Tag Archive 'children'

Apr 18 2010

Purchasing Power: Social Inequality and Consumerism In America

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

In the book Purchasing Power, author/reporter Elizabeth Chin discusses the consumerism side of America and how it affects children who are part of the lower classes. In the case of Chin’s particular book (and research), the lower class consists of African Americans living in the Newhallville region of New Haven, Connecticut.

In chapter 1, Chin starts off by telling us that in July of 1992, she stayed in New Haven, Connecticut with two young girls, Asia and Natalia, and researched their consuming/buying habits. Her first (and very important) discovery was of the girls objecting to there being only a skinny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white Barbie doll and not one that’s “fat, pregnant, or abused.” This lead to her discussion about many of the other broad themes in the book: how consumerism affects and/or shapes inequality in America, how young children who are of the lower class tend to be more responsible, altruistic, and careful/frugal in their buying habits than those who are of the middle and/or upper class, and how, in the case of this book, middle class whites often mentally label African Americans as being criminally-minded and/or violent (even though many are not). In addition, Chin discusses the harmful and/or destructive effects that the latter attitudes by middle-upper class whites have on blacks (and other U.S. minorities as well).

In chapter 2, Chin discusses the practice of slavery in America and how the latter caused African Americans to be treated as commodities rather than human beings. She then discusses the various aspects of slavery including “conspicuous consumption” (where in which slaves would secretly take food, fish when they were supposed to be working, etc.), how the type and quality of clothes that people wore indicated whether they were free or enslaved, and how black slaves would often attempt to “pass” for white and/or free by wearing certain attires. Chin then finishes her chapter by discussing the various images of violence, crime, and drug use that become associated with “inner cities,” citing, as an example, a rather brutal case where two young boys were framed/accused of raping a young girl for her bike (when it was in fact an adult predator who did so).

In the next few chapters, Chin discusses the many consumerism-based situations that Natalia, Asia, and other children take part in. Chin explains that the chapter is called “What are you looking at, white people,” because one girl, Tionna, screamed that at a car with a white woman inside it passing by. Furthermore, Chin talks about how the suspicious attitudes that middle-upper class whites have towards the young girls in this book (being paranoid and assuming, because of their skin color and clothes, etc., that they are violent criminals, drug abusers, etc.) psychologically affect how they (and, at the same time, other poor minorities in the U.S. as well) behave: the girls act angrier and more confrontational when they believe that they are being perceived as too poor to buy goods (or, as being thieves), etc. Two important examples in these chapters that illustrate the above issue include one incident where Asia suspected that a cashier at Claire’s (a trendy uptown mall) assumed she was unable to pay for something (and so Asia later bought another item at that store, slammed a $50 bill on the counter, and cathartically exclaimed, “keep the change!”), and another incident, told by Deacon Rose (a woman in Natalie’s church/parish), where in which the respective woman protested a white saleswoman’s suggestion to buy a cheap, cotton dress instead of a fine, silky one. Chin also talks about the differences between the neighborhood store Bob’s and the public mall uptown that the children go to. When they shop at the former, the children feel comfortable, safe, and accepted, and the storeowner himself acts as a father figure of sorts for the local children. When they shop at the latter, however, the children feel like outsiders, and they feel like many of the people (middle-upper class whites) there don’t like them, don’t take them seriously as customers, and quietly don’t want them there. In fact, Chin talks about how the mall owners once redirected bus routes so that less African Americans from New Haven would arrive at that particular mall.

In chapter 5, Chin discusses several incidents of children shopping. In many of these incidents, the children, unlike those talked about in the book Born To Buy (who would scream, throw tantrums, demand toys, manipulate their parents, etc.), carefully and responsibly picked out goods. Many of the goods were the “basic” necessities, such as school supplies and clothes, and the children bought many goods as gifts for their families (including shoes for their mothers) or as commodities to share with their brothers, sisters, etc.

In chapter 6, Chin discusses “ethnically correct” dolls and the various effects (positive and negative) that they’ve had on the consumer market. While Mattel Shani Dolls, the African American alternative to the traditional Barbie Doll, were created in the late 1980s as a means of trying to equalize the social market, Chin states that by the early 1990s, toy companies seemed to prefer “profit [over] social change,” and, given the prices of the many dolls, many poor young minority children couldn’t afford to buy the “ethnically correct” dolls. Chin also talks about the “commodification of races” in these dolls, and most importantly, the connection that young girls make to hair on dolls– equating straight, blonde hair with whiteness and success (Chin also says that, at the same time, many young African American girls who own “white” dolls, ironically, tend to braid their hair instead of leaving it straight). In chapter 7, Chin recaps her experience studying the effects that marketing had on the young girls living in Newhallville, as well as, overall, how consumerism and social inequality/race in America are related.

On Tuesday April 13, our class discussed the book Purchasing Power and its various themes. As a presentation leader, I started the class off with a YouTube trailer of “Precious Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire” in order to spur a conversation about race, poverty, and social relations in inner city settings. Our class initially discussed economics serving as an equalizer for classes and the social gratification of buying goods, and then began talking about the dangers of consumption in inner-city settings (violence, gangs, drug use, etc.), citing the example in the book of Tenisha, a girl who used products to compensate for a poor self image. We then, however, realized that our conversation was heading in the wrong direction—talking about all of the stereotypes that Chin was trying to disprove, and our conversation made a 180-degree turn.

We then began to discuss the theme in the book of poor African Americans in the U.S. being unfairly associated with stereotypes/images of poverty, tendencies to rob, commit crimes, etc., and then talked about Chin’s argument that the latter social group of people only wish to be viewed as equals in the consumer market (as well as every other area of life as well). We talked about the “Joneses” that young black women (citing Gabore Sidibe’s character in “Precious”) try to keep up with— upper middle class white people on television and in the media. This particular conversation segued into us talking about the issue of “good [straight]” hair (especially on “white,” blue-eyed Barbie dolls), whiteness being associated with success and beauty, cosmetics that black women use to lighten their skin color and/or straighten their hair, and how the United States’ history of slavery, reparations, and “white guilt/beneficiaries” plays a role in the socially-driven racial tensions/inequalities of modern-day America. One person cited that despite legislature nowadays to assuage the inequalities that affected many African Americans, Native Americans, etc. in the country, there’s no way to “legislate the mind.” I finished the class by showing everybody a clip of Morgan Freeman describing why he doesn’t like Black History Month (because he doesn’t believe any group of people should have their culture/history relegated to a single month).

On the second day of class, we started by talking about how kids nowadays are introduced more to computers and multimedia before learning about creative play and fine motor skills (the latter of which is associated with physically writing on paper—something that computers in schools today now help diminish). We talked about how many poor young children don’t have access to computers, and, as discussed in Purchasing Power, how these respective groups of kids often can only purchase “basic” goods. We talked about how the magazine Seventeen really isn’t for seventeen year-olds (emphasizing the theme of age compression), dolls’ “ethnicities,” and how the stereotypes that are often associated with minorities psychologically encourage the latter groups of people to act in particular ways. To clarify the above theme, I noted in class that it’s like driving by a cop car on the highway and feeling like you’re committing a crime even when you’re not.

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Apr 09 2010

Born To Buy Part II

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

In the last few chapters of Born To Buy, author Juliet Schor recapitulates the various effects that marketing/advertising have on children and gives several suggestions on how our nation (and, more importantly, the advertising firms in it) can change its ways.

 In chapter 9, Schor starts off by referencing a 1974 act by the Federal Communication Commission to regulate commercials on television due to the vulnerable nature of children. She then discusses the diminishment of regulation that occurred in the following decade of the 1980s, school commercialization and junk food marketing, George Gerbner’s warning that “corporations were becoming our children’s ‘story-tellers’ and the transmitters of culture,” and the different groups that tried to oppose harmful, corporate commercialization towards children (including the Consumers Union, Center for the Analysis of Commercialization in Education, the Center for a New American Dream, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Education Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics). She then talks about the three defenses that corporations give when accused of “seeing children as little cash cows”: that they are empowering kids, boosting the economic health of the country, and they believe that parents are solely responsible for children’s exposure to media. Also, she mentions how the advertising messages aimed at children are “double-edged swords”—they entice kids with goods that supposedly help their self-esteem, but then again at the same time do the reverse, and “undermine [their] self-worth.” After that, she continues by debunking the marketer’s claim that parents are the only ones to blame (since advertisements are present everywhere and parents cannot actually be with their children 24/7), references the “path of dependency,” where in which she explains that corporations’ impacts on children today “affect [their] behavior tomorrow,” and finishes by saying that parents, children, and marketers all need to act differently.

            In chapter 10, after starting off by mentioning that media conglomerates have battled aggressively against grass-root reform groups, Schor gives several suggestions on how our nation can reverse the dangerous commercialization aimed at children and “[reconstruct] childhood.” First, she discusses how our nation needs to recognize that consumerism is a social activity, and, at least in terms of children, one that entails “Prisoner Dilemmas” (situations where in which people act on what they believe to be in their own, individual best interests, but collectively cause bad social outcomes in doing so). Second, she talks about how Congress should enact a legislation that restricts commercialization in public schools, since the latter “threatens fundamental principles of objectivity and knowledge in the classroom.” Third, after talking about social constructionism, and how children are being both separated from the “adult world” and treated as “autonomous, self-directing actors,” Schor gives three examples of resolutions that would “create a different culture—one that is safe, fun, and stimulating for children and adults alike”: returning to “slow food” (food that is organic, seasonal, and local) in schools, allowing children to produce their own news programs instead of relying on Channel One, and creating a safe outdoor world for children to return to (instead of letting them play video games, etc. inside). Lastly, she suggests that parents, overall, should keep their children separated from the corporate commercial world (especially television) as much as possible.

            In our class on Tuesday, we first watched Consuming Children Part 9, where in which people were discussing how children nowadays are engaging in more sedentary & passive, commercially-influenced activities than they did in the past (when healthy and creative/constructive playtime was more prevalent), and how the latter is detrimental to psychological, emotional, and cognitive development. After the video ended, the question remaining that we discussed was whether marketers or parents should be held responsible. I reasoned that, while parents do have a responsibility to regulate their children’s exposure to media, marketers clearly need to stop overwhelming parents with corporate messages and making their jobs as responsible caretakers & overseers more difficult. Advertising affects children (as well as everyone else) from all outlets of society, and if a little child doesn’t consume junk food, soft drinks, etc. in his house, he’ll/she’ll have to remained isolated there, because the moment he can find a friend with a parent who’s more liberally-minded, he’ll/she’ll try to go over there. However, as someone made a point of in class, if a child is kept entirely isolated from media and society, he’ll most likely turn out awkward and/or socially inept. We then continued our discussion by putting forth two broad questions: do marketers more value the economy or the welfare of human beings? And why has an issue of moral vs. immoral now turned into an issue conservative vs. liberal? After that, our class talked about the unhealthy foods that school cafeterias often feed children, how deregulation/privatization occurred in the Reagan-era 1980s, and we then watched two clips on YouTube: one, a trailer for the movie “Josie and the Pussycats,” and the other, a TV spot of “James Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’.” The latter concerned a West Virginia town (pervasively affected by childhood obesity, diabetes, and hypertension) that knowingly feeds its school children unhealthy foods (pizza, chicken nuggets, and French fries) for every meal.

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Apr 05 2010

Born To Buy: Children and Consumerism

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

In the book Born To Buy, author Julia Schor discusses the various insidious, opportunistic ways in which large, powerful advertising companies/firms target and market to young children, and how they try to indoctrinate them into a lifetime of mass, oftentimes unhealthy, consumerism.

She starts out her first chapter by talking about how children/kids are “conduits” (or links) between advertisers and parents, and how children are usually targeted first as the adoptive users of technology (for the reasons that they learn ideas fast, are more passionate about consumer goods/desires, and are brand-loyal). She discusses gender commercialization and how advertisers market violent video games to boys and sexual/bodacious, “glamorous” toys to girls, how the culture of consumerism in America has put a weak emphasis on teaching children to thrive socially, spiritually, and intellectually in the world (and, instead, has led to such troubling issues as obesity, ADD & ADHD, electronic addictions, drug abuse, bullying, and alienation/low self-esteem), and how advertisers often exploit the fears and pressures impressed upon young children. Schor talks about the illusion that adults have of viewing childhood as “innocent and sacred” (while, ironically, discussing the “disappearance of childhood”), the history of significant consumption in America (dating back to the 1870s), and the old gate keeper model of advertising, where in which the marketing of ads filter through parents before reaching children.

In her second and third chapter, she writes about several shocking advertising truths: that kids recognize logos by 18 months, ask for products by their brand names before their 2nd birthday, believe commercials have values by age 3, and ask for the latest fashions by age 6 or 7. She discusses the issue of tweening and/or age compression, and how advertisers continually market goods to children at younger and younger ages, how children often exert more control over their parents (concerning financial purchases and such) than the other way around, how the latter has earned American children the title of “The Influence Market” by advertisers, and how parents often dole out “guilt money” to children in exchange for not being able to spend enough time with them.  She also talks about the concept of Pester Power, the persistent, nagging & annoying method young children use to manipulate their parents into buying them goods, regular everyday goods such as shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, and vitamins that are sold to children as trans toys, the idea of anti-adultism, where in which marketers/firms such as Nickelodeon and Disney convince young children that adults are the boring, lifeless, “enemy” (and “products, rather than parents, are on their side”), and lastly, the three basic human “needs” that advertisers use to entice kids into asking their parents for various goods: the need to succeed, love, and sensory stimulation. In addition, Schor also talks about the slang terms used in the world of marketing and advertising: targets (whom ads are directed to), collateral (printed material), and intercepts (impromptu interviews with consumers).

In chapter 4, Schor talks about the video game POX, and how it became very popular through the advertising method of “viral infection.” She talks about how marketers who held brainstorming efforts with “alpha pups/kids” (or those who were considered “cool” among their peers/students) paid the children $30 each and encouraged them to “infect” other children with POX (tell them to buy the game). She talks about how Chicago became a hotbed for POX sales, since it is considered a bad-weathered city where young children tend to stay inside and play toys a lot more than elsewhere (and a city where in which toy stores are mostly located nearby homes), the “buzz” method that advertisers use to sell their goods (which, according to Schor, requires the five techniques of authenticity, advocacy, experiential messaging, fusion of strategies, and visibility/virality through overt and covert actions), the “under-the-radar” method that advertisers use (which entails product placements such as that of Reese’s found in the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and that of AOL found in the movie You’ve Got Mail), “real life product placement,” and references to goods used in such mediums as deejay songs.

In chapter 5, Schor talks about the arrival of Channel One advertising in schools in 1989 (and, subsequently, how advertisement in schools expanded greatly during the late 1990s), the corporation infiltration of “incentive programs,” or sponsors (such as General Mills Box Tops and Pizza Hut)  who’d agree to give students discounts or free products if they stopped at certain stores or collected a necessary number of coupons, into schools, and “pouring rights,” where in which school districts would sign exclusive contracts with soft drink companies and let them advertise in their schools (an issue which apparently drew scrutiny from various school system officials). Schor also mentions Sponsored Educational Materials (SEMs), former Youth Marketing International employee Roberta Nusim who worked for an advertising firm and referenced such latter SEMs as Campbell Soup, Gushers Wonders of the World, and Revlon being used in schools, and the issue of companies, such as PBS and Scholastic, having “wholesome haloreputations.

In chapter 6 Schor discusses how marketers actually survey children and research what types of goods/merchandise they desire. She starts off the chapter by talking about advertiser Mary Prescott, a “naturalistic,” ethnographic data-gatherer who interviewed 5-year old Caitlin in her house (with her mother’s consent) and observed the ways in which she acted. She then further discusses how the latter is an example of oftentimes exploitive, sneaky methods that marketers use to sell their goods and make money. She talks about how companies utilize such research methods as filming kids in their daily lives (playing with dolls/games, eating breakfast, and brushing their teeth, etc.), the “traditional” use of telephone, online, and written surveys, focus groups, and mall questionnaires, Neuromarketing (or ZMET), a method used by the BrightHouse Institute For Thought in Atlanta, G.A. where in which, as they are given MRIs, participants’ brain images are documented in accordance to pictures of various goods they’re shown, and school surveys in their work. Schor discusses how advertisers use “natural” (such as exclusive, in-house interviews with children, neuromarketing, etc.) vs. traditional methods of research since the former is more efficient, and how often times child surveys that marketers perform are bereft of any good ethics (citing an example of schools who require parents to sign off that children are not allowed to take part in market surveys, and how the absence of a signature would indicate implied consent). Schor also discusses drug use research done on “tweens,” and how the message of “just say no” by adults has not only been misconstrued to mean “don’t grow up,” but has also distracted children away from the more important message that drugs don’t help you form your “real self.”

In chapter 7, Schor discusses the issues of malnutrition, violence in the media, and drugs affecting children. She talks about processed foods being at the center of child consumerism culture, how marketers are consistently selling “sugary food, fatty food, fast food, and solid, liquid candy” to kids, and the methods of dual-messaging (appealing to both parents and children) and kid empowerment /anti-adultism that marketers use to maintain a loyal, buying consumer force. Another issue that Schor discusses in this chapter is how “innocuous” products such as sugar and caffeine are being used by children in a way that resembles adult drug use (the necessity to stay awake, remain motivated, etc.), and how companies often advertise goods like alcohol and tobacco to “underage” events such as rock concerts and baseball games.

In chapter 8, Schor talks about the results of two parallel surveys she conducted in the Boston area in 2001/2002 and 2003. Her Survey On Children, Media, and Consumer Culture, which was taken by approximately 300 children between the ages of 10 and 13 (between those ages, she discovered, kids tend to develop their own individual consumerism ideas/patterns), was first done in the suburban area of Droxley in the fall of 2001/winter of 2002. The second was done in a mostly black and Latino-populated urban region of Boston in the spring of 2003. Overall, her results seemed to yield that, despite the differences between charts, materialism generally tended to be associated with low self-esteem, depression, bad parental relations, obesity, drug use/drinking, and antisocial behavior.

In class on Tuesday, the first, and most important, comment that someone made was that, while in the past the “Joneses” were people’s next-door neighbors, nowadays, the “Joneses” are TV characters, and that’s what greatly influences children’s consumerism habits. There is a prevailing message in the media that if kids don’t have certain goods, they won’t be happy or cool, and, as not only one student but also the book suggested, that has undoubtedly led to an increase in depression, ADD & ADHD, food sensitivity, obesity, and other afflictions of the sort in children. One of the main discussions we had was why certain parents buy their children toys in a store when the child throws a loud, disruptive temper tantrum in that store: do they do so just to get out of the place and not feel embarrassed? Do they feel like a bad parent if they don’t? And why do they reward bad behavior? Are they in control of their kids or vice versa? Someone also mentioned that another effect of advertisers on children nowadays (or, children who are now young adults) is the “entitlement” syndrome, where in which people who’ve been pampered throughout their childhood are shocked that they might not have a hot car, a snazzy apartment, etc. after college (and rely heavily on their parents), and that a sense of reward-based versus merit-based work has developed in America in the past few decades. We discussed the issue of parents being permissive enablers, viewing children as extensions of themselves (and thus, possibly for that reason, indulging their kids with all the goods, toys, etc. they want), the issue of age compression, and how sexualized Barbie dolls sold to young girls are, and the difference between unstructured and over-scheduled American children. On Thursday, we watched various clips, including a trailer for Mean Girls, which helped initiate a discussion on the problem of the “alpha girl” in schools, a Tonka toys commercial, which concerned gender-specific toys, and “Desperate Housewives” snippets where in which children were in more control of their parents then vice versa. On the matter of gender specification, we talked about how children not only are given these messages by marketers, but learn a great deal from their peers. However, it’s not terribly odd if a three year old boy dresses up in girl clothes (or plays with dolls). The overall question of the book and our discussions still remains: should advertisers market goods to people who don’t have the faculties of mind to understand that which they’re being sold? Or is that unethical?


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