Commodifying Kids: The Forgotten Crisis
"The advertising and marketing industry spends over $17 billion a year on shaping children's identities and desires." (Photo: notsogoodphotography)
As the United States and the rest of the world enter into an economic free fall, the current crisis offers an opportunity not only to question the politics of free-market fundamentalism, the dominance of economics over politics, and the subordination of justice to the laws of finance and the accumulation of capital, but also the ways in which children's culture has been corrupted by rampant commercialization, commodification and consumption. There is more at stake in this crisis than stabilizing the banks, shoring up employment and solving the housing problem. There is also the issue of what kind of public spaces and values we want to make available, outside of those provided by the market, for children to learn the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to confront the myriad problems facing the twenty-first century. The road to recovery cannot be simply about returning to modified free-market capitalism and a re-established, utterly bankrupt consumer society. Given all the pain and suffering that the vast majority of Americans have endured, we should ask ourselves if there is not a teachable moment here. What kind of society and future do we want for our children given how obviously unsustainable and exploitative the now failed market-driven system has proven to be?
In a society that measures its success and failure solely through the economic lens of the Gross National Product (GNP), it becomes difficult to define youth outside of market principles determined largely by criteria such as the rate of market growth and the accumulation of capital. The value and worth of young people in this discourse are largely determined through the bottom-line cost-benefit categories of income, expenses, assets and liabilities. The GNP does not measure justice, integrity, courage, compassion, wisdom and learning, among other values vital to the interests and health of a democratic society. Nor does it address the importance of civic participation, public goods, dissent and the fostering of democratic institutions. In a society driven entirely by market mentalities, moralities, values and ideals, consuming, selling and branding become the primary mode through which to define agency and social relations - intimate and public - and to shape the sensibiliti es and inner lives of adults as well as how society defines and treats its children.
While the "empire of consumption" has been around for a long time,(1) American society in the last thirty years has undergone a sea change in the daily lives of children - one marked by a major transition from a culture of innocence and social protection, however imperfect, to a culture of commodification. This is culture that does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood; it also exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, "there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets."(2) Children now inhabit a cultural landscape in which they can only recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market.
Subject to an advertising and marketing industry that spends over $17 billion a year on shaping children's identities and desires,(3)(4) American youth are commercially carpet-bombed through a never-ending proliferation of market strategies that colonize their consciousness and daily lives. Multibillion-dollar corporations, with the commanding role of commodity markets as well as the support of the highest reaches of government, now become the primary educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how young people define their interests, values and relations to others. Juliet Schor, one of the most insightful and critical theorists of the commodification of children, argues that, "These corporations not only have enormous economic power, but their political influence has never been greater. They have funneled unprecedented sums of money to political parties and officials.... The power wielded by these corporations is evident in many ways, from their ability to eliminate competitors to their ability to mobilize state power in their interest."
As the sovereignty of the market displaces state sovereignty, children are no longer viewed as an important social investment or as a central marker for the moral life of the nation. Instead, childhood ideals linked to the protection and well-being of youth are transformed - decoupled from the "call to conscience [and] civic engagement"(5) and redefined through what amounts to a culture of cruelty, abandonment and disposability. Childhood ideals increasingly give way to a market-driven politics in which young people are prepared for a life of objectification while simultaneously drained of any viable sense of moral and political agency. Moreover, as the economy implodes, the financial sector is racked by corruption and usury, the housing and mortgage market is in free fall, and millions of people lose their jobs, the targeting of children for profits takes on even more insistent and ominous tones. This is especially true in a consumer society in which children more than ever mediate their identities and relations to others through the consumption of goods and images. No longer imagined within language of responsibility and justice, childhood begins with what might be called the scandalous philosophy of money - that is, a logic in which everything, including the worth of young people, is measured through the potentially barbaric calculations of finance, exchange value and profitability. And this is part of the economic crisis that is barely mentioned in the mainstream media.
What is distinctive about this period in history is that the United States has become the most "consumer-oriented society in the world." Kids and teens, because of their value as consumers and their ability to influence spending, are not only at "the epicenter of American consumer culture," but are also the major targets of those powerful marketing and financial forces that service big corporations and the corporate state.(6)(7) poised to take advantage of the economic power wielded by kids and teens. With spending power increasing to match that of adults, the children's market has greatly expanded in the last few decades, in terms of both direct spending by kids and their influence on parental acquisitions. While figures on direct spending by kids differ, Benjamin Barber claims that "in 2000, there were 31 million American kids between twelve and nineteen already controlling 155 billion consumer dollars. Just four years later, there were 33.5 million kids controlling $169 billion, or roughly $91 per week per kid."(8) Schor argues that "children age four to twelve made ... $30.0 billion" in purchases in 2002, while kids aged twelve to nineteen "accounted for $170 billion of personal spending."(9) Molnar and Boninger cite figures indicating that pre-teens and teenagers command "$200 billion in spending power."(10) Young people are attractive to corporations because they are big spenders, but that is not the only reason. They also exert a powerful influence on parental spending, offering up a market in which, according to Anap Shah, "Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over ... $670 billion a year."(11) In a world in which products far outnumber shoppers, youth have been unearthed not simply as another expansive and profitable market, but as the primary source of redemption for the future of capitalism - even as it implodes. Erased as future citizens of a democracy, kids are now constructed as consuming and saleable objects. Gilded Age corporations, however devalued, and their army of marketers, psychologists and advertising executives now engage in what Susan Linn calls a "hostile takeover of childhood,"
One measure of the corporate assault on kids can be seen in the reach, acceleration and effectiveness of a marketing and advertising juggernaut that attempts to turn kids into consumers and childhood into a saleable commodity. Every child, regardless of how young, is now a potential consumer ripe for being commodified and immersed in a commercial culture defined by brands. According to Lawrence Grossberg, children are introduced to the world of logos, advertising and the "mattering maps" of consumerism long before they can speak: "Capitalism targets kids as soon as they are old enough to watch commercials, even though they may not be old enough to distinguish programming from commercials or to recognize the effects of branding and product placement."(12) In fact, American children from birth to adulthood are exposed to a consumer blitz of advertising, marketing, educating and entertaining that has no historical precedent. There is even a market for videos for toddlers as young as four months old. One such baby video called Baby Gourmet alleges to "provide a multi-sensory experience for children designed to introduce little ones to beautiful fruits and vegetables ... in a gentle and amusing way that stimulates both the left and right hemispheres."(13) This would be humorous if Madison Avenue were not dead serious in its attempts to sell this type of hype - along with other baby videos such as Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Sesame Street Baby, and Disney's Winnie the Pooh Baby - to parents eager to provide their children with every conceivable advantage over the rest. Not surprisingly, this is part of a growing $4.8 billion market aimed at the youngest children.(14) Schor captures perfectly the omnipotence of this machinery of consumerism as it envelops the lives of very young children:
At age one, she's watching Teletubbies and eating the food of its "promo partners" Burger King and McDonald's. Kids can recognize logos by eighteen months, and before reaching their second birthday, they're asking for products by brand name. By three or three and a half, experts say, children start to believe that brands communicate their personal qualities, for example, that they're cool, or strong, or smart. Even before starting school, the likelihood of having a television in their bedroom is 25 percent, and their viewing time is just over two hours a day. Upon arrival at the schoolhouse steps, the typical first grader can evoke 200 brands. And he or she has already accumulated an unprecedented number of possessions, beginning with an average of seventy new toys a year.(15)
Complicit, wittingly or unwittingly, with a politics defined by market power, the American public offers little resistance to children's culture being expropriated and colonized by Madison Avenue advertisers. Eager to enthral kids with invented fears and lacks, these advertisers also entice them with equally unimagined new desires, to prod them into spending money or to influence their parents to spend it in order to fill corporate coffers. Every child is vulnerable to the many advertisers who diversify markets through various niches, one of which is based on age. For example, the DVD industry sees toddlers as a lucrative market. Toy manufacturers now target children from birth to ten years of age. Children aged eight to twelve constitute a tween market and teens an additional one. Children visit stores and malls long before they enter elementary school, and children as young as eight years old make visits to malls without adults. Disney, Nickelodeon and other mega companies now provide web sites such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" for children under ten years of age, luring them into a virtual world of potential consumers that reached 8.2 million in 2007, while it is predicted that this electronic mall will include 20 million children by 2011.(16 ) Moreover, as Brook Barnes points out in The New York Times, these electronic malls are hardly being used either as innocent entertainment or for educational purposes. On the contrary, she states, "Media conglomerates in particular think these sites - part online role-playing game and part social scene - can deliver quick growth, help keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers." (17) But there is more at stake here than making money and promoting brand loyalty among young children: there is also the construction of particular modes of subjectivity, identification and agency.
Some of these identities are on full display in advertising aimed at young girls. Market strategists are increasingly using sexually charged images to sell commodities, often representing the fantasies of an adult version of sexuality. For instance, Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing franchise for young people, has earned a reputation for its risque catalogues filled with promotional ads of scantily clad kids and its over-the-top sexual advice columns for teens and preteens; one catalogue featured an ad for thongs for ten-year-olds with the words "eye candy" and "wink wink" written on them.(18) Another clothing store sold underwear geared toward teens with "Who needs Credit Cards ...?" written across the crotch.(19) Children as young as six years old are being sold lacy underwear, push-up bras and "date night accessories" for their various doll collections. In 2006, the Tesco department store chain sold a pole dancing kit designed for young girls to unleash the sex kitten inside . Encouraging five- to ten-year-old children to model themselves after sex workers suggests the degree to which matters of ethics and propriety have been decoupled from the world of marketing and advertising, even when the target audience is young children. The representational politics at work in these marketing and advertising strategies connect children's bodies to a reductive notion of sexuality, pleasure and commodification, while depicting children's sexuality and bodies as nothing more than objects for voyeuristic adult consumption and crude financial profit.
For the last few decades, critics such as Thomas Frank, Kevin Phillips, David Harvey and many others have warned us, and rightly so, that right-wing conservatives and free-market fundamentalists have been dismantling government by selling it off to the highest or "friendliest" bidder. But what they have not recognized adequately is that what has also been sold off are both our children and our collective future, and that the consequences of this catastrophe can only be understood within the larger framework of a politics and market philosophy that view children as commodities and democracy as the enemy. In a democracy, education in any sphere, whether it be the public schools or the larger media, is, or should be, utterly adverse to treating young people as individual units of economic potential and as walking commodities. And it is crucial not to "forget" that democracy should not be confused with a hypercapitalism.
Inevitably, humans must consume to survive. The real enemy is not consumption per se, but a market-driven consumer society fueled by the endless cycle of acquisition, waste and disposability, which is at the heart of an unchecked and deregulated global capitalism. Under such circumstances, there are few remaining spaces in which to imagine a mode of consumption that rejects the logic of commodification and embraces the principles of sustainability while expanding the reach and possibilities of a substantive democracy. Juliet Schor touches on this issue by rightly arguing that the real issue is "what kind of consumers do we want to be?"(20) Or, to put it more broadly, what kind of society and world do we want to live in? As politics embraces all aspects of children’s lives, it is crucial to make clear that the rising tide of free markets has less to do with ensuring democracy and freedom than with spreading a rein of terror around the globe, affecting the most vulnerable populations in the cruellest of ways. The politics of commodification and its underlying logic of waste and disposability do irreparable harm to children, but the resulting material, psychological and spiritual injury they incur must be understood not merely as a political and economic issue but also as a pedagogical concern.
At the same time, simply criticizing the market, the privatization of public goods and the commercialization of children, while helpful, is not enough. Stirring denunciations of what a market society does to kids do not go far enough. What is equally necessary is developing public spaces and social movements that help young people develop healthy notions of self, identities and visions of their future no longer defined - more accurately, defiled - by market values and mentalities. Obama's road to recovery must align itself with a vision of a democracy that is on the side of children, particularly young children in need. It must enable the conditions for youth to learn, to "grow," as John Dewey once insisted, as engaged social actors more alive to their responsibilities to future generations than contemporary adult society has proven capable. Such a project requires constructing a politics that refuses to be animated by populist rage so easily misdirected, or by a disdain for the social state, for mutuality, reciprocity and compassion, among other democratic values. In short, it must reject a society whose essence is currently refracted in the faces of children compelled to confront a future that as yet offers very little hope of happiness, or even survival.
(3) See Josh Golin, "Nation's Strongest School Commercialism Bill Advances Out of Committee," Common Dreams Progressive Newswire (August 1, 2007). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/newsprint.cgi?file=/news2007/0801-06.htm. Juliet Schor argues that total advertising and marketing expenditures directed at children in 2004 reached $15 billion. See Juliet B. Schor, "Born to Buy" (New York: Scribner, 2005), p. 21.
(4) Juliet Schor, "When Childhood Gets Commercialized Can Childhood Be Protected," in Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment: Young People and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age, ed. Ulla Carlsson (Sweden: Nordicom, 2006), pp. 114ñ115.
(10) Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, "Adrift: Schools in a Total Marketing Environment," Tenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends: 2006-2007 (Tempe: Arizona State University, 2007), pp. 6-7.
(11) Anup Shah, "Children as Consumers," Global Issues (January 8, 2008). Online: http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption/Children.asp.
(16) Cited in Brooks Barnes, "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young," New York Times, (December 31, 2007). Online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/business/31virtual.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.
(18) Editorial, "Clothier Pushes Porn, Group Sex to Youths," WorldNetDaily.com (November 15, 2003). Online: http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=35604. See also Editorial, "Tell Nationwide Children's Hospital: No Naming Rights for Abercrombie & Fitch," Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (June 2006). Online: http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/621/t/5401/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=23662.