Juliet Schor is the author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. The recently published book is a sickening and startling expos? of what Schor calls "the corporate takeover of childhood" (see BW, 09/27/04, "The Stepford Kids").
Schor recently talked with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Michelle Conlin about marketers' remorse, life without TV, and the death of the family supper. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: In researching your book, what was your most startling discovery?
A: What most surprised me were the results I got from my study, which found that the more kids are exposed to consumer culture, they likelier they are to become depressed, suffer from anxiety, or experience low self-esteem. I would have thought it was the other way around -- that consumer culture was the symptom, not the cause.
Q: What troubled you the most?
A: The sophistication of the messages marketers are hurling at our kids. The savvy understanding they have of family dynamics and how they can exploit the pressures kids are under to get them to buy things.
One thing they've figured out is how big stress is among kids. And now they've figured out how to market to that stress, sell to it in such a way that translates into getting that addled kid to buy a CD or a candy bar or whatever. Marketers are now able to effectively speak to the social and other anxieties children are having and turn those to their advantage.
Q: And they have new ways of bypassing the old gatekeepers?
A: Marketers are now heavy into dual messaging. They have one message for kids and one for parents. And this is one of the insidious ways that marketers have been able to break down parental resistance to things like junk food.
This goes to the heart of why American kids are eating so much crap. What happened to mom protecting them? Well, marketers have found really sophisticated ways to break down that maternal resistance to bad stuff. They know how to speak to mothers to get them to say "yes" to things to which they should be saying "no."
Q: One fascinating element in your book is the remorse many marketers felt and the way this emotion surfaced in your interviews with them. You wrote about how they felt guilty about their work but also felt pressured to continue making the same paychecks.
A: I would have thought they would have had fairly elaborate rationalizations for what they were doing. But they didn't. They were living in that state of contradiction, which is not a pleasant place to be.
After I finished writing the book, a survey came out that asked childrens' marketers about how they felt about there work. And there was a lot of ambivalence. People pointing fingers at colleagues, at stuff their firms shouldn't be doing. They felt there was too much marketing to children and that they shouldn't be invading schools.
Q: Why aren't parents putting up more resistance to what you call the commercialization of childhood?
A: Kids are often the first adopters in homes of technology. Parents are actually counting on kids to help them navigate the consumer culture. There's also a fear among parents that if their kids dress differently or don't have a certain gadget, that it will create social problems for their kids. Same goes for "depriving" their kids of TV.
Q: In your book, you encouraged parents to agitate politically for more ad regulation and to push for a crackdown on the way schools have become marketing free-for-alls. Any other advice?
A: First off, get rid of the TV. Or at least limit exposure to the media. Parents worry that if they do this, their children won't fit in. But my husband and I got rid of our TV, and guess what? Our kids never asked for it. They're 9 and 13 and are perfectly well-adjusted.
But parents have to stop watching, too. You can't be hypocritical. The other piece of advice might not sound like it's related, but it's key. Cook food and eat together every night. It creates an emotional anchor for your kids, something that's sacred and separate from the consumer culture.
Marketers have figured out what's happening to the family dinner. At one conference I attended, a video was shown of a mom serving her kids microwaved junk for dinner. And the mothers weren't eating with the kids. The kids were eating alone at the kitchen island.
I think the death of the family dinner is also part of the reason why kids are eating so much junk food. Kids are eating diets of pasta, bread, milk, potatoes, and ice cream. The white diet.
Q: Is this idea that kids have to have special foods because they won't eat "adult" foods something that was pushed by food marketers?
A: Absolutely. So if you fight against that, and if you start giving your kids the taste of healthy food at the beginning, then they will eat it. They will love it. Kids don't have a natural propensity to hate good food.
Start with those two things: Limited media consumption and family dinners. Great things will follow. And you'll probably get outside more, too.