Born to Buy: Inside the Child Brain

This is the tenth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the the latter part of the sixth chapter, “Dissecting the Child Consumer,” starting on page 109 at the subheading “Inside the Child Brain” and continuing through the rest of the chapter.

born to buyMost of this section covers the nuts and bolts of how companies engage in research when it comes to children and, quite frankly, most of it comes down to money. Many of the more intense research programs pay the children (or parents of the children) when they “volunteer” to participate in a focus group or another marketing research program.

I found two quite interesting pieces in this section.

Is Marketing Research Child Labor?
On page 115, Schor mentions:

Watching the bedraggled crowd at one focus group site as the evening (a school night) wore on, I wondered why this phenomenon has stayed out of public view. We don’t let eleven year olds staff fast food joints at 8:30 on weeknights. Why hasn’t there been any discussion of their work at the local focus group facility?

I think I can actually answer that question. It’s because information work – white collar work – is perceived differently than labor. In other words, work in a focus group is seen as existing under different rules than work in a fast food restaurant.

You can see it quite often in the adult world, where IT workers are required to have their cell phones on at all times. On the other hand, factory workers clock out and completely forget about their workplace. Businessmen are chained to their Blackberries, but waitresses go off duty and forget about the restaurant. Construction workers leave their cranes behind at the end of the day – but other workers come home with a briefcase or a laptop in hand.

Unfair labor laws exist all over the place for blue collar jobs, but not for white collar jobs. Why is this? In the past, blue collar jobs were the ones that could be exploited for profit, as white collar jobs merely existed to manage the work of blue collar jobs.

In the information economy, though, white collar workers are now doing much of the actual productive work, but the perception that white collar jobs don’t demand any labor protections still exists.

It’s this same perception that allows children to be at the focus group until very late, earning their pay for being in the marketing program, but they’re not allowed to flip burgers at the restaurant.

An interesting double standard, isn’t it?

Childhood Friendships for Fun and Profit!
Another interesting aspect of all of this pops up on page 116:

I encountered other troubling aspects of the research process, such as the use of one child to recruit others. In these cases, full disclosure to both children and parents is much harder to ensure. The research cannot be certain about how a situation is being described and the preconceptions friends are coming with. The recruiting child also has a financial incentive to get others to participate, which raises the potential for exploitation.

This sounds an awful lot like multi-level marketing to me – Amway/Quixtar for kids, in other words, where people make income at least in part by recruiting others into the system. The only catch here is that it’s kids effectively doing it to other kids – they’re convincing playground chums to sign up in order to make profit for themselves.

It’s hard enough for adults to distinguish social marketing techniques – have you ever been seduced by a salesman into buying a product, for example, or witnessed it happening? It’s even worse when you introduce such factors to kids who are at least as prone to social acceptance and don’t have the years of life experience needed to build up a good filter against such marketing.

There are times when I genuinely feel uncomfortable about the issues I face raising my kids today.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the first half of the seventh chapter, “Habit Formation,” starting on page 119 and ending after page 129 at the subheading “Who’s Responsible: Parents or Advertisers?”.

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