Monday, November 13, 2006

The best in products, the worst in people*

I apologise to my reader(s), as I know that my shift in tone from post to post may sometimes result in an odd sort of reader's whiplash, as I oscillate from light-hearted humour to deadly earnestness.

That said, allow me to plunge into the following;

Madeleine Bunting authored an excellent op-ed piece in today's Guardian. Entitled 'In our angst over children we're ignoring the perils of adulthood', it gave an excellent overview and evaluation of the effects of (chiefly) the presentation of adults on television as being clueless and hopelessly unhip, and drew a connection between this and the creation of children as consumers.

Professor Juliet Schor, an American economist, ...[has] argued that marketing
to children has boomed over the past decade, and its content has been
characterised by anti-adultism. Cool is of the ultimate symbolic importance, and
what is cool is usually anti-adult, oppositional, rebellious. Adults are never
cool - they are boring, often absurd, sometimes stupid - and when they try to be
cool they are pathetic. Even popular cartoons such as Rugrats are aping the
format. The universe conjured up is one of "kids rule", in which children are
"empowered into an adult-free space". ...

To Schor, the purpose of this adult-free space is the commercial exploitation of
children. The marketers, she claims, are creating the perfect consumer: easily
led and divorced from other moderating social influences. Not surprising, then,
that they spend $20bn in the US on this advertising market. It's reckoned that
children, on top of their own expenditure, now influence $700bn of parental
purchasing power. Parents consult their children on everything from sofas to
cars. Children are now the weakest link - the exploitable gateway to household
bank accounts.

This connection, it seems to me, is spot on. I find it especially interesting that (while this is Schor's word and not, so far as I know, any particular marketer's) the dynamic of separating children from parents/ adults is cast in terms of 'empowering' -- I might go even further and say 'liberating'.

Of course, it is an ersatz liberation, to put it mildly, for 1) no child can truly be free anyway -- the role of parents must be taken up by someone else; and 2) being truly empowered or liberated would in fact be counter to the needs and intentions of consumer market capitalism. A child must be separated enough from his parents to not take them seriously, and to begin to believe that they are their own masters, forming themselves, making their own decisions. But the child must not be separated from his parents so much that the parents' purse or wallet is no longer in play, nor must they become separated from the cultural institution which is forming them to be separate in the first place. In the end, this is no liberation or empowerment at all, for it cannot be: it is merely a colonisation of children by those who have no business forming them as persons, in a way that ensures the children are neither free nor empowered, but merely efficiently inducted into the nihilism of a groundless, isolated, consuming self.

(This work by Schor is not isolated, either. I have recently been reading in my spare time a book by Marion Nestle entitled Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. One of the main sections explores marketing practices of the food industry, particularly as they target children in order to build in market segment from an early age. It is bracing reading about a wicked practice.)

Bunting also refers briefly to Archbishop Rowan Williams' statements on the issue of childhood and adulthood. In a presentation on the issue in 2005, ++Rowan said
We all know, those of us who are parents, something of the consumer pressures
that there are around in what is now called ‘pester power’. What is a proper
regime of regulation for advertising aimed at children? It is a question of
some urgency. If we are interested, corporately and socially, in creating
and maintaining an environment where pressure on children is regarded as
unjust – I use the word deliberately – then the right of children to justice
involves challenging many of the habits of the advertising world in respect
of children.

++Rowan also specifically mentions something which perhaps only lurks in the background in the op-ed piece: that there is a larger movement of adults and children simply not talking with each other, not knowing how to talk with each other.

When we lived in Central Newport, my wife used to go to the local primary school
which our daughter attended to help with reading practice. She would come back
regularly and say that the problem was not teaching children how to read; the
problem was communicating with children who were simply not used to talking with
adults at all or being talked to by adults. Children had, in effect, been turned

Advertising and marketing practices aimed at children are quite morally problematic and need seriously to be rethought: they form children to be, early on, obedient consumers without moral resources to make proper decisions -- they are a means of socialisation. That we would consider this permissible shows that there is a problem somewhere. But the sobering thing -- and the reason we shouldn't consider these practices to be the only problem -- is that they are one part of a larger generational social dynamic.

+ + +

I predict that I will get two sorts of responses to this post (especially if the buzz cops are lurking): 1) It is the parents' responsibility to monitor their children, we shouldn't blame advertising, and 2) We are all free to choose, marketing does not make someone do thus and such.

The second objection is wrong on at least two counts: although it is far from clear to me that it makes sense to say 'we are all free to choose' -- our wills are deeply complex things, neither utterly free nor utterly bound, but certainly subject to a good degree of formation from outside of our selves -- it is particularly the case that small children are not free to choose in the same way adults might be able to. They haven't the critical thinking skills to weigh alternatives, or consider that not getting something might be better than getting it, or to take a long view. They simply haven't been formed to make the right decision.

And I suspect that that is preciely the point: so much of consumerism is based not on rational decision-making, but impulses and non-rational preferences (which are seen as being unassailable on those ground: there's no judging taste, or so the sentiment might go). What could be more important than forming people at an early age to make desire-based decisions in a moral-free context? It is because this is our usual practice that my suggestion that it is more important that children make right decisions than any decision may be found jarring.

The second count of why the second objection is wrong is the common sense observation that corporations spend massive amounts of money every year in marketing to children. They would not do so if this were ineffective. (Consider that successful companies rarely spend similar amounts on fortunetellers -- not that knowing the future wouldn't be valuable for corporations, but fortunetellers are notoriously unreliable. If companies don't spend money on unreliable means to a desirable end, why would they spend so much on marketing if it were ineffective?)

As for the first objection, it is true enough that parents are ultimately responsible for their own children, but this is a different sort of thing than this objection really implies. This sort of objection is intended to let the actions of others off the hook for moral analysis, and this just doesn't wash. We have -- to this point at least -- made hallucinogenic drugs illegal. Now certainly some parents, whether through genuine neglect or through unreasonable work schedules or what have you, have allowed their children to be unsupervised and these unsupervised children have become users of illegal drugs. We might reasonably assign some moral blame to the parent(s) in this scenario, but we do not thereby allow 1) the drug pusher or 2) law-enforcement for their ineffective policing to remain blame-free.

This objection also endorses a shallow, unrealistic sort of free-will, almost libertarian in its scope, which says that the unfettered will of the parents ought simply to be more effectively imposed on the will of the children. Of course, it is not at all this simple. Children must be guided and formed into making the right decisions, but they are not only exposed to parents, but peers, teachers, other adults, and so on, and they are formed as persons by all of these interactions.

They are chiefly formed by parents in the first few years, but parents are themselves subject to pressures as well. If one decides not to have a television in the house -- as we have decided -- in order to minimise these influences on your child, then are you sheltering them too much? Will you as a parent by ridiculed by certain of your peers? Is there ever any time at which a child may view something unsupervised, on television or on DVD?

All of the questions raised by these issues are not easily answered, and neither I nor Madeleine Bunting nor Marion Nestle (nor Juliet Schor, so far as I know) wish to present them as such. But it is clear to me that this is an issue about which we need to think seriously not just as individuals but as a community, as a society. And it is just as clear to me that the damnably simple answers presented so far -- in league with those who think there is no real question here -- serve to extend and intensify the nihilism in which we are already formed.

* General Post's assessment of capitalism is that is 'brought out the best in products and the worst in people.' It seems to me that is not too far off the mark, and that it has also got exactly backwards what society ought to be about. (I'm set to begin reading David Jenkins' book Market Whys and Human Wherefores: Thinking Again About Markets, Politics, and People, so expect more of these sorts of ruminations again soon.)


Blogger PdB said...

I whole-heartedly agree with your discussion of the op-ed, so I must confess that I rather skipped over your responses to the predicted objections.

Here's the sobering thing: separating children from the influence of the previous generation is by no means a new technique for those seeking power, whether economic or political.

I recently read an excellent book that reveals a devastating picture of how methodically Hitler worked to separate children's affections from their parents, that they might be devoted to him and the state above all else.

The Bolsheviks, as sympathetically reported by John Dewey, viewed parents as an obstacle to the indoctrination of the school children in the ways of Marxism, and they also used youth programs to divorce the children from their parent's influence.

Our own [American] school system is tainted by such manipulation from humanists like Charles Potter who have long claimed education as "a most powerful ally of Humanism". John Dunphy calls the classroom "an arena of conflict between the old and the new--the rotting corpse of Christianity...and the new faith of humanism."

And the classrooms have become surrogate homes with surrogate families, where the peers become more important than siblings, the teachers more credible and trustworthy than parents.

Can it be any more apparent how great is our responsibility to claim our children's affections for ourselves, that we may direct them to love God above all else?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 6:07:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home