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 halo” reputations.
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?