Saturday, February 04, 2006

Little Consumers

Thanks to all the parents who responded when I asked about green parenting. It's a dilemma I respect. I have a difficult enough time being conscious of my own actions and choices, and modelling my behavior in little bursts, like writing this blog, or interacting with others in some social setting. But if a child were right there, seeing everything I say and do (for the most part), and learning how to function in the world primarily through my behavior? Sounds daunting, even without trying to compete for my child's attention with multi-billion dollar corporations that have no mercy or conscience.

I just finished Juliet Schor's Born to Buy. I confess that I could hardly put it down. It's very disturbing, very scientific. I knew corporations were advertising to children (see Lucy Hughes' description of her study on the use of nagging as a marketing tool in The Corporation), but I didn't know the lengths to which they would go, and how many psychologists and researchers are employed full-time to help companies figure out how to get into the minds and hearts and pockets of children. Not just on TV and on the internet but in school ... not just big overlit vending machines, but brand names strategically placed into textbooks, corporate donations to schools in return for advertising or access to students' opinions, "news" programs that run each morning and promote junk food and other unhealthy products.

There's a lot to the book ... here's a few things that threw me:
  • At one conference for marketers to children that Schor attended, The Gepetto Group created a simulated safari video entitled The Nature of Kids which depicted children "slinking through the jungle on all fours, guzzling soda and eating toaster pop-ups, speaking their own commercially inspired lingo." The hunter/narrator was Gepetto the research firm, able to hunt and capture (read: brand and sell to) these elusive creatures. Workshop titles at conferences of this nature included "Emotional Branding: Maximizing the Appeal of Your Brand to Hispanic Youth" and "Purchasing Power: Capturing Your Share of the Tween Wallet."
  • The number of corporations with the corner on the children's market is suprisingly small, leaving the real decisions about the direction of children's advertising in the hands of a privileged few. Four corporations dominate the media market: Disney, Viacom (owns MTV, Nickelodeon), News Corp (owns Fox), and AOL Time Warner (owns WB, Cartoon Network, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and DC Comics). Mattel and Hasbro own virtually all the big names in children's toys, including Playskool, Fisher Price, Tyco, and many more. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have cornered the video game market. It's the same for all the food categories ... candy, soft drinks, fast food, cereals. They're all dominated and controlled by a few huge companies, who in turn must dominate and control how children are shaped as consumers, in order to guarantee present and future revenue.
  • In the late 70's, the Federal Trade Commission determined from its own investigation that children's advertising was destructive and unhealthy, and advocated a ban on advertising sugared products to kids, as well as an end to commercials aimed at children under eight. But legislation of this sort today would be doomed before it was ever conceived, since the media and food corporations wield so much political clout with both parties. Clearly, the culture change needs to come from within, not without. If we wait for business, industry, and government to make children's health and well-being a priority, we'll be waiting a long time, probably forever.
  • Here's a quote from a researcher working specifically on marketing to children: "We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things. It's not worth the almighty buck. ... at the end of the day, my job is to get people to buy things. ... It's a horrible thing and I know it."
Schor describes one marketing tool (part of the new trend aptly called "viral marketing"), which gets kids to use their friends for gaining information or selling products. The Girls' Intelligence Agency (GIA) recruits girls from ages 8-14 or so, whom the company has determined to be "alpha" girls, or "influencers" ... meaning, these girls seem to have a powerful effect on their peers in determining what is cool. Alpha Girl has to hold a party with ten or eleven other girls, using a kit called "Slumber Party in a Box," which contains featured toys, films, TV shows, health and beauty aids, directions to websites, or whatever relates to the product of the client. Alpha Girl collects information about what her friends are in to, talking about, wearing, etc. To the girls selected for these "missions," the company suggests being "sneaky" about attaining information, implying that being an official GIA Agent means inclusion in an elite, secret group, with the inside scoop on fashion and gossip. You can look at the GIA site for girls here. The site was even creepier than I had imagined. In one section they list "agent quizzes" for kids visiting the site, or for members of GIA. They include stuff like this:

What are the new slangs for the year: Hook us up and leave a defintion (sic) for each word and how we should use it!!!

and ...

New fragrance of the year?
a) New Tommy Hillfiger with Bionce called True Star Gold
b) Britney Spears Stella
c) Live Jennifer Lopez
d) Curve by Estee Lauder
e) Children Fusion by Fantasy

What is going to be your new hair style?
a) short and sweet
b) long and wavy
c) shoulder length and messy
d) funky cut with bed head products
e) layers
f) same

... and one "quiz" entitled "Are You a Net Nerd?", which as far as I can tell just aims to determine the video capabilities of the child's computer.

Schor talks a lot in the book about marketing themes used to appeal to kids ... one is "anti-adultism," protraying adults as fools, or boring, or strict authoritarians against whose rule kids must prevail. And naturally, how better to prevail than a pizza roll, or a sugared juice drink, or a video game? To me, it all sounds destructive of the fundamental respect we strive to have for each other, adults and kids alike.

I've been looking more critically since I read this book at the amount of marketing to children, and the messages conveyed. The defenders of children's advertising suggest that we are "empowering" children with these messages. Schor's own research, along with most of the other research she explored, suggests otherwise, and she offers ideas about what we can do individually and what our communities and leaders should be doing. Obesity and other eating disorders, early sexual activity, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints ... they are all linked to the destructive effects of consumer culture. The typical American work-and-spend aspirations are not positive for our children.


At 10:00 AM, Blogger veloandy said...

Excellent and fascinating post! I'm totally interested in reading born to buy. I hope I can get it on inter-library loan from Denver.

The GIA stuff is so creepy. I can't believe that something like this exists!

At 12:31 PM, Blogger SustainableGirl said...

Thank you for your comments. The whole system is indeed creepy!!! It all gets creepier the more I watch commercials on television with a more informed eye. Born to Buy has changed the way I look at marketing, to adults and children alike. I hope you get a chance to read it.


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