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

By Juliet B. Shore

"Parents will be tempted to read Born to Buy as a kind of contem- porary horror story, with ever more sophisticated marketing wunder- kinds as Dr. Frankensteins and their children as the relentless monsters they create. Intermixing research data with anecdotal illustrations, Schor chronicles the rapid devel- opment of a once-shackled industry that now markets R-rated movies to 9-year-olds. While Schor unearths a surplus of information on the effectiveness of advertising, she's not nearly as adept at proposing effective responses. Reacting to the power and creativity of the consumer culture with politically unfeasible regulation and parental diligence is a little like attacking Frankenstein's creature with torches. Still, Born to Buy is an eye-opening account of an industry that is commercializing childhood with remarkable effec- tiveness and insouciance." - Steven Stolder for Amazon

I decided to discuss this book on my main page because it is a work that examines contemporary issues of culture and parenting, as opposed to the works of fiction I review in The Arts Corner. I began to read this at Borders Books, and when the store closed, I requested it from the library. Granted, Ms Schor needs to make a living, but I am not going to BUY a book about consumerism.

At first, I was appalled. How can parents allow this to happen to their children? Keven and I had heated discussions about the techniques Schor discusses in the book; he saw everything through the lens of a market researcher, while I could only hear echoes of future fights where I insist to Juliette and Ilsa that they do not need a certain brand of jeans to make it through junior high.

I also revisited my own mother's need for vigilance while my brother and I struggled to survive the commercial onslaught that was the 1980s. She let us watch Aliens (an R-rated film), but she would not let us watch "You Can't Do That on Television," a show by Nickelodeon that was particularly anti-adult. I did not see the distinction at the time, thinking that the "YCDTOT" ban was silly and unnecessary. But Schor spends a great deal of time on anti-adult and anti-parent techniques that marketers - especially those involved in the promotion of kid-centered programming like Nickelodeon and MTV - use to distance children from their guardians. My mom was ahead of the curve on this one!

However, my logic and stubborn, non-conformist parenting instincts soon had their way with Schor's book. Her own original research data contradicts her conclusions that television and media exposure create unhealthy, anxious, overweight kids, and that the government needs to levy more controls over the marketing industry. For her research, Schor surveyed roughly 300 children, with two thirds from a Boston suburb and one third from the inner city. Her data reveals the suburban children were more likely to fight with their parents and less likely to disagree with the statement: "[My parent] listens to what I have to say," despite evidence that the inner city children were more likely to watch unrestricted hours of television and R-rated movies. Schor writes:
The descriptive data show that the Boston children articulate extremely positive attitudes toward their primary parents. These attitudes may form protective shield against the negative portrayals of parents in consumer culture and insulate these children from the kinds of conflicts found among the suburban kids (p. 165).
Thus it appears that the amount of television a child watches has less to do with their involvement in the consumer culture than does the role their parents play in their upbringing.

Schor concludes with a weak and brief chapter of nonsense about how parents need to get more involved in their kids' lives, then she dismisses these grassroots actions as ineffective and futile without better regulatory measures to restrict advertising to children. The children of unvigilant parents need legislation to make up for their families' short-sightedness or laziness. But her "Afterward" for the paperback edition flips around a few more times. She writes:
I've been most impressed by the voices of those who argue that we parents have more power than most of us realize. They insist that it's possible to turn off the television, say no to Coke and Pepsi, and ignore the persistent nagging instigated by marketers. Some of them are a tad self-righteous. And many don't acknowledge that being middle class, or even wealthier, is a big part of why they can avoid using the television as a baby-sitter or ban cheap fast foods from their diet. Or that very few parents can protect their children from in-school marketing by putting them in private schools or home-schooling them (pp. 220-221).
So it's unfeasible? These parents are suggesting you do something beyond the means of mere mortals? We should just roll over and wait for Congress to save us? Apparently not, because she describes how her own children have benefitted greatly from their upbringing in a television-free (but not self-righteous, mind you) household. And she concludes:
But all that having been said, these parents do have a point. Many more of us can turn off the TV than do. We can boycott those McDonald's-branded preschool toys. And just because our daughter is invited to a spa party or "shopping spree at the mall" birthday bash doesn't mean we have to let her go. It's important to remember that we shouldn't let our choices be unduly determined by the popularity of a trend (p. 221).
To which my mom would award Ms Schor a great big grade of "DUH". There were a few other points of contention I found, but I have other things to do - like make cookies from scratch, listen to an opera, plan tasty homemade meals for the rest of the week, and come up with a pre-homeschool plan for my girls. Self-righteous... yeah, something like that.


Tess said...

Thanks for the review! This book has been recommended to me, but I've been avoiding it because it will probably just get me all worked up like I did with Consuming Kids. I appreciate your ability to step back and analyze the author's arguments.

The author of CK made a point that I thought was a good one--while strong families and involved parents act as a buffer, shouldn't we also be concerned about the weak families? I have time to weigh options for Ben, read books about consumerism, and blog in order to clarify my thoughts. Other parents, though, might not have the time or education to think things through, or they might feel like they have more pressing problems to deal with than the number of hours the TV is on. I know if I were a single parent, Ben would watch a lot more TV.

Personally, I think that research shows that very young kids aren't able to process advertising, and it should be banned to kids under 6. I was SHOCKED to see Ronald McDonald pop up on the TV screen after Sesame Street was over.

I wish more people were thinking things through as you are. So many people seem to just accept the consumeristic aspects of childhood.

Mircalla said...

In principle, I agree with everything you say. But Tess made a good point: you have to be a super-woman to be an attentive mother AND a good worker. And not everybody can have the privilege and the attitude to be a full time parent.

My mother was working full time and turned to work part time when I started going to school. I think this was a big mistake. She was just too present.

I have a consideration--I think that it is perfectly normal and inevitable that adolescents at some point detach themselves from their parents, and pose themselves in antagonism to them. Parents become their counter-model. It is the passage from the ‘world according to me’ (infancy) to the ‘world against me’ phase (adolescence). And there is little a parent can do about it, but accepting it and being discreetly attentive.

carrie_lofty said...

"And not everybody can have the privilege and the attitude to be a full time parent." I disagree. I think for most people, it is a matter of choice and planning. The results of Schor's study showed this as well. While 80+% of the mothers in the inner-city mothers worked at least part-time and the divorce rate was higher, their children reported more stable, loving and understanding relationships with their parents. Despite their obligations and financial constraints, these women were doing something right when it came to their kids.

"I think that it is perfectly normal and inevitable that adolescents at some point detach themselves from their parents, and pose themselves in antagonism to them." Again, I have to disagree. Until the moment I realized that I wanted to live in the city, not the country like my parents (and I realized this at the age of 19), I did not have an anti-parent phase. I was a good, solid, rule-abiding teenager, and I loved spending time with my parents. Our family was the center of my world. I had a fun and fairly stress-free relationship with my brother. All of this stems from my parents' belief that their love and influence would be the guiding star of our lives.

Did this prevent me from being my own person and striking out on my own? By no means. Look at all I've gone and seen and done (a gramatically poor sentence!). So I do not think that teenage rebellion is a mandatory obligation of growth.

In fact, until the 1950s, it was not even discussed significantly in child psychology, when baby boomers were posed in opposition to their parents in popular films and television. Could it be that we've been sold the idea of adolescent rebellion, and that this selling point has been with us for so long that we've just stopped seeing it as an artificial construct?

carrie_lofty said...

And Sivvy, I have to approve the comments from now on (so we don't need the word verification but I can still stop spam). The comments won't show up right away. I got your last one five times :)

Mircalla said...

I thought it was not working... After the fifth time, I realised you had to approve it first.

Apologies. :o )

Mircalla said...

When I talked about ‘rebellion’, I did not mean that you have to be subversive or un-respectful—apologies if this is what it came across. You can have the most perfect relationship with your parents, but be still miles away from them, and I think this is what happened to me, my friends and all the people around me at this delicate stage of their life—without looking at statistics, researches and history. I personally had a great time at school (especially for all the laughs in class with my mates and for all the amazing annual school trips—we used to go skiing every year, we went abroad on our last year and even to Sicily for a literature/theatre conference). I also have good memories about lively discussions, arguments, conversations and holidays spent with my parents. Our relationship was in a sense more informal than now that I live far and communicate with them over the telephone, letters and emails. Still, my teen-age was the most inner troubled period of my life, in which I had my own paranoids, dreams and illusions which I was sure my parents were not able to fully understand—even if they actually could (?). It is, I think, the stage of life when you are growing up and realising about the generational gap.

You have been very lucky with your family support. But I think that it is not only social and familiar and that your personality has also played a big role in being an obedient girl and in becoming a successful mother/wife etc., of which, I see, you are perfectly aware of.

I have witnessed young people in *perfect* families dissipating their fortune and wasting their physical and moral health. On the other hand, I have also seen people having problematic families (or not families at all!), with not much love and no much attention, victims of the abuses of the mass culture reaching high levels of healthy success and satisfaction. I think this is admirable and an occasion to reflect about the immense resources a human being can demonstrate to cope with a distressed and rather imperfect upbringing.

Mircalla said...

"The results of Schor's study showed this as well. While 80+% of the mothers in the inner-city mothers worked at least part-time [...], their children reported more stable, loving and understanding relationships with their parents. Despite their obligations and financial constraints, these women were doing something right when it came to their kids."

Well, I hope to fit in this category, if I will ever have children, considering that I am ready to change career even radically, but not willing to drop it altogether ...

Again, I did not explain myself, sorry--what I meant with my first point is that parents with a full-time job are not as physically present as full-time parents. This leaves them a quite large amount of time alone at home, where they can do *whatever they want*, including gluing themselves to the television.

But then, maybe that's why they have more "understanding relations with their parents" ... Because they are freer and less pressurised (?)

Who knows... As long as you teach your kids love, irony and, above all, self-irony, I believe they will be OKAY. ;o )

carrie_lofty said...

I love the idea of teaching kids irony and self-irony. It's not high on the American list of must-haves for children (at least according to the parenting books) but it sure is useful :)

Mircalla said...

You shouldn't worry about it, because you have a husband who is gifted with the finest irony and self-irony. Whether it has something to do with his nationality or personality, I am not sure, but I reckon this is one of his best qualities.

:o )