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Born to Buy? Media and the Making of the Child as Consumer. Lansdowne Co-operative Preschool Presentation January 15, 2013 David Black, Ph.D. Associate Professor, School of Communication and Culture, RRU. The story of “ Kidpower ”.

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born to buy media and the making of the child as consumer

Born to Buy? Media and the Making of the Child as Consumer

Lansdowne Co-operative Preschool


January 15, 2013

David Black, Ph.D.

Associate Professor,

School of Communication and Culture, RRU

the story of kidpower
The story of “Kidpower”
  • The Kidpower conference is the largest conference relating to marketing to children, tweens and teens in North America
  • Kidpower is organized by a global conference hosting consortium known as the International Quality and Productivity Center (IQPC)
  • IQPC also happens to organize the following other annual conferences among the 2000 they host annually on six continents:
  • ArmorCon: The Military Armor Conference
  • Military Flight Training
  • The Call Center Summit
  • Biometrics for National Security and Law Enforcement
  • Electronic Warfare
  • We can evaluate the ethical complexity of marketing to children by the company it keeps
some guidelines for the presentation
Some guidelines for the presentation
  • Not going to bury the topic in facts and statistics
  • Not going to offer a talk on the “evils” of consumer culture, nor moralize on the issue of children and consumerism
  • Not going to blame parents or children
  • Want to address underlying patterns behind the socialization of children as consumers, not re-state the obvious
  • Recognize that it’s an imperfect world, and that the lives of children have never been idyllic
  • Want to offer analysis from some of the best scholarly sources on this topic
  • Want to offer some realistic solutions for you to use at home
why the making of the child as a consumer
Why the making of the child as a consumer?
  • As the history of childhood suggests, what we know as childhood and children is a changeable thing subject to the conditions of the times in which children and parents live
  • The central achievement of consumer culture as regards childhood is the work of socializing the child as a lifelong consumer
  • Consumer culture confronts us with an uncomfortable and uncanny reality where adult strangers, unknown to a child’s parents, through ads and other consumer messages directly address children about their values, their aspirations, and their identities
  • Where parents would be alarmed if a strange adult showed up on a playground and talked to our kids in this way, we have become so accustomed to consumer culture’s relationship with children that the nature and scope of its influence can escape our attention
  • Thus one of the central imperatives of parenthood – to offer a safe environment and positive influences as our children develop physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially into more fully realized adult beings – is increasingly the purview of consumer culture
  • The dysfunctional relationship with consumer culture we have as adults (overspending, materialism, workaholism, chronic dissatisfaction) can start in childhood, paralleling what we know of childhood obesity and smoking
  • We recognize in this premise that consumption is not a personal issue, but a social phenomenon that changes everyone and everything children interact with
a short history of childhood
A short history of childhood
  • While the biological fact of childhood is a constant in human history, the cultural construction of childhood is highly variable

Medieval childhood: fluid boundaries despite recognition of children as people

  • While children were recognized as a separate class of people, boundaries between childhood and adulthood were fluid
  • This ambiguity owed to factors like early marriage and short lifespans for peasants, the absence of formal schooling for peasant children, and because peasant children worked from an early age for their families

18th century childhood: the origins of childhood innocence

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Emile establishes the idea of childhood as a period of innocence free from adult cares, and argues for the importance of education for all children

Victorian childhood: a childhood for the middle class

  • In the face of extensive child labour in the Industrial Revolution, the Victorians seek to institutionalize childhood as a separate culture with its own values, spaces and aesthetic available to middle class

20th century childhood: democratization of family and of childhood

  • With compulsory schooling and labour laws, a culture of childhood is extended from the middle class to all children
  • Peer culture becomes a larger part of children’s lives with daycare, universal primary education, and team sports
  • Women enter the workforce in larger numbers, meaning childcare is shared with father, but that supervision is also more porous
  • Childhood is now as formally separated from adulthood spatially, economically and culturally, as it ever was

21st century childhood: a consumer childhood

  • This will be explored in the presentation
four patterns that are creating the 21 st century consumer childhood
Four patterns that are creating the 21st century “consumer” childhood
  • Consumer culture changes the structure of childhood.
  • Consumer culture changes the culture of childhood.
  • Consumer culture negatively affects the development of children.
  • Consumer culture negatively affects the nature of children’s play.
1 consumer culture changes the structure of childhood
1. Consumer culture changes the structure of childhood.
  • Television and the Internet are “total disclosure” media, in that they reveal the adult world to children before children are ready for it
  • We define demographic categories in terms of the knowledge each holds: blue collar versus white collar, women versus men, children and adult
  • Moving between categories normally involves rites of passage and periods of formal transition, e.g., post-secondary education before starting a career, an engagement before getting married
  • By revealing the adult world to children who access prime-time programming on TV or surf the Internet, children learn of and imitate the forms of adulthood without really understanding its context or meaning and without the benefits of a transitional period
  • Children are not just exposed to sex and violence in adult programs, but to the weaknesses and foibles of adults at a time when they are simultaneously dependent on adults and need to trust in adult authority
  • 21st century consumer childhood is thus closing the gap between adulthood and childhood that was at its widest only as recently as the mid-20th century
2 consumer culture changes the culture of childhood
2. Consumer culture changes the culture of childhood.
  • Until the 1950s, parenting styles tended to be paternalistic and authoritarian, favouring a “Father Knows Best” approach in which the child’s dependent status was clear
  • The development of more progressive parenting styles in the later 20th century treated the child as a relatively autonomous being capable of making his or her own choices
  • The changes in society that saw women participating in the workforce more, and both parents increasingly short of time given the demands of life and work, have left children with less time with their parents
  • The changes in society that have seen urban parents more fearful for their children’s safety means that children’s lives are more scheduled, and that children are kept inside rather than allowed to play outdoors without supervision
  • While these changes are often positive on their own terms, they are also conducive to a larger role for consumer culture in children’s lives
  • Advertisers appeal to the choice-making power of kids, inviting them to express their autonomy by making consumer purchases
  • Media with consumer messages has greater access to children given that parents are at work and less able to monitor children’s media use
  • Children who are inside are more likely to watch TV, surf Internet, play video games
  • Advertisers exploit the guilt that busy parents feel about not spending enough time with kids by encouraging “compensation” through consumption
3 consumer culture negatively affects the development of children
3. Consumer culture negatively affects the development of children.
  • Consumer culture has fabricated a parallel childhood for children, one that monopolizes their time, energy and development
  • North American children watch 40,000 ads on TV per year
  • Children make 3,000 requests for products and services per year
  • By 18 months of age, infants can recognize logos
  • By age 2, children ask for products by their brand name
  • By age 3.5 years, children associate products with special qualities, e.g., popularity, family, strength
  • Increased presence of consumer culture in children’s lives correlates with the following unwelcome results:
  • Obesity
  • Mental illness (depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy)
  • Eating disorders
  • Lack of understanding of money
  • Selfishness and competition with other children for branded good, and disdain for those without such goods
  • Less time reading, more exposure to electronic media
  • Poorer performance in school
  • Children are now growing up in a sexualized environment, one largely created through media and popular culture, which projects images and communicates ideas about their sexuality in advance of the children’s actual psychological and physical development
  • This sexualized environment identifies children, tweens and teens as sexually available to adults, and encourages children in turn to imitate adults in how they dress and behave
  • But the problem with sex as it is manifested in media and popular culture not so much a moral problem -- though it is morally shocking -- as it is far more about commodification, objectification, and the fabrication of an artificial consumable sexuality
  • That is, this sexualization of children is the inevitable result of closing the gap between children and adulthood, removing parents from the picture, and appealing to the choice-making power of children
  • Consider the Toddlers and Tiaras reality show, and how thoroughly consumerism and sexualized images are combined there
4 consumer culture negatively affects the nature of children s play
4. Consumer culture negatively affects the nature of children’s play.
  • It’s in play that children explore the world, take on adult roles, test their limits, learn to cooperate with others, and liberate their imaginations
  • In the early 20th century, play was interpreted as a carefree place where children could develop themselves emotionally and intellectually, e.g., playing “house,” tag and “kick the can,” pick-up games of hockey and baseball
  • This is known as “pure play,” and it’s characterized as play that is socially spontaneous, participatory, and creative
  • Later in the 20th century, play becomes commodified, and the imaginative activity of children becomes a branch of industry
  • Such “commodified play” is managed, purchased, passive, and integrated within marketing strategies and consumer culture
  • Children are subject to progressively greater control as the parameters of play are defined by marketing strategies, brand extensions, and gateways to deeper involvement with a branded character and its playworld
  • Children find themselves at the receiving end of complex technological systems driven by market forces, sensational advertising, and the attrition of the human benefits play once conferred
  • The natural curiosity of children is redirected into a curiosity about consumer products, and the role that play has in encouraging their healthy development is trespassed upon
summary what are the central features of this 21 st century consumer childhood
Summary:What are the central features of this 21st century “consumer” childhood?
  • Beyond the gatekeeper model: Advertisers speak directly to children, allying themselves with kids against parents; this comes at the expense of the adult gatekeeper role that ads recognized until the 1980s
  • Anti-adultism:Adults are depicted as stupid, uncool, and contemptible, displacing adult authority and replacing it with advertiser influence
  • Blurring of advertising and program content: Advertorial strategies and product placement in children’s TV, Internet, books, celebrities, and video games, exploiting difficulty young children have in distinguishing ads from program content; shopping is treated as a recreational activity
  • The branding of playworlds and children’s spaces: Children’s playworlds and product design and advertising are merged, injecting consumer messages and marketing strategy directly into formative nature of play. Ads cover the public and virtual spaces that children inhabit.
  • Ads and the cool kids: Cool-hunting’s exploitation of peer culture by putting new products in hands of popular children, or studying cultural innovations in the playground or street and converting those into products
  • The rise of the “tween”: Creation of the “tween” demographic category (grade 1 to age 12), which shortens childhood by compressing it with adolescence and bringing teenage style, attitude, and themes into childhood
  • The evolution of “pester power”: Children use leverage or “nagging” over parents to influence purchase of adult goods, turning children into salespeople for products and into conduits for advertisers into family purchasing decisions, e,g., 67% of car purchases by adults are influenced by children
practical things you can do with and for your children
Practical things you can do with and for your children
  • Model a better relationship with consumer culture and the material world as adults. Be an example to your kids. Highly materialist kids often have highly materialist parents.
  • Ensure that schools and playspaces are ad-free. Give children a significant space in their lives free of ads.
  • When you go shopping with your kids, turn it into a teachable moment. Educate yourself in consumer and media literacy, and show your children what they’re missing.
  • Limit screen time at home. Screens are the advertisers’ primary conduit to your children. If at all possible, get children outside. When inside, discuss ads and branded TV programming for children with them.
  • Encourage the use of toys and games that are not part of branded play worlds.
sources used and other relevant materials
Sources used and other relevant materials

Juliet Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.

Stephen Kline. Out of the Garden: Toys, Television, and Children’s Culture.

Neil Postman. The Disappearance of Childhood.

David Buckingham. The Material Child: Growing up in Consumer Culture.

Ellen Seiter. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture.

Jean Kilbourne. So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

Susan Linn. Consuming Kids: Protecting our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising.

Susan Gregory Thomas. Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds.

Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn. Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming Our Children for Profit.

Alison Pugh. Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture.