The Stepford Kids


The Commercialized Child

and the New Consumer Culture

By Juliet B. Schor

Scribner -- 275pp -- $25

If it has been a few decades since you've visited an American public school, you'd probably be shocked to see how much some of these once-sacred temples of learning now have in common with the mall. The walls of many sports stadiums are smothered in corporate logos. Most lunchrooms could double as fast-food courts. And classroom TV monitors flash a regular stream of racy video-game, movie, and fast-food ads along with the TV news shows that get piped to 40% of U.S. teens. Corporations have even made "huge inroads" in the curriculum, thanks to the free materials they send to schools says Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. Among the things grade-schoolers have been taught: that fossil fuels may pose few environmental problems and that alternative energy is costly and unattainable, in the words of Exxon's Energy Cube curriculum. They've also learned that the "earth could benefit rather than be harmed from increased carbon dioxide" from materials provided by the American Coal Foundation.

These are just a few of the many reasons why Schor believes that Corporate America has succeeded in a frightening, Stepford Wives-like takeover of tween consciousness. In her artfully argued, important exposé, Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, Schor draws on interviews with marketers, academic research, and her own survey of Massachusetts fifth- and sixth-graders. Her chief villains: "predatory" marketers who go so far as to pay parents and schools to get access to kids. Because kids have gotten so skeptical, companies have countered with more craftiness. They hire cool alpha boys to flack products to their pals. They find "It" girls to host slumber parties and then ply their friends with products.

Nowhere is the onslaught more apparent than on TV and the Internet, says Schor. Against the $15 billion lavished on commercials, "neuromarketing," and covert peer-to-peer campaigns, Schor believes grade-schoolers don't stand a chance. Marketers have sidestepped gatekeeper moms and dads and gone directly to kids: Much of their work in schools and on the Net is so stealthy that parents aren't even aware of it. Thus, Schor argues, too many children have been transformed into miniature consumption machines who keep swallowing the corporate message that meaning comes from acquiring and a sense of self-worth from owning. You don't have one? What a loser.

Schor also argues that marketed leisure has replaced unstructured socializing as the primary childhood pastime. Instead of Kick the Can, it's Buy at the Store. One national survey Schor points to found that more than a third of all kids age 9 to 14 would rather spend time buying things than doing almost anything else. Schor uses her own study to buttress the point: She found that the more exposed kids are to the consumer world, the more likely it is that they will suffer from depression, anxiety, and sagging self-esteem.

Such surveys are not totally persuasive: Kids are subject to many influences, making it extremely difficult to establish specific cause-and-effect relationships. And at times, Schor relies too much on the academic's lofty, list-heavy, fact-after-fact approach. Born to Buy would have benefited from more narrative, anecdotal sugar in the form of compelling characters to make the medicine go down.

Still, the book is a worthy capstone to the consumer trilogy that Schor began with her best-selling The Overworked American (1991) and continued in The Overspent American (1998). Those two books focused on the addictive cycle of earn to spend, only to amass one's way into bankruptcy. Schor's observation that dual earner, time-crunched adults were sometimes engaging in easy-pass parenting, with scant time to lay down rules at home, prompted her to begin the research for Born to Buy.

Schor doesn't blame moms who don't stay at home. Even the most attentive of full-time parents can lose the battle against the onslaught of stuff-peddlers. Still, Schor believes parents should lobby government to regulate ads and turn schools back into commercial-free zones. In her own home, Schor decided get rid of the TV until her kids asked for it. They never did.

But, Schor asks, should parents really have to fight against every message beamed at their offspring? Is the only option a kids-in-a-bubble childhood? What about a culture that supports youngsters rather than enticing them to spend money? The way it stands now, advertisers use every means to capitalize on the "nag factor" -- inciting kids to pester their parents until they open their wallets. Marketers have even enlisted academics, Schor says, much as Big Pharma has done with doctors. For example, toy companies hire researchers to study a game and find it "instructive," thus giving it a parental halo. The marketers Schor interviewed admitted to guilt over their tactics, with one even confiding that she was sure her career would cause her to "burn in hell."

Still, that ad whiz shows up at her agency every day, droning away in service to a mega-client obsessed with capturing and nurturing its "future market." Schor's point: If these trends continue, what kind of future will it be?

By Michelle Conlin

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