Our Brand-Name Children

Does your two year old recognize McDonald’s? Does your three year old want Sponge Bob underpants? Does your  six year old insist on Nike sneakers? Does your teen  refuse to wear anything but Abercrombie and Fitch clothing?

There is a disturbing truth at the heart of these  questions. By as young as two years old, many of our kids  are asking for specific brands. Many kids know the name  “Macdonald’s” before they know a name for a vegetable! The  marketing world loves it. They continue to reach farther  and farther into our kids’ world for every marketing angle  they can get, with new ones being invented all the time.  Even video games, for example, now come with products  marketed within the game. In Madden 2005, a football game,  fans drop bags of Doritos as they reach for a ball thrown  into the stands – a not-so-subtle advertisement for a not-so-healthy food.

But our kids live in this culture of buy, get and  receive. What’s the harm? Unfortunately, there is clear  harm. In this era of childhood obesity, literally billions  of dollars are being spent on hooking our kids on unhealthy  foods. Moreover, there is persuasive evidence that the more  children are tied into brand names and our consumer culture  the more likely they are to experience anxiety and  depression during and after their teen years.

I once saw Juliet Schor, an acclaimed sociologist from  Boston College who has researched what she calls “the  commercialized child and the new consumer culture,” speak  to a group of parents. In her most recent book, Born to  Buy, Schor examines the nature of the marketing world and  illustrates how advertisers will accept no limits when it  comes to coercing our children. In her talk she focused on  the negative effects over-commercialization on our  children’s mental health. Dr. Schor is the professor who  found from her research that our children are more likely  to become depressed the more tied in with the consumer  culture they are.

Dr. Schor went to great lengths to show us how the  marketers are using our children to affect all family  purchases from food to cars. It is not enough for marketers  to convince children to buy toys, now companies use  children to influence adult purchases as well.

The advertising industry has created a culture for our  youth that is not terribly healthy even viewed on the macro  scale. “Urban Cool” was chosen by marketers as the theme to  market to kids. Some products such as make-up and sexy  underwear are purchased and used at younger ages today  because marketing groups pushed down the age to which they  were cool and accepted. Some marketing is aligned with an  anti-adult theme. And “nag factor” and “pester power” are  now entwined in advertising lingo referring to how they can  use children to get to the parents. Is this scary to you?  It is to me.

What can parents do? We cannot possibly disassociate  ourselves from all consumer activity. Let’s face it we will  always need to buy food and supplies for our household.  However, I think there is a way to shelter our children  from the pressures advertising firms bear onto our family  life. My wife and I rarely bring our children shopping. We  throw away all store flyers that arrive at the house. We  recycle mail order catalogs before a page is turned. And,  of course, we minimize the exposure to the barrage of  advertising, we receive through electronic media and TV. It  is amazing how this reduces the calls of “mom, I need  this!”.

Part of the message from Juliet Schor is that our culture is being taken away and replaced by a consumer  culture. We can fight this culture war in other ways  according to Dr. Schor. Bring back family dinners. Take  back the outdoors. Discredit brand names. They are made by  underpaid laborers and overpriced for what they are. Be a  non-brand name family. Communicate with and enjoy the  company of like-minded families. Cook great meals and enjoy  good conversation. Have healthy hobbies and habits. All  these actions take culture back into your hands. You are  doing what you want rather than living a life being coaxed  into buying things you really don’t want or need. And by  all means possible, volunteer and help those who are less  fortunate then you are. Do this in all seasons- not just at Christmas and involve your children. You will be amazed at  the perspective this builds in them. Battling this culture  is a lifelong fight. But it may be a worthy one for you and  your family.