Born to Buy: Introduction

This is the first discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. This discussion covers the first chapter, “Introduction,” which appears on pages 9 through 18.

When I look at the cover of Born to Buy, the first thing I see is that baby sitting in a gift bag, and I immediately make a mental substitution to place my six month old daughter in there, with her curly hair and big brown eyes peeking over the top. The symbolism of that whole scene – my wonderful baby daughter, full of laughs and baby squeals, already being subjected to consumerism and marketing – raises a deep feeling of concern inside of me.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my own life when it comes to consumerism and allowing marketing to influence me, and it was my infant son who convinced me to step back and look at the mess I was making.

He’s now two and particularly in love with Cars. He requests the movie all the time – we say no most of the time and severely limit his screen time – but that’s not what concerns me. What really gets me is when we go to the store and stop in the diaper aisle – he expresses a very strong preference for the diaper brand that depicts Cars characters on them. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that same logic growing into a flurry of spending and a lack of consumer control at an older age.

With that in mind – and with a strong sense of my own failings – I wanted to read through Born to Buy again in order to get a deeper understanding of how marketing is reaching out to children, even those as young as two. Hopefully, we’ll all learn something along the way.

Here are three interesting parts in the first chapter that stood out to me.

Do Responsible Parents Expose Their Children to Brands?

First, a quote from page 11 of Born to Buy (with my own emphasis):

Children have become conduits from the consumer marketplace into the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse. Young people are repositories of consumer knowledge and awareness. They are the first adopters and avid users of many of the new technologies. They are the household members with the most passionate consumer desires, and are most closely tethered to products, brands, and the latest trends. Children’s social worlds are increasingly constructed around consuming, as brands and products have com to determine who is “in” or “out,” who is hot or not, who deserves to have friends, or social status.

It’s pretty easy for me to remember such things from childhood and also to see it in children and teenagers today. When I was a teenager, the most fervent topics of conversation among the people I hung out with were video games (an incessantly costly consumer product) and basketball shoes (an overly expensive fashion statement). You were socially judged by the brand of basketball shoes you wear, and even the lowliest schlub could raise his social status by wearing a pair of Reebok Pumps or pulling out a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3.

The patterns repeat themselves today, with the teenagers I’m able to regularly observe using their cell phones incessantly and constantly talking about who has the best one – and drooling over one girl’s iPhone. Clothing with obvious brand insignias also are a part of the social hierarchy as well – the logo on your shirt can mean the difference between acceptance and ridicule.

It’s pretty challenging for a middle-class parent to avoid this social trap. On the one hand, encouraging your child to be a rampant consumer in order to get ahead in the social game is basically setting them up for a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” later on. On the other, denying them any access to this puts them at a social disadvantage, something I don’t want to foist on my children, either. I remember quite well the feeling of being rejected because of some label on my clothing – and it took me a significant amount of later maturity to realize how stupid it all was. Just because it was stupid doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

What is the right balance for parents? Everyone’s going to have a different answer on this one. My feeling is that brand exposure is inevitable for children, so you have to ride the tide to a degree – just couple that exposure to consumerism with a healthy dose of constructive consumer education. I like the way one of my friends who is a parent of teenagers handles it – he just adds more relevant information to their decision, but abides by what they choose, letting consumer education be more like an ongoing laboratory.

As I heard more than a few times growing up: Teach your children well / Their father’s hell did slowly go by / And feed them on your dreams / The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Can Families Downsize?

Another quote, also from page 11 (again, with the emphasis my own):

One part of my research for the spending book was interviews with people toward the far end of the downshifting spectrum – those who were intentionally rejecting the consumer lifestyle rather than working less. I discovered that downshifters who were raising children were almost impossible to find. At the time, I reasoned that children are expensive or that most parents would not want to impose a regime of reduced consumption on their kids.

Eventually I realized that this dearth of downshifting among parents revealed a significant trend in consumer culture. […] how many parents opt to downshift or simplify? It’s a radical step many children don’t welcome.

Not too long ago, I discussed a book called Downshifting, which covered this concept well. It defined downshifting as reducing the amount of time you work (and the intensity of it) and reducing the complexity – and cost – of your life.

My natural instinct is to want to downshift, but I understand the inherent conflict with downshifting and children, particularly as described above. I see it this way: unless you’re committed to an active rejection of society, it’s hard to do a major downshifting with children in tow.

I hear quite often from individuals who advocate this kind of rejection of consumer society. They tell me that any consumer exposure for children is inherently wrong, and I’m told in no uncertain terms that I am a bad parent for even allowing my son a Cars blanket. I absolutely reject that line of thinking. It’s my job as a parent to educate my children in the realities that life will throw at them. If I were to severely downshift and force them into rejecting consumer culture, I will have failed them as a parent.

I might personally want to downshift, but by doing so, I’m not doing my full job as a parent. My job is to participate in the education of my children, and a big part of that is how to interact with the consumer world. I’m my child’s primary consumer education teacher, and if I fully reject consumerism, I’m not doing my job as a parent.

The Usual Parent Reaction

From page 17:

Many adults respond to the critique of media and consumerism by shrugging it off, on the grounds that this culture is inescapable. Some are fatalistic; others contend that the critics exaggerate or are missing the true causes of kids’ distress. Many reason that they themselves grew up on television with no untoward effects.

There are times when I’m reading Born to Buy where I want to call Juliet Schor an anti-American Marxist who hates all corporations. I think this is a fairly typical reaction, actually.

I think part of the reason for that feeling is that many of us have come to accept a consumer-oriented society as completely normal and suggestions for living in other ways are strange. We live in a world where all of our friends, acquaintances, and peers are involved in this consumer culture as well, and when this culture is damningly criticized, it often comes off as something of a personal insult. How dare you criticize my way of life!

If I’ve learned one thing over the last two years, it’s that you can’t improve your life without criticizing it. If you genuinely believe everything you’re doing is right, then there’s no reason to work on improving things – the only way to get better is to realize where you’re at now is worse than were you could be.

So what’s the “better” that’s being strived for here? It’s a call to improve as parents – and as people. I like to believe I’m doing a good job as a parent, but I’m far from egotistical enough to believe I’m a great parent. One thing I know I want to do as a parent is equip my child with the intellectual tools they need to not fall into consumerism traps like the ones I fell into as a young adult. The best way to do that is to check my parental ego at the door and realize that I need to learn something, especially if that something is backed up by a lot of research, far beyond what I’m capable of doing as an individual.

Even if it means listening to the arguments of an anti-American Marxist who hates all corporations.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the first half of the second chapter of Born to Buy (“The Changing World of Children’s Consumption”), covering pages 19 through 29 and ending at the subheading “Playing Less and Shopping More.”