Updated on 11.02.07

Review: Born to Buy

Trent Hamm

born to buyThe influence of consumerism on my children has been a concern to me for a long time. From the moment I first held my son, I realized that I had a deep responsibility to raise him with strong values and the ability to reason through information presented to him, and I feel exactly the same way about my daughter. To me, modern consumerism is just a bunch of noise attempting to drown out this message, using any number of ploys to convince my children to not make well-reasoned decisions, particularly when it comes to material goods and money.

Born to Buy focuses in on those very issues. It’s written by Juliet Schor, who also wrote The Overspent American, a book focusing on adults and consumerism that I reviewed a while back and quite enjoyed.

Much like Schor’s earlier book, I found Born to Buy thoroughly well-researched and insightful, but did it really open my eyes to the relationship between consumer behavior and my children? Let’s dig into the book and find out.

Digging Into Born to Buy

One quick comment: this book is fact-packed and well researched. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming and I found myself reading it in chunks and on occasion tracking down referenced source materials to find out more. To me, this is a good thing; to others, it may come off like drinking from a fire hose.

The book opens with a historical perspective of the history of marketing, going back to the nascent days when children weren’t marketed to at all, forward to the period between World War I and World War II where marketing for child-targeted products were pitched at the parents, on to today where most advertising is targeted at children in some way or another.

The Changing World of Children’s Consumption
To be honest, I found this chapter depressing. It cites a huge number of studies to show that children are more involved in consumer-oriented decision making than ever before, but that’s not led to a good result. Children often tie their own self worth to the material goods around them, to a level far unprecedented compared to previous generations of children. A majority of children in the United States are directly involved in the consumer decisions of the family (things like automobile purchases) and their sense of identity is somewhat based on the outcome of those decisions.

This leads to several things: children today are more likely to have emotional and mental disorders and are much more likely to be out of shape and overweight. The psychology of materialism and materialist values has negative effects on an adult mind, but on the mind of a child who has not yet learned many of the things adults take for granted, the effects of materialism can be tremendous – and feelings of insufficiency that are pervasive in modern marketing lead children to a negative self-image (that, of course, can only be pacified through more consumer goods).

From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live: The Content of Commercial Messages
Here, Schor focuses on the variety of themes found in commercial messages and, again, as a parent my stomach felt uncomfortable. Children’s advertising focuses on a number of basic techniques: representing adults as repressive and “uncool” (something that can be battled with the latest consumer product), using older children as a sign that an item is “cool” (encouraging children to emulate older children rather than their peers), and various other techniques.

Schor goes into particular detail about Nickelodeon, the child-oriented television network, and why it is extremely effective at creating great marketing targeting children. The entire network encourages those themes – children are somehow more intuitive, intelligent, and “cool” than the adults and emulation of trends from older children (often an echoing of the marketing going on on MTV). These themes are pervasive throughout the programming, so when the ads appear espousing these same themes, the products are seen as much more acceptable and desirable – after all, wouldn’t the kid in the television show also enjoy this product?

The Virus Unleashed: Ads Infiltrate Everyday Life
This chapter focuses primarily on detailing the marketing strategy behind a toy called P-O-X, which failed to take off in the marketplace in 2001 mostly due to bad timing connected to 9/11. The marketing methods involved with this toy were quite impressive. Perhaps most impressive was the use of “alpha children” to be marketers for the product – Hasbro actually gave the toy to children who were peer-identified as “cool” and paid them to give even more of them away to their friends.

What’s the conclusion from this? Children can no longer trust normal methods of information. Marketers are quite willing to find every avenue imaginable to reach a child, and the methods that parents and children used to be able to rely on for unbiased information have become clouded. Thus, it’s more important than ever to actually research a product and get multiple opinions on it than just trust what the “cool kid” says – he may actually be paid to say it.

Captive Audiences: The Commercialization of Public Schools
Marketing also filters heavily into the public school system, from things like Channel One to advertising messages slipped into the classroom content to school administrators directly allowing advertising in schools. School (at least public school) is not a safe haven from marketing – in fact, for many, school is a place where they are exposed to more marketing.

While I am aware that this goes on (I certainly was exposed to it in the mid 1990s in school), what bothers me more than anything is that the reason for most of these programs is inadequate government funding for education. I understand completely why schools have to do things like this – if you want your school to have revenue so they can afford modern textbooks, you may have to sell ad space, because the government certainly isn’t stepping up to the plate.

Dissecting the Child Consumer: The New Intrusive Research
Why is marketing so effective? Here, Schor provides some big clues: there’s some amazingly thorough research going on behind marketing. Schor relates the use of brain scans, home monitoring, videotaping and quantitative and qualitative analysis of child responses, and numerous other scientific analyses that are used solely to develop better models for convincing children to want products.

It’s no wonder that children are so susceptible to marketing. The marketing models developed by these organizations are incredibly well conceived, detailed, and are targeted towards the specific psychological areas where children are weakest. Ads hone in on areas of insecurity, triggering them in whatever way is needed to evoke a positive response toward the product and encourage more sales.

Habit Formation: Selling Kids on Junk Food, Drugs, and Violence
Even more disturbing, many of these techniques mix thoroughly with elements that are simply not good for children, things like drugs, violence, and junk food. Junk food, tobacco, and alcohol advertisements directly target children, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. These ads intend to plant the idea of the product in the minds of the children so they will not only desire the product themselves, but encourage their parents to purchase it.

Even violence is marketed, through games like Grand Theft Auto and violent films. Even though I have no problem with these products existing, I am bothered by the fact that many of them are marketed directly towards children. I have no reason to believe my children will not make sound moral choices in their lives, but that also doesn’t mean that an eight year old child should enjoy shooting realistic depictions of people as a pastime.

How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well-Being
What does all of this culminate with? Since many forms of media are designed by marketers to have psychological hooks into the minds of children, many children wind up addicted to media, addicted to consumerism, and prone to emulating the behavior that they see. Schor goes through a mountain of data outlining this, and the results aren’t pretty.

Exposure to consumer culture is directly related to a greater tendencies to lie, to cheat, to steal, to be overweight, to reject parental authority and guidance, to be violent, and to exhibit signs of greediness. Why? All of these psychological hooks within marketing push children down this avenue. They come to believe that they need the products, and they’re shown that antisocial behaviors are often the best way to get them.

Empowered or Seduced? The Debate About Advertising and Marketing to Kids
Who’s to blame for the pervasiveness of marketing? The obvious answer is to point the finger at the marketers, but that’s not exactly the entire picture, either.

In many cases, parents are to blame in that they allow media to become a surrogate parent. When you find it “easier” to plop your child in front of a television for a few hours so you can do something else, it’s not a healthy situation. Similarly, when you can’t (or don’t) rationally discuss consumer purchases with your child, that creates problems as well, and when you exhibit consumer-oriented behavior (lusting after items), you teach your child that such behavior is good.

Society as a whole is somewhat to blame as well. We’ve de-focused from adequate education funding, requiring schools to allow marketers in to be able to afford good educational materials.

Decommercializing Childhood: Beyond Big Bird, Bratz Dools, and the Back Street Boys
So how can one opt out of this trap. Schor offers a lot of guidance in this closing chapter, so I tried to boil it down to several points that can be taken away.

First, parents need to create rules about television and stick to them. Limit the amount of time your child can watch television each day. In fact, at our house, we’re getting very close to abandoning the television altogether, leaving just a DVD player to watch films and programs without commercials and a game console (the sole thing keeping us from this is the difficulty in watching live events).

Second, parents should walk the walk as well. If you restrict the television your children watch, you should restrict the amount you watch as well.

Third, parents should limit their child’s exposure to junk foods. Learn how to cook at home and avoid the garbage. A piece of candy once in a while is fine, but Mickey D’s every other day is a very bad thing.

Fourth, parents should discuss these issues with the parents of their child’s friends. Let them know that you don’t want your children watching a ton of television if you feel strongly about it. Perhaps you can find parents who feel much the same way as you do.

Finally, and this is the most important thing you can possibly do, spend more time with your kids away from media. Participate in sports with them. Read with them. Play board games with them. Talk to them. Do projects with them. Anything that you can do with your child in a non-marketed situation is a good thing and it will reap great benefits for you and your child.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

If you have children and can tolerate reading that is a bit dry in a few places, Born to Buy is a must-read. It demonstrates in a clear, fact-based manner the diversity of ways that advertisements and consumer behavior influences your child in profound ways, for better and for worse, and it provides a lot of great advice for parents concerned about these issues.

The book was quite dense, but it was incredibly thought provoking for me as a parent and as a consumer. I’ll admit that since I’ve read this book, I have witnessed many of the things discussed in the book – and they deeply bother me. In fact, this book made me inch ever closer to a completely television-free home.

Born to Buy is the fifty-first of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.

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  1. Chris says:

    Great summary of the book. I agree with you on all counts with one exception. I completely reject the notion that advertising in school has gone up because the government is not spending enough on schools – 1) schools have more funding now than ever before (and are educating less), and 2) even if the schools had twice the funding “from the government”, they would still seek additional revenue streams. I don’t think most people (educators included) have much sensitivity to ads anymore, even those aimed at kids (unless they’re for alcohol, etc.). The parents certainly aren’t concerned, as the hours of TV/day (and by extension, the # of ads/day) has risen dramatically over time. We’ve simply collectively decided that children’s advertising is acceptable in our culture.

  2. Mrs. Micah says:

    I’ve seen this in stores and am really looking forward to reading it now! Thanks for the review. :)

  3. I think this extends far more than just to kids. Kids are relatively helpless, but adults are not. As you and the author mention, a kid with strong parents can easily survive this onslaught. However I believe that most adults cannot survive this onslaught. All that stuff we say to kids: Don’t watch too much TV, don’t buy crappy food, don’t get addicted, excercise more; it all applies just fine to adults too. The major problem is that there is no one to teach the adult victim of marketing and weak will. That person’s life is owned by marketers or the government or their idiot peers or whoever else has influence over them. How many people in this world can actually make an important decision? Not many at all, so they need to be guided. Who is the guide? Media and friends. They just go with the crowd. You’ll never get anywhere by saying “fix the kids” because the broken kids most likely have broken parents and broken friends.

  4. John says:

    Trent, I agree with your assessment of the book. There is an organization called “Commercial Alert” which tracks how advertisers & marketers target not only children but all interest groups. The author is on the board.

  5. guinness416 says:

    I hear you about the funding issues, but the advertising in schools is one thing as a student or now as an adult would aggravate me beyond all reason. I’m about the same age as you, and we certainly never had anything approaching that in Ireland. Fast Food Nation wrote about it a little bit too, I think, mostly related to Coke machines in the halls.

  6. Michael says:

    Public schools get plenty of funding. What they actually do with that funding is open to debate. If you want to free up dollars for new textbooks, then take a good, hard look at the administrative bureaucracy and the teachers’ union.

  7. Wendy says:

    The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood has been an excellent resource for me in understanding what ways I can help my children (not yet born!) avoid the pressure to succumb to advertising. They also point out current political and commercial activities that are going on, and provide information for ACTION on our parts as concerned parents/citizens.


  8. Amanda says:

    This is complete rubbish. Advertising and marketing began hundreds of years ago! Even Ben Franklin sent direct mail, i.e. advertising & marketing. Look it up..in fact look at what he sent! Both of these “phenomena” are actually more concurrent with the advent of printing, which isn’t exactly recent.

  9. demetri says:

    Amanda- Just an FYI. I think you misinterpreted what Trent wrote- I went back and re-read it to make sure I was right. He was (and the book) talk about marketing to children directly. Its not saying all marketing began last century.

  10. claymeadow says:

    a lot of science/money is applied to marketing/advertising these days. the general consensus is that once a person reaches 35 years of age their ability to be swayed by ads diminishes greatly. so if the deck is stacked so deeply against people before 35 yrs then how can they have a fighting chance one may ask, well, once again, the answer lies in education. Inform people how to use their own brains much the way that marketers/advertisers have figured out how to use your brain for you. For instance, http://tinyurl.com/yw3q92 Consider this, what kid in the States at least does not know the golden arches symbol or the more than one billion served moto by the time they are three?

  11. Monica says:

    I grew up without a TV in the house (and I was born in the late 70s, so this wasn’t eons ago), and it’s one of the factors that has the most contributed to me becoming an independent-minded and non-consuming-oriented person. No, your kids don’t need Sesame Street to teach them their alphabet. I already knew how to read when I started kindergarten — not because my parents deliberately taught me, but simply because they read to me a lot and I learned to follow along. Plus I learned my values from C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder rather than from Mattel and Hasbro and McDonald’s.

  12. Mike says:

    I don’t want to seem contrary–since I essentially agree with Schor’s main ideas as expertly outlined by Trent–but I think this commercial society is the world we and our children will continue to have to live in. Isn’t it better to teach them to think critically about all the advertising images they see than to try to keep them away from advertising?

    My middle-school-aged kids are wonderful about walking by displays in stores and saying, “Look at how they are trying to sell that candy to little kids in those SpongeBob containers” and “Look, that picture is trying to convince us those ugly shoes are cool.” They are very savvy about the ways that advertising works, and we all laugh together at the crazy methods TV commercials use try to associate emotions with products.

    I say limit kids’ exposure to a reasonable extent, but also teach kids to have some fun with pop culture. We like Nickelodeon and even TV commercials. “Commercial” culture can be a lot of fun if you have a sense of humor about it and understand how marketers try to manipulate people.


  13. Beth says:

    This book was a huge eye-opener for me. I’m a child of the 1970s and thought that things couldn’t have changed THAT much in the last 30-plus years. In fact they really have – marketers are making a concerted effort to sell to kids using tools that they may not be sophisticated enough to withstand.

    I agree that kids need to be taught to function in the world, but I also know that marketers do NOT have kids’ interests at heart, and are working hard to influence them. Adults need to be informed about the pressures being brought to bear on kids so they can help the kids make sense of it, and even shield them from it when possible.

    I highly recommend the book – it’s downright shocking at how much things have changed since we were kids.

  14. vh says:

    THANK YOU for your excellent review and for your subjective comments, every one of which (IMHO) is pretty much right on.

    One of the scariest moments in my Life As a Mom came when my son (hang on to your hat) squawked when I tried to mute the volume on the ads during a TV program. At that moment, I was startled to learn the kid was using the remote to turn the volume UP on the ads!!!!! Why? Because the advertising content was more interesting to him than the programming.

    Drive down the street some day and count the number of ads you’re presented with. If your errand is to the grocer’s, don’t forget to count the ads plastered on the grocery cart and the ads pumped into your ears on the PA system and the ads on your receipt and the coupons proposing to give you a discount on products you wouldn’t otherwise buy. And if you have the radio on (even to NPR), remember to count the ads you hear on that. And consider that your kids hear and see all that and more (because they’re exposed to the crassest kind of advertising in school).

    Mike also is right on when he says “Isn’t it better to teach them to think critically about all the advertising images they see than to try to keep them away from advertising?” The only way the kids will be able to cope is to become aware that about 80% percent of the sensory information that enters their brains is designed to sell them something, and to help them learn how to cope with that.

    Anyone for building a commune in the middle of the Gobi desert?

  15. Kat says:

    I used to LOVE commercials. LOVE LOVE LOVE them. I liked looking at how they were marketing items to people, although I didn’t full understand marketing at the time.
    My parents limited our TV time and I really don’t remember watching TV at friends homes either. Movies, yes, but no TV. We were always too busy playing outside or making forts or skating to care.

    I disagree that ads are in schools for money due to the lack of government funding. As a child of a life long teacher, schools have plenty of money. What they do with it and who regulates it is another thing. A high school teacher making 40k a year to teach one class a day? Not such a good use of money or space or time.

    Interesting fact: San Paulo recently banned all outdoor advertising. People can actually see the stars at night. Tells you how much advertising is really going on in the world.

  16. SwingCheese says:

    It drives me absolutely crazy when people (presumably) outside of education state with such certainty that public schools receive enough funding. The fact of the matter is that public schools receive very little of their funding from the federal government, around 10%. The rest of the funding comes from the state, and the lion’s share of that comes from property taxes in the surrounding community. If your school is in a wealthy community, your school will have more money than a school in an area with a lower socio-economic level. If you really want to have your eyes opened to the sad state of some public school funding in our country, read anything by Jonathan Kozol (I especially recommend Savage Inequalities).

    While I don’t agree with advertising in schools, and would be thrilled to see all the vending machines at our school disappear, I don’t think it is fair to imply that schools are greedy, and want more than their allotted funding (which is apparently a wash anyway, as one of the above commenters seems to think that we are doing a very poor job of educating our students with the money we currently have). I can tell you from my experience as a public school teacher in a wealthier district that it was a fight to get new textbooks for my students this year (we had been using a set that was over a decade old, and the pedagogy had changed significantly in the passing time), and I spend a significant amount of my own resources to give what I feel is the best, and most useful information to my students. The way budgets are allocated within the school seems a mystery to those of us in the school, so I must imagine that those outside of the profession could be easily confused. However, a budget surpless in one area does not translate to money being allocated to a different area (i.e., if the science department has extra money, that money cannot be spent in the music department, no matter how much the music department might be lacking in supplies). Again, I don’t think that advertising should be allowed in schools. I am, however, incensed at the opinion that public schools are already receiving more than their fair share of resources, and should work with what they have rather than search for extra funding. Compare the federal funding of education against the federal defense budget and tell me where you would assume our priorities lie.

  17. vh says:

    ditto that, SwingCheese.

    Where exactly does one go to get paid 40 grand (or anything) to teach one high school class a day? I have GOTTA move there (assuming it’s not San Francisco, where 40 grand wouldn’t rent a room to live in).

    Fulltime teachers in Arizona start in the 20s and teach five to seven classes a day and are expected to be there after school to meet with parents, supervise extracurricular activities, etc. etc. endlessly etc. Those “free” (read “unpaid”) summers are spent in required professional development courses and workshops, and in preparing the next year’s coursework.

    On the university level, I taught four & four every semester and earned 43 grand. How am I glad I’m not teaching anymore? Let me count the ways….

  18. lorax says:

    I have to disagree with Chris and some others, and agree with Trent. Teaching kids isn’t cheap. Teachers don’t make vast sums of money. The quality of schools from a poor district to a wealthy one is amazing.

    In my area, a (religious) education comparable to public school is more expensive per year than our local tax bill. (Some might think of religion as yet another form of ads.)

    Perhaps schools should leave sports to the private sector and plow that funding into academics.

  19. Toby says:

    I recently read _Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds_ by Susan Gregory Thomas does a great job a laying out how marketers are now targeting the 0-3 age range (even though they claim they don’t).

    I think I’ll give this one a read and compare notes.

  20. J.D. says:


    You are reading my mind again. I’m working on a review of Buy, Buy Baby, which is about this very topic. Look for it on Tuesday.

  21. gin in hsv says:

    I disagree that schools have to let advertisement in the schools to raise revenue. If schools would properly use the funds that they have and not waste them trying to indoctrinate our kids, instead of teaching them reading, writing, and math,they wouldn’t need outside funding. Frankly, when I was in school, which was not that long ago, my parents did not get a list longer than your kid of materials that mom and dad had to provide such as: cleaning supplies for the teacher, paper towels and kleenex, art supplies, and the list gets longer every year. My niece is in the fourth grade and not only does she have to buy all of this additional materials other than paper, pencils, glue, and notebooks but they have to go in the community chest. Socialism in grade school. I would home school if I had a child of my own or they would be in private school.

    Our church has a school and produces some extremely well educated and well rounded kids. It is a third as expensive to send a kid through the church school as it is public school and they get a better education. More money is not the answer, more accountability is the answer for public schools.

    I spent time in the public school system and was appalled at the information that they thought appropriate to teach a child. More parents need to get involved in the school system, which is exactly what the school system does not want, to see what they are teaching. The text books are horrible revisionist drivel and the required reading is equally bad. I had a play that was required for 8th grade students with language in it, that if the student had used the same, would have landed them in in-school suspension or detention.

    Our children need protection and the best protection is to turn off the idiot box and get involved.

  22. Jack says:

    My wife and I raised two children to young adulthood and avoided the consumer blues by constantly ridiculing advertisements (“that little girl is being forced to dress like a slut”) and by examining the mechanics of manipulation with the kids; it’s like exploring how a magic trick works – how the deception takes place.

    And fortunately, Boomerang doesn’t advertise anything except Cartoon Network. No toys, no clothes, no music. Thank you, Boomerang.

  23. Amanda says:

    Dear Demetri,

    This is the reason I’ve decided to give up reading these ridiculous blogs. They are simply fluff.

    Here is the quote from the begining of the article:
    The book opens with a historical perspective of the history of marketing, going back to the nascent days when children weren’t marketed to at all, forward to the period between World War I and World War II where marketing for child-targeted products were pitched at the parents, on to today where most advertising is targeted at children in some way or another.”

    My response was that marketing & advertising have been around for hundreds of years. That includes marketing to children. If anyone would like to research that instead of simply accepting what people tell them is true (myself included), you will find a lengthy history on the subjects of ads & marketing throughout the centuries that spans continents.

  24. Sharon says:

    Funding of schools is a complicated issue. I also highly recommend “Savage Inequalities” to anyone who has an interest in the subject.
    I now teach in a “poor” school district and education suffers, not only because of money but also because of “No Child Left Behind”. EVERYTHING is geared to the testing.
    I recently asked my students to write a 300-word rough draft. At least 80% of my students freaked out. After a couple of days of assurances and explanations, I figured it out. One of my students finally said “Why didn’t you ask for a five paragraph essay? That is what all of our other teachers have done.”
    Why have all the teachers asked for a five paragraph essay? Because that is what is required on the official tests in my state. Apparently there is no other reason to write, or read, or think besides the almighty end of senior year tests. Because the entire school district is judged on those tests, the entire school district must be geared for those tests.

  25. Peter says:

    Sometimes I think we don’t give kids the credit they deserve. Despite all the pressure, as the parent you are the greatest influence on your children. What you find as important, they will. Ask them when they’re watching TV why they put that sexy model next to a car, does she come with it? Or if they already got the toy their advertising, ask them if it really is as “cool” or “fun” as they’re showing it. Do that every now and then and you’ll be surprised how clear the message will become that the purpose of advertisement is to separate them from their money.

  26. Marcy says:

    Well, I’m sure to be considered a freak of nature but I was raised without a television in our home.We were allowed to watch videos( vetted by parents, of course) and allowed to play some video games( both quality and quantity seriously controlled). I’m sure it’s not a coincidence then, that my brother, sister and I grew up far more literate and comfortable with books, music lessons, singing, sports, playing outdoors, playing with friends and involved at school. When I went away to university at 19( that’s how old you were in my province when you left) that was the first time I had unfettered access to television. My mother still doesn’t have a tv.She is an avid listener to CBC radio( which is like NPR for the Americans here) and so are my siblings and I. In fact, when I was getting my teaching degree, we often referred to some students as CBC kids- kids who were more literate and had parents who turned off the tube and the radio on, instead. My parents were Christians with deeply held convictions, and besides the negative messages some shows had, in their opinion, there was too much commericialism on tv.I think that was one of the greatest things my parents could have done for me- refuse to have a tv in the home.
    Now, I don’t live in the US( thank God) but I know their teachers are paid about as much as Walmart employees make here in Canada. And I know that there are stupid, hideous inequalities in the school system and you know what? As an educator, I could see how ads in schools could seem like a good solution to buy desperately needed textbooks. Ad money doesn’t go to salaries. It goes to school supplies.

  27. Its amazing how much the advertising has infiltrated our lives.

    Like when we think something ..is that something that we really thought on our own? Or something that was subliminally programed in us by all the advertising companies.

    To think that this infiltration is being focused on kids as well. Young children, they are our future. Whatever they are .. is what the world will be in the future.

    In order for a solid future you need people building it with strong values … and well i just know now how good these values are that advertisers are teaching kids.

    That right there is a very scary thought.

    Young Investor


  28. Jennifer says:

    This is a great summary of the book. I think the best thing I ever did was get rid of the TV. We still have it to watch movies. My little boy complained at first. Now he doesn’t care. My three play outside, inside, everywhere. They are very creative. I encourage all parents to get rid of the cable! If you don’t have it it can’t harm the kids.

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