we fix that? I bet if you tried to nationally broadcast anything about true health the FDA would bar you in no time…

  18. Mia says:

    I worked with a doctor whose little daughter had nothing but those pre-packaged, fat and salt-laden things called “Lunchables” for breakfast and supper just about every day during the summer when she wasn’t in school. She actually got better food at school (exclusive. private). You would think it would be mostly the uneduated poor, but it’s not. The doctor is an excellent doctor – to her patients – but didn’t see the harm in giving her daughter junk to eat.

    On the other hand, I have also known people who are food Nazi’s. They put their kids on unreasonably strict diets. (I’m not talking about medically needed diets – I’m talking about crazy diets.) Then, when the kid gets in a situation away from their parents where junk food is readily available, they gorge themselves on chips, cookies and wash it all down with a quart of soda pop.

    I have actually seen this in action. My daughter attended classes with such a child, and this kid was always begging the other kids for their chips and sweets and sodas, and because she was so well-liked they each gladly gave her some. My child usually ate a turkey sandwich, a piece of fruit, and some chips or pretzels for lunch, with juice to drink. I also made cookies or bought graham crackers or vanilla wafers from time to time. My child was in K and this kid was in 1st, but they became friends and ate lunch together.

    The point is, yes it’s the parent’s responsibility to feed their children good food and teach them to make good choices. However, as has been mentioned, there are times when the child will have to make their own choices. The girl mentioned above was in first grade. She, obviously, didn’t want to make the decisions about food that her mother would make for her – and who would expect that a first grader would? Not me.

    I wouldn’t even expect good dietary decisions from a second, third, or possibly even fourth grader.
    By the time kids get to middle school, they want to fit in and will probably choose to follow their peer group. So, even if parents do their job at home, who is to say their child will actually make good choices when away from home?

  19. stefan says:

    My daughter is nine. Compared to her peers, she eats “healthy” food – at least that’s what the teachers and other parents say. I find this really distressing because, as her lunch packer and dinner maker, I *know* my daughter’s diet is less than ideal.

    Yes, the onus is absolutely on us parents to set the rules. Yet nobody should dismiss what a huge onus that is. When almost everything the child experiences pushes her toward crap – sugar, packaging, flashy colors, it’s not surprising that parents – as the lone dissenting voice – have a tough time. We don’t watch TV at home, but she still gets the messages. I think the onus is ALSO on society, but that part has been completely turned over to marketing professionals.

    For us, and I bet for many, it’s a matter of picking the fight. I’m NOT going to make all our lives miserable by insisting on whole wheat. I will however include acceptable alternatives that are sweeter/more processed that I’d prefer but still healthier than much.

    Gogurt is a case in point: I don’t buy it. But I DO buy those little yogurt containers with the fruit at the bottom – lots of sugar yes, but not so much as Gogurt. I give her fig bars instead of pop tarts. I give her dark chocolate instead of candy (she actually likes the 70% stuff – most kids don’t)

    When I think back on how *I* ate – Cheerios with about five heaping tablespoons of sugar, and lots of bologna – I think she’s doing pretty well.

  20. Ivy says:

    Hmmm… child labor is illegal, or at least tightly regulated. Why? Because we as a society have an obligation to keep our children from being exploited. But isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to protect children from being exploited? Yes. Yet we still have child labor laws and I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t.

    Most commentators are focusing on the “should gogurt be illegal” side of the discussion. That is, who’s responsibility is it to purchase healthy food for a child? — the parents of course. But marketing goes so much farther than this. Marketing exploits children in order to make money from them and erode the parent/child relationship and I think there should be limits to this just as there are limits to child labor or any other type of child exploitation.

    Channel One. Exclusive vending contracts to captive audiences in schools. Invasive paid peer marketing. We as a society have an obligation to our children. Parents naturally, but more than just them.

    It was recently “take your kid to work day” and our upscale office building had some kid-friendly activities in the lobby… brought to you by Radio Disney who had some new baby-pop princess out cavorting around, microphone in hand.

    I couldn’t bring my daughter in that day (our company is relaxed enough so that she can visit from time to time anyway) but if I had it would have turned an interesting and educational adventure into a fuss in the lobby. I don’t mind saying ‘no’ to my child. It’s part of my job. But when the whole world is pushing unhealthy, negative messages ALL THE TIME, you end up saying no a whole whole lot. Suddenly you look like the kill joy and the bad guy.

    So I have to disagree that the weight should fall entirely on the parents’ shoulders.

  21. Katie says:

    I agree that parents are the “tap” to control the flow of marketing, etc. And I say no to my children all the time. However, as in the comments above re: child labor, the marketing is getting out of hand and needs to be reined in.

  22. Sara R says:

    I agree with comments above: of course parents are ultimately responsible for the raising of their children. The buck stops with me. It’s a parent’s job to be the meanie sometimes and do what’s best for the child even though the child won’t understand that it’s best for him for several years. Parents have always had to do this.

    What is new is that parents used to have support of the greater society. More people in prior generations were parents (now people get married later if at all, and have fewer children), and so they were parents themselves and would support other parents. Now there are many more adults who are not parents, and society at large (and marketers in particular) are not helping matters.

    For example, several years ago when my children were 4 and 2, we stopped at a Burger King to go to the bathroom. The Burger King had a poster that was posted not at adult eye level, but 3 feet below at the kids’ eye level. It was blatant marketing to very young kids. It was some ugly monster toy that my child decided that she wanted. It caused a big fight, and my child didn’t get the toy. But why should a marketer be causing extra fights between parents and children? Being a parent is hard enough without some marketer somewhere making it harder. That’s assuming the parents are strong and do their jobs. If the parent caves, then the child is not getting what is best for them, and the marketer profits. It’s just not right.

    Also, many parents don’t have the energy to do what it takes to be a good parent. Many households are dual income, and the parents work long hours. Our family has made other choices, so I (the mom) am at home and I have the energy to be the heavy when necessary. But good parenting requires energy, and mathematically most households aren’t going to have enough energy to do the job well, especially if other forces in society are not helping.

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