5, No. 2, May 2004
of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
If you want
to catch a glimpse of the gears of capitalism grinding away in
America today, you don't need to go to a factory or a business
Instead, observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched
whining you'll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than
just the pleadings of a single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit
Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of thousands of
hours of market research, of an immense coordination of people,
ideas and resources, of decades of social and economic change
all rolled into a single, "Mommy, pleeease!"
it's within [kids'] reach, they will touch it, and if they touch
it, there's at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and
buy it," writes retail anthropologist, Paco
Underhill. The ideal placement of popular books and videos,
he continues, should be on the lower shelves "so the little ones
can grab Barney or Teletubbies unimpeded by Mom or Dad, who possibly
take a dim view of hypercommercialized critters."
Any child market specialist worth their consulting fee knows that
the parental "dim view" of a product most often gives way to relentless
pestering by a kid on a quest to procure the booty of popular
culture. Officially, marketers refer to the annoyance as children's
"influence" on purchases. Unofficially it is the "nag factor."
The distinction is important because businesses are discouraged
from explicitly inciting children to nag their parents into buying
something, according to advertising guidelines from the Better
Kids Use Products, or Vice Versa?
of academic thought asserts that media and consumer products are
just cultural materials, and children are free to make use of
them as they will, imparting their own meanings to cartoons, toys,
There's little doubt that children creatively interpret their
surroundings, including consumer goods. They color outside the
lines, make up rules to games, invent their own stories and make
imaginary cars fly. If we lose sight of children's ability to
exercise personal agency and to transform the meanings imposed
on them by advertising (as well as those imparted by parents),
we will forever be stuck in a belief structure which grants near-omnipotence
to the corporate realm.
Granting children magical transformative powers of the imagination,
however, only further romanticizes an already oversentimentalized
view of childhood. Children are human. Imaginations can be colonized.
The materials they use to create their own meanings are pre-programmed
with brand identification, with gender,
race and class clichés and with standard good/bad dichotomies.
And, as any marketer will tell you, exposure to target market
is nine-tenths of the brand battle.
Not Just the Corporations
How has this
kid consumer world come to be? Easy explanations abound, from
spoiled children to over-indulgent or unengaged parents. Easiest
of all is to accuse corporations of turning kids into blank-faced,
videogame-playing, violence-saturated, sugar-mongering, overweight,
docile citizens of the future. Pundits and politicians from far-left
to far-right have found ideologically comfortable soapboxes from
which to voice their opposition to the corporate incursion into
advertisers and rapacious marketers alone, however, cannot account
for the explosion of the kids' 4-12 market, which has just about
tripled since 1990, now raking in around $30 billion annually,
according to latest
get me wrong, the target of the critique is on track. What is
troubling, though, is not just that kids demand goods by brand
name as early as two years old. It's the habit of thought which
conveniently separates children from economic processes, placing
these spheres in opposition to one another, and thereby allowing
anyoneincluding corporationsto position themselves
on the side of "innocent" children and against "bad" companies
and advertisers tell themselves and will tell you if you
askthat they are giving kids what they "want," or providing
educational devices or opportunities for "self-expression."
The thing of it is, on some level, they are right. What is most
troubling is that children's culture has become virtually
indistinguishable from consumer culture over the course
of the last century. The cultural marketplace is now a key arena
for the formation of the sense of self and of peer relationships,
so much so that parents are often stuck between giving into a
kid's purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast
on the playground.
The relationship is reciprocal. Childhood and consumer capitalism
inform and co-create each other. It is not just that the children's
market is the Happy Meal version of a grown-up one. It stands
apart from others because childhood is a generative cultural site
unlike any other.
consumers grow up to be more than just adult consumers. They become
mothers and fathers, administrative assistants and bus drivers,
nurses and realtors, online magazine editors and assistant professorsin
short, they become us who, in turn, make more of them.
Childhood makes capitalism hum over the long haul.
consumer culture takes a most intimate thingthe realization
and expression of self and fuses it with a most distant
system the production of goods, services and media in an
this fusion has been forged cohort by cohort and generation by
generation over the twentieth century, making each of us a small
conspirator in its reproduction. The process is so insidious that
by the time a child gains the language and capacity to grasp what
is occurring, his or her attention patterns, preferences, memories
and aspirations cannot be neatly separated from the images and
poetics of corporate strategy.
History We Are
the living legacies of commodified childhoods gone by. Our memories,
our sense of personal history are to some extent tied to the commercial
culture of our youth: an old lunchbox with television characters
on it, a doll, a comic book, a brand of cereal, a sports hero
perhaps, certainly music of one sort or another.
These may seem like benign artifacts of a fading past, harmless
enough, slated to wind up as pieces of nostalgia at junk shops
and yard sales. They might seem particularly benign when viewed
against the backdrop of today's hyper-aggressive children's marketing
strategies which target children who eat branded foods and play
in branded spaces, who are exposed to television in school courtesy
of Channel One and who, to take one infamous
example, learn geometry by measuring the circumference of
The "hegemonic power" of that Starsky and Hutch lunch box
of yesteryear seems almost laughable by comparison.
But the joke unfortunately is on us, in part, because the Teletubbies
and Pokemon of the '90s would not have been possible without the
Starsky and Hutch of the '70s, and those crime-fighting hunks
would not have been possible in some measure without the Mouseketeers
of the '50s, whose apple-pie smiles would not have been possible
without the Lone Ranger of the radio days of the '30s. If we are
to intervene in the rampant commodification of childhood, we need
to balance the impulse to place exclusive blame on corporations
for polluting children's minds and bodies with a larger, historical
the Child's Point of View
the opening of the twentieth century, working-class children still
toiled in the factories or worked the streets of the rising industrial
city as bootblacks, newsies and helpers. They (mostly boys) spent
their money on food and candy, in the new nickelodeon theaters,
pool halls and restaurants. Aside from these amusements, there
was no children's consumer market to speak of.
Enter the "bourgeois child" at the end of the nineteenth century,
whose value was no longer economic, but sentimental.
Liberated from direct, industrial labor and placed into school,
this child was trained in the technical skills and social posture
appropriate for a new bureaucratic order. His (again, usually
his) childhood was to be full of fancy, not preoccupied
with factory or farm work; his first school, a "children's garden,"
as close to Eden as possible.
image of the bourgeois child would spread beyond the confines
of a rising urban, white, middle class to become the model for
virtually all childhoods in industrialized nations by the millennium.
the second decade of the twentieth century, department stores
began to recognize and welcome the bourgeois child, providing
separate, modest toy departments with play spaces where mothers
could "check" their children while they shopped. Prior to about
1915, there were also no separate infants' and children's clothing
departments in department storesclothes tended to be stocked
by item, not size. One could find children's socks in hosiery,
children's shirts in the men's or women's department, etc.
A Chicago manufacturer of baby garments, George Earnshaw, hit
upon something when he began to convince department store management
to devote separate space to children's clothing and furnishings.
Mothers and expectant mothers were to be served by this new arrangement,
which would have "everything they needed" in one place.
Much ink was spilled in the trade and consumer journals throughout
the '20s, '30s and '40s in the attempt to discern the tastes,
priorities and foibles of "Mrs. Consumer," a caricature which
continues today as something of an icon of consumer society. (How
else would we know that "Choosy mothers choose Jif"?)The first
children's retail spaces were built, located, staffed and stocked
with the consuming mother, not the child, in mind.
the 1930s, however, individualized clothing and toy departments
in department stores gave way to entire "floors for youth" complete
with child-size fixtures, mirrors, and eye-level views of the
merchandise. Merchants hoped to provide children with a sense
of proprietorship over the shop or area by visually, acoustically
and commercially demonstrating that it was a space designed with
them in mind.
The basic arrangement was to display older children's clothing
and related furnishings at the entrance to a floor or department.
As kids moved through the department, they encountered progressively
younger styles until reaching the baby shop in the back. A designer
of one such floor explained:
children . . . are often reluctant to shop on a floor where "all
those babies" are shopping. The younger children are delighted
to see the older children shopping as they go through these departments,
for all children want to be older than they are. The little boy
and little girl seeing the big boys and big girls buying will
long for the day when he (sic) too can come to these departments
and buy . . . In this way a valuable shopping habit is created.
(Bulletin of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, Oct.
1939, p. 72)
Note here how the child's viewpoint, agency and emergent autonomy
are transformed into exchangeable, marketable values. What's new
is the way that the child's perspective is invoked as a legitimate
authority within the context of commercial enterprise.
was the beginning of a fundamental shift in the social status
of children from seen-and-not-heard, wait-till-you-grow-up dependency
to having retail spaces, shelving in stores and media messages
tailored to their viewpoint, making it the basis of economic action.
Today, we expect to see video monitors flashing images of Britney
Spears, oversized replicas of teddy bears, and primary-colored
display fixtures every time we walk into a Kids 'R' Us.
a Word from our Sponsored Kids
Over a number of generations, children and younger adults became
key arbiters of kid-taste in US.
Children moved to the front-and-center of popular culture with
the early successes of Shirley Temple and others like Mickey Rooney
in the '30s. Their images provided a foundation for the publicly
shared persona of the bourgeois child as one who moves in a world
virtually independent from adult concerns and preoccupationsone
that makes sense only in reference to its own child-logic. Think
of the Peanuts characters whose world is totally devoid
of adults of any consequence: all framing is child-eye level,
only the legs of adults are shown, and when adults speak their
voices are non-linguistic trombone-like notes
back in the marketplace, children were also acquiring status as
spokespersons for goods throughout the twentieth centuryfrom
fictional icons like Buster Brown (1910s) and the Campbell's Soup
Kids (1920s), to actors like Cowboy Bobby Benson (1950s), to voice-overs
for commercials during the Saturday morning "children's" television
time (1960s). By the 60s, the child spokesperson had become such
a fixture that market researchers felt comfortable enough to query
children directly for their product preferences, giving them a
"voice" in the market sphere.
Childrenor to be precise, media-massaged images of childrennow
routinely and aggressively hawk almost any kind of product, from
car tires to vacations to refrigerators to grape juice, as advertisers
make use of both "cute appeal" and safety fears.
Kids frequently serve as peer arbitrers in newspapers, magazines
and websites, reviewing movies, videogames, toys and television
showsas it is assumed, often correctly, that they have more
intimate knowledge about the detail and appeal of these things
than adults do. This is a world under continuous construction
and it is theirs: oriented around their "desires,"
retrofitted to their physical size and tweaked in just
the right way to produce that all-important feeling of inadequacy
if this or that product is not in their possession.
in the Nag
only want things, but have acquired the socially sanctioned right
to wanta right which parents are loath to violate. Layered
onto direct child enticement and the supposed autonomy of the
child-consumer are the day-to-day circumstances of overworked
parents:a daily barrage of requests, tricky financial negotiations,
and that nagging, unspoken desire to build the life/style they
have learned to want during their childhoods.
the balancing act is overwhelming. "Moms have loosened nutritional
controls," enthuses Denise Fedewa, VP-Planning Director at Leo
Burnett, Chicago. "They now believe there are so many battles
to fight, is fighting over food really worth it?"
mainstream media provides few correctives. The August 6th Time
cover story on kids' influence on parents gushes over the excesses
of the upper-middle-class in typical fashion, sucessfully detracting
from the larger, more generalized problem of struggling parents.
the Parent Trap
If kid marketing
tactics were merely blatant, their power would not be so great,
but consumption has enfolded into daily existence. Places like
zoos and museums are promoted as "educational," toys are supposed
to "teach," clothing allows for "individuality" and who can suggest
that there is something wrong with "good ol' family fun" at, say,
The children's market works because it lives off of deeply-held
beliefs about self-expression and freedom of choiceoriginally
applied to the political sphere, and now almost inseparable from
the culture of consumption. Children's commercial culture has
quite successfully usurped kids' boundless creativity and personal
agency, selling these back to themand usas "empowerment,"
a term that appeases parents while shielding marketers.
Linking one's sense of self to the choices offered by the marketplace
confuses personal autonomy with consumer behavior. But try telling
that to a kid who only sees you standing in the way of the Chuck-E-Cheese-ified
version of fun and happiness. Kids are keen to the adult-child
power imbalance and to adult hypocrisy, especially when they are
told to hold their desires in check by a parent who is blind to
her or his own materialistic impulses.
We have to incite children to adopt a critical posture toward
media and consumption. A key step in combating the forces eating
away at childhood is to recognize our own place as heirs of the
bourgeois child and thus as largely unwitting vehicles of consumer
culture. The mere autocratic vetoing of children's requests will
only result in anti-adult rebellion.
facing us allas relatives, teachers, friends, or even not-so-innocent
bystandersis to find ways to affirm children's personal
agency and their membership in a community of peers while insisting
that they make the distinction between self worth and owning a
Barbie or a Pokemon cardor any thing, for that matter
Originally published in LiP Magazine.
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