Monday, January 28, 2008

Are You My Mother?

The Care and Feeding of New Consumers

The urge to buy is hard to resist. Who hasn't gazed longingly at a glossy photo of the newest sports car or kitchen appliance? Who hasn't snatched up an impulse buy - candy, mints, gum - when paying at the cashier? Even as an environmentally aware consumer, we yearn for a Prius or, better still, a Tesla. We ogle the solar panels on our neighbor's newly remodeled house. We leer at the cute new Whole Foods reusable bags, wishing we could replace our drab "Green Bags" with something newer and shinier. We are good consumers doing what we were raised to do.

Even to me, though, saying we were "raised" or, worse, "programmed" to be consumers is a bit conspiracist. Really, this isn't science fiction. This isn't the Matrix. We weren't "programmed" to do anything. Were we?

The best way to answer that question is to look at kids today. Are they spoon-fed advertisements? Are they lured into believing material objects are the key to popularity, friends, success? Are they morphing into consumers while still in diapers?

According to the book Consuming Kids: the Hostile Takeover of Childhood, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." Marketers have found that babies start requesting specific brands as soon as they can speak. They have, in effect, been imprinted with brand loyalty before they can walk or talk. It starts out sweet and simple. Maybe it's Elmo. Whenever you go out - to the market, the toy store, the clothing store - your baby sees and asks for Elmo. Suddenly, you own oodles of Elmo DVDs, your baby sleeps on an Elmo crib sheet, cuddles a stuffed Elmo, bathes with a squeaky Elmo in Elmo bubble bath, gets an Elmo bandage for boo-boos, brushes with Elmo toothpaste, poops in an Elmo diaper, eats Elmo fruit snacks, and plays with battery operated plastic Elmo toys. Still, it's only Elmo, right? And, really, who can dislike Elmo? He's so chipper, sweet and, well, red.

As kids grow older, though, they move down a continuum that is less and less innocuous. They graduate from Thomas the Tank Engine to Pokemon to WWE Smackdown! or from Dora to the Disney Princesses to Bratz. As they age, the urge to buy also becomes greater and greater and the figures they admire "sponsor" more and more stuff. Moreover, the goods our children are enticed to buy limit creativity and encourage sex, violence and overeating. (Read the book for more information on those not so positive characteristics). The only winners here are the corporations which have succeeded in raising a bumper crop of capricious consumers.

What can a parent do in a world where characters and brands are everywhere? Sure, you can turn off the TV and we do, mostly. Still, kids don't live in a bubble. They go to school and learn about characters and brands and products there - and not just from other kids. Budget cuts have opened school doors to corporations which now advertise at schools in the form of the Scholastic Book Club, Campbell Soup points, General Mills box tops, Pepsi vending machines, and so on. Even if you homeschool your kids and don't own a TV, there is the check stand at the market, the display at the drug store. Marketing is everywhere. It seems impossible to ignore.

Consuming Kids offers a host of suggestions. My first would be to read the book if you are at all concerned about the next generation's consumption habits. The book suggests the following:

Educate your children about marketing - alert them when something is a
commercial versus part of a television program.

Connect with your children in ways that don't involve advertising.

Limit TV, video games and Internet and don't take children to mega-stores like
Toys R Us.

If we do all this, maybe our kids won't turn into the mega-consumers they are otherwise destined to become. Maybe their imaginations won't be stifled and their pocketbooks plundered. Maybe they won't be imprinted after all. Maybe my youngest won't turn to his Thomas the Tank Engine train one morning and ask "Are You My Mother?"


arduous said...

That is a GORGEOUS pic. Is that one of your boys?

Green Bean said...

Ha! No, it's from the Stock Exchange. I wish I could take photos like that but we don't allow Elmo in the house anyway. Our home is strictly Thomas - until he gradually disappears. ;-)

LifeLessPlastic said...

Oh, I loved the book "Are You My Mother?" when I was little. It was my absolute favorite, even though some parts made me sad :)

Anyways, this comment is more a about yogurt since I noticed it on your I'll-Be-Living-Smarter-When-I-
Make-These-Changes list.

I always used to use my bread maker to make yogurt, but then, in the interest in of saving energy, I tried making it with a thermos, which I left of the heat vent just in case, and it totally worked.

Conclusion: making yogurt is easier than I ever thought possible, and all you really need is a saucepan, thermometer, and thermos (oh, and milk and yogurt cultures, of course)

You definitely have to try it! :)

Burbanmom said...

Great post, GB. I'm gonna go check the library today to see if they have this book.


Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter said...

Just found your site. I think you may be interested in our organization,

Great post!

Shannon Hodgins said...

Thanks so much for a book idea! My husband and I watched the film "Affluenza" last night after reading the book. I so totally agree with how we are creating a culture of consumers, not of citizens. Shannon

Jennifer said...

As I contemplate children in the somewhat near future, I am constantly trying to THINK about this stuff in advance. What a world we live in! Thanks for the book idea.. I will have to add that to my list.

Green Bean said...

LLP: thanks for the yogurt pep talk. I did it last week and failed miserably. Will try again this week. :)

Jennifer: it's great you are thinking about this and kis now. I wish I had. I totally bought into the whole Baby Einstein thing and have lived to regret it, immensely.

And that link from Lisa at the corporate babysitter is a great resource! Thanks!

Jennifer said...

I just came back from teaching a music class at a preschool and saw something that HORRIFIED me... and reminded me of this blog!

The children had playdough out on the table. Love playdough... who can hate something that tastes that good?

Anyway, along with the playdough there were various molds and rolling pins... and a mini plastic George Foreman GRILL shaped mold... that made little burger and chicken patties!!! It looked just like the real thing. I wanted to puke.


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