Conspicuous Little Consumers
Juliet Schor’s latest book, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, represents the culmination of many things: her training as an economist and sociologist, her ongoing analysis of consumer culture in previous books (The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer), and her own experience as a mother. Born to Buy examines the increased involvement of children in consumer culture, specifically as targets of advertising, and the resulting effect on their well-being. Schor balances her well-researched presentation of rather alarming data with a voice that is not alarmist, but practical, informative, and readable.
In many ways her conclusion comes as no surprise. Readers may be surprised, however, by her data—namely, the sheer volume of marketing to which children are exposed. According to Schor, the advertising industry spent $100 million on marketing to children in 1983; by 2004 that amount had increased to $15 billion. Advertisements saturate television, radio, and print media. More disturbing, however, is the extent to which marketers have infiltrated schools, the Internet, airplanes, restrooms, and essentially every other public space available. These ads are the product of some of the finest anthropological research and creative thinking in the marketing business. Techniques such as anti-adultism, which pits children against adults in the struggle for marketed goods, and age compression, which targets children of younger and younger ages, combine with all the traditionally manipulative advertising techniques to create a culture in which children do not merely consume, but also find their identity in consumption.
The effect on children’s psychological, physical, and social health is, predictably, deplorable. Schor notes the dramatic increase in incidences of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, obesity, and psychosomatic disorders.
With their characteristically underestimated precociousness, children are not wholly unaware of this trend. Before I spoke with Juliet Schor, I ate lunch with children at the school where I teach. I explained to them that I was interviewing a woman who had written a book saying that children today saw more commercials than ever before. I asked them if they thought it was true.
“Well, yeah,” they shrugged. “They’re everywhere on the television and the computer.” They went back to their lunch: chips in flashy containers, yogurt with movie characters on the package, and sweets upon sweets.
Texas Observer: What is it, compared to children’s advertising in the past or to adult advertising, that makes marketing to children so dangerous now?
Juliet Schor: Well, there’s the volume. The sort or extent of media and ad exposure has increased enormously, along with the amount of stuff that kids have. It’s taking over a greater and greater volume of kids’ time use, activities, mental space, and physical space. It’s the shift towards getting into very basic processes of identity and social connection and esteem, which is new.
TO: Who is responsible for regulating this marketing phenomenon?
JS: A lot depends on the ad. If it’s going on television, the network has an office within it. There’s a so-called self-regulation, a set of industry guidelines that companies say they adhere to, but in fact compliance is not that great and there’s a very limited apparatus for enforcement of those guidelines. In any case, they’re not binding. I saw a study from the CARU, Children’s Advertising Review Unit, which is part of the Better Business Bureau, showing that CARU claims they have 97 percent compliance, which is bogus. There are no penalties for not complying, the companies say they’re complying and they’re not. Sham may be too strong a word, but there are some sham aspects to it, particularly recently when you’ve had a lot of changing practices and a lot of competition in the industry. Television ads are the most regulated part of [children’s advertising]. When you start getting out of TV, although CARU is nominally covering it, it has a small staff, and the volume of kids’ ads is enormous. They basically are reacting to complaints that are brought to them. But there are not that many complaints because there’s no formal body that’s reviewing all these ads.
TO: Can consumers make those complaints?
JS: Yes, yes. You can also complain directly to the companies, and I think that’s something to really push with your readership. When the public gets involved and complains we see a lot of cases where we’re getting companies’ response.
TO: You describe general guidelines. With toys they have to show the toys in realistic settings for a certain amount of time in the commercial. This cuts down on overt exaggerations—they can’t advertise a costume cape and show a kid flying because that can’t actually happen. But does this standard in some way make advertisements more insidious? If an ad has to be believable to a certain extent, does that make the message subtler and more manipulative?
JS: I think it really depends. For the little kids, I think that those flashy claims are really powerful, but for the older kids that won’t work. They know that you can’t fly just because you put a cape on. I think the point is that the whole regulatory system is responding to the techniques of yesteryear, which were to show products doing miraculous things they can’t do to try and get kids to want them. That’s not the way advertising is done today. Today, we see the rise of symbolic messaging, which means it’s less about the product than about the social meaning and the symbolism of the product. So, you say: This product makes you cool. Now, I think a good case could be made to CARU and the companies that that’s magical thinking, that’s fantasy, but they haven’t interpreted it that way. They interpret it in such a narrow and strict way. But the symbolic messages I would say are more powerful than the messages which are about “Wow, look. This product can do this amazing stuff!”
TO: So the method is: This cape, sure it won’t actually make you fly, but it will make you happy –that’s just as fantastical, really.
JS: It’s a really important point, which hasn’t really come out in the debates the way it needs to.
TO: And yet, the industry asserts that they empower kids through marketing. What is their basic argument for why what they do is beneficial to kids, or at least not harmful?
JS: Actually there are a lot who are unhappy and uneasy with what they’re doing. That came out of my own research and also in a survey that was done of kids’ marketers in which many of them expressed reservations, although they mostly pointed at other people—”My colleagues, they’re the problem,” and so forth. The major line of defense is “We need to make money.” In some way this goes without saying, but it should be said because what it shows is a pernicious and instrumental relationship to kids. Now, their two other biggest lines of defense are, [firstly], that the problems are really coming from parents—but this is kind of an incoherent argument. I mean let’s say junk food: It doesn’t let you off the hook to be pushing it just because you can also point to another actor in the chain of events who is doing something wrong. The idea that they are empowering kids is a more complex one, and a more defensible one in the following sense: The idea that kids should get to be consumers, that they should have commercials and products oriented to them and that they like—all of those things I agree with. One of my marketer informants said to me in a discussion of all this research, “Well, do you think it would be better if we made products that kids didn’t want or like?” My answer to that is no; but it’s easy to get kids to want stuff that’s not good for them and you need a balance between that empowerment and the messages and products [themselves] and I think that balance is missing.
TO: As a teacher—and in your case as a parent—I agree it is important to give kids autonomy and choices, but at the same time they’re kids, and they’re not making choices with the same resources we have available to us.
JS: There are people who argue you shouldn’t do any advertising to kids because they have a hard time processing and resisting it. They aren’t really up to it in some pretty fundamental way. I think that’s a reasonable point of view. It partly depends on the age you’re talking about. What’s curious is in the survey that was done of marketers that I mentioned earlier, most of the marketers didn’t differ too much from the child psychologists on when they thought kids could really resist the persuasive intent of advertising; the marketers say 11-and-a-half years and the child psychologists say 12 years. So one question is whether you think there should be a sort of fairness as law. The two key principles of advertising law are deceptiveness and fairness. Well, they’re violating deceptiveness all the time. That’s become a huge business, deceptive advertising, whether we’re talking product placement or word of mouth advertising, stealth advertising in school, or curricula advertising. The second question: Is it fair to advertise to kids, do they have the ability to withstand the pull of the advertisement? The research suggests that kids below 12 have limited abilities to do that and the younger you get the more limited and impaired they are in understanding what an ad is and [its] purpose. That’s a huge issue that the industry refuses to confront. When it says we’re just empowering kids, it’s making that argument in the face of a significant body of scholarly literature that casts doubt on the basic enterprise.
TO: And yet, as they claim, they can’t be held entirely responsible. One marketing technique is to respond to kids’ stress—how is it that other adults, including parents and teachers, help unwittingly create a situation in which kids are vulnerable to advertising messages?
JS: Well, I’m not sure we understand all the aspects of childhood stress today, but certainly adults have set up the institutions and practices that children exist in to a large extent. One thing that seems like a part of it to me is the very high expectations placed on kids for achievement in many different arenas; I think also just the way they’re being brought up.
There’s something about the way kids are living today that’s leading to much higher levels of stress. Whatever it is, it’s something about the way we have constructed the world; it’s not a natural fact. Stress levels have gone up so much—it’s not just part of the human condition.
TO: We all grow up with negative outside influences, no matter what they are, and yet if we’re lucky, at some point we become self aware and discerning enough to sort through them. Considering that we can’t totally censor everything kids are exposed to, how is it that we can help give them the tools to process consumer culture so that ultimately they can be happy and healthy, despite everything that’s around them?
JS: What I’ve tried to do in my own life is de-commercialize the household. I think that’s a really key part of it. Turning off the TV and other media is key. Secondly, diet: not eating junk food, so you’re cooking tasty, nutritious food. Eating together as a family, having a strong family life is important. And the third thing I talk about is reclaiming the outdoors for kids. If kids have to be indoors it’s very difficult to limit the media exposure. Especially with the young ones where you just need too much adult time. One of the big differences between the way kids are growing up today and the way generations in the past did is that, in the past, kids had more access to the outdoors on their own. And that’s really key. It allows them to create peer networks, to interact with each other, to have independence—all of those things that are necessary for growing up to be a good and healthy person. There isn’t a magic answer to it, but basically you create a good healthy environment for the whole family. And then try to do the same thing in your schools and other institutions.
Observer intern Kelly Sharp is also a pilot, nanny, writer, and teacher at the Sri Atmananda Memorial School in Austin.