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.