Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, July 13, 2007

The big little spenders

by David Honigmann

Financial Times (April 07 2005)

Review of:
Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet B Schor (Simon Schuster, GBP 17.99, 276 pages)

In previous books, the economist Juliet Schor has warned that Americans are overworked and overspent. Now she expands this critique to children and in particular to American children. Marketers and corporations, she argues, are devoting ever-increasing attention to younger and younger children, viewing them as the soft underbelly of the consuming classes. Not only do teens and tweens, in the jargon, have disposable resources of their own; they also influence adult purchasing decisions through "pester power". Sweets at toddler's-eye-level at the supermarket checkout are only the tip of a multi-billion-dollar iceberg. Like the Jesuits, and like Jamie Oliver, the forces of corporate capitalism want to lock in our children's behaviour by the age of seven, and then own them for life.

The bulk of Schor's examples, and all her detailed research, come from the US. But like most social phenomena it is merely more advanced there: readers in many places will recognise most of the techniques - some in their infancy - she describes.

Children are attractive to companies because of their spending power. The average American twelve to nineteen-year-old spends $101 a week; the spending of four to twelve-year-olds increased by 400 per cent between 1989 and 2002. Moreover, children influenced an increasing share of adult purchasing decisions - $1,000 billion globally in 2002, if we can trust the estimates. The advertising of cars on children's television is only one example of this.

Advertising to children is both cruder and subtler than ever. Advertisements play off children against their parents, depicting adult authority figures as contemptible or ridiculous. At the same time, advertising pitches are worked into the content of programmes, or slipped into schools. In US schools, Channel One supplies free television equipment to classrooms in return for an undertaking by schools to guarantee that pupils watch a ten-minute programme in the classroom every day, including two minutes of advertisements. Twenty years ago, we would have been shocked to find commercial vending machines in schools; now they prop up head teachers' budgets.

Schor also condemns the way that children are recruited into commercial activity: as participants in focus groups, as disguised marketers to their friends, as ill-paid outsourced research and development.

Pleas that any activity should be restricted "for the sake of the children" raise libertarian hackles, and often rightly so: it is one of the favourite Trojan Horses for censors of all stripes. But the case of marketing to children is alarming. We accept that in many areas of life children are not competent to make their own decisions unsupervised, and society sets different ages for different activities: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, twenty-one. The discourse of marketing and advertising supposes consumers who are rational economic agents, although of course it tries to circumvent their rational side and appeal to the emotions. Advertisements for tobacco or alcohol or junk foods - or, for that matter, toys - targeted specifically at children pretend that children are capable of adult decision making while taking advantage of the fact that they are not. Schor quotes research showing that children below a certain age are incapable of parsing televisual grammar sufficiently to distinguish between the documentary and commercial.

Schor admits that part of growing up is precisely about learning these lessons - and that participating in low-level economic activity is an essential element of developing autonomy. But her survey data suggests that exposure to commercial culture at current levels lowers children's self-esteem and adds to their anxieties, rather than empowering them.

She also allows, perhaps too readily, that being exposed to fantasy violence in popular culture can in some cases be good for children because it allows them a way to work through fears and passions. But she insists that we are "well beyond the point where media violence serves a useful function"; it now coarsens and desensitises.

One culprit, for Schor, is television, to the extent that she has forbidden it for her own children. On the data she presents, television watching has in fact fallen over the last two decades, from an average for all children of seventeen hours 35 minutes viewing per week in 1981 to thirteen hours 29 minutes in 1997. But the commercial content has risen in that time, and the aggressiveness of the marketing has escalated. Moreover, argues Schor, the amount of time spent in uncommercialised space - playing outdoors, for example, has also fallen. Now that commercial messages have invaded schools and shopping takes up a larger part of every child's day, it is harder to find any sanctuary.

For those who accept Schor's premises, solutions are hard to find. Bill McKibben, one of the neo-puritan luminaries quoted endorsing Schor's book, suggests that "there must be a special circle of hell designed for those who came up with the notion of marketing to young kids", but it seems unlikely that this Dantean deterrent will have much impact, although many of the advertising practitioners interviewed express at least some remorse about what they do.

Schor wants tougher regulation, although she concedes that this will be a difficult campaign, given the sizeable political donations made to both parties by the manufacturers most directly implicated. She encourages parents to follow her lead in restricting television watching, reassuring them that it is surprisingly painless and does not exclude children from playground conversation. She wants parents to take more responsibility for resisting consumer culture and for shielding children from it, although she is unwilling to let the advertisers themselves off the hook. She wants public space reclaimed for children, a proposal that could play well in her native Boston but may be harder in the Red States.

Ultimately, though, Schor concedes that individual sacrifices will be needed: we cannot restrict our children's television viewing without cutting back our own. But, as she says, if commercial culture is bad for children, it is hardly a boon for adults either: by protecting them, we might liberate ourselves.

Copyright (c) The Financial Times Limited 2007

"FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

Bill Totten


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