November 5, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 5
A Generation 'Born to Buy'?
Sociologist Juliet Schor sees danger in children's budding consumerism
What does the author of a best-selling book on the overwhelming influence of media marketing on children put on her own kids' birthday and holiday gift lists?
Prof. Juliet Schor (Sociology), whose book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, has become must reading for parents concerned with the mushrooming consumerism forced on the current generation of American children, says she'll steer clear of trendy clothes and the new crop of action toys in favor of her 13- and 9-year-olds' favorite books - and maybe add some cash for them to save for something on their own special "wish list."
Schor's interest in youth consumerism grew from her own parental concern as well as her scholarly research. "There has been a big thing happening in the consumer marketplace," she said, "a definite shift toward youth orientation and a shift of adult brands toward a youthful strategy.
"This is where you get some of those seemingly crazy things like car marketing directed to kids or hotels or vacation destinations being marketed on Nickelodeon."
Schor's book, based on a study of 300 fifth- and sixth-graders in the Boston area, suggests that such advertising is creating a young generation with high materialistic values as well as the notion that owning certain products brings a sense of self-esteem.
Schor will speak about these and other issues raised in Born to Buy as part of the "Writers Among Us" series on Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101. "Writers Among Us," sponsored by Boston College Magazine and the BC Bookstore, features BC faculty authors discussing their recent books. Admission is free.
Born to Buy has been featured on NBC-TV's "Today Show," as well as in Time, Money Magazine, US News & World Report, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and many other national publications and broadcast outlets. Schor will appear on a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" episode to be aired prior to the holiday season.
In addition to the "influence marketing" of products and services, Schor says marketers are guilty of "age compression" in their consumer strategies.
"Age compression specifically involves taking products that were previously considered to be for adults and marketing them to kids," she says. "It's about marketing such things as makeup for young girls or violent toys for young boys - the idea that 'kids are getting older at an earlier age.'
These tend to be more expensive products in many cases," Schor notes. "Look at the rise of designer fashions for the very young - you have six-, seven- and eight-year olds needing to have the 'big' names like Armani, Burberry and Gucci."
Schor says her book has caused both marketers and parents to take notice of this disturbing trend. "There was a survey done after it came out of professionals in the field of children's marketing - people who set the ages at which it is appropriate to do various things in marketing to children.
"It wasn't all that different from what the child development experts had said," said Schor. "The marketers don't think that before age 12 a child is capable of making intelligent consumer decisions.
"However, they are marketing to them from age one. There hasn't been a mechanism or a forum for the marketers to step back and say, 'Hold on, we've crossed some lines here and things have gotten out of hand.' They are saying that to me, but they are not cleaning up their act."
Parents are likewise feeling uneasy about some of the youth consumer facts revealed in the book. "My research shows that the more children are exposed to that kind of media, the more consumerist they become and the more likely they are to become depressed, anxious and develop low self-esteem. I think that there is no question that kids in the US have way too much screen time.
"Children need to get outside more," she said. "They need to be more physically active. They need to be reading more. They need to be involved in more creative activities.
"I think parents sense a serious problem. I would say that the biggest challenge for me is to convince people that you can actually do something, even in a world where these things are so pervasive, where the parent is up against the fact that 'other kids are watching TV' and 'they are all getting designer clothes.'
"I am hearing from parents who have a similar perspective to mine that this is a toxic culture that McDonald's and Disney and Viacom and Coca-Cola are creating or have created for kids," she said. "We don't have to give our kids over to those mega-corporations who are not interested in their welfare."
But it is not an easy battle, Schor concedes, even in her own home. "We have a television, but our children have been raised basically television-free.
"One of the jokes in our family was that one of the relatives gave a 12-volume set of Sesame Street books to our son when he was a baby. He loved them, but we used to say 'Wait until he finds out there is a television show.'
"It has worked out very well though," she said. "It has been great for the kids to grow up without television. They have rich lives.
"Like many children, our kids have a lot of stuff, there is nothing they really need. But we do have a birthday coming up, so I am thinking about how we can be creative and give gifts that you really can feel good about." •