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Childhood Consumerism--Who's to Blame

Lunchbox Hegemony? Kids & the Marketplace, Then & Now
Dan Cook, LiP Magazine
August 21, 2001

If you want to catch a glimpse of the gears of capitalism grinding away in
America today, you don't need to go to a factory or a business office.

Instead, observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched whining
you'll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of
single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It
is the sound of thousands of hours of market research, of an immense
coordination of people, ideas and resources, of decades of social and
economic change all rolled into a single, "Mommy, pleeease!"

"If it's within [kids'] reach, they will touch it, and if they touch it,
there's at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and buy it," writes
retail anthropologist, Paco Underhill. The ideal placement of popular books
and videos, he continues, should be on the lower shelves "so the little ones
can grab Barney or Teletubbies unimpeded by Mom or Dad, who possibly take a
dim view of hypercommercialized critters."

Any child market specialist worth their consulting fee knows that the
parental "dim view" of a product most often gives way to relentless
pestering by a kid on a quest to procure the booty of popular culture.
Officially, marketers refer to the annoyance as children's "influence" on
purchases, unofficially it is the "nag factor." The distinction is important
because businesses are discouraged from explicitly inciting children to nag
their parents into buying something, according to advertising guidelines
from the Better Business Bureau.

Do Kids Use Products, or Vice Versa?

One strain of academic thought asserts that media and consumer products are
just cultural materials, and children are free to make use of them as they
will, imparting their own meanings to cartoons, toys, games, etc.

There's little doubt that children creatively interpret their surroundings,
including consumer goods. They color outside the lines, make up rules to
games, invent their own stories and make imaginary cars fly. If we lose
sight of children's ability to exercise personal agency and to transform the
meanings imposed on them by advertising (as well as those imparted by
parents), we will forever be stuck in the belief structure which grants
near-omnipotence to the corporate realm.

Granting children magical transformative powers of the imagination, however,
only further romanticizes an already oversentimentalized view of childhood.
Children are human. Imaginations can be colonized. The materials they use to
create their own meanings are pre-programmed with brand identification, with
gender, race and class clichés and with standard good-bad dichotomies. And,
as any marketer will tell you, exposure to target market is nine-tenths of
the brand battle.

It's Not Just the Corporations

How has this kid consumer world come to be? Easy explanations abound, from
spoiled children to over-indulgent or unengaged parents. Easiest of all is
to accuse corporations of turning kids into blank-faced, videogame-playing,
violence-saturated, sugar-mongering, overweight, docile citizens of the
future. Pundits and politicians from far-left to far-right have found
ideologically comfortable soapboxes from which to voice their opposition to
the corporate incursion into childhood.

Soulless advertisers and rapacious marketers alone, however, cannot account
for the explosion of the kids' 4-12 market, which has just about tripled
since 1990, now raking in around $30 billion annually, according to latest

Don't get me wrong, the target of the critique is on track. What is
troubling, though, is not just that kids demand goods by brand name as early
as two years old. It's the habit of thought which conveniently separates
children from economic processes, placing these spheres in opposition to one
another, and thereby allowing anyone -- including corporations -- to
position themselves on the side of "innocent" children and against "bad"
companies or products.

Marketers and advertisers tell themselves -- and will tell you if you ask --
that they are giving kids what they "want," or providing educational devices
or opportunities for "self-expression."

The thing of it is, on some level, they are right. What is most troubling is
that children's culture has become virtually indistinguishable from consumer
culture over the course of the last century. The cultural marketplace is now
a key arena for the formation of the sense of self and of peer
relationships, so much so that parents often are stuck between giving into a
kid's purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the

The relationship is reciprocal. Childhood and consumer capitalism inform and
co-create each other. It is not just that the children's market is the Happy
Meal version of a grown-up one. It stands apart from others because
childhood is a generative cultural site unlike any other.

Children consumers grow up to be more than just adult consumers. They become
mothers and fathers, administrative assistants and bus drivers, nurses and
realtors, online magazine editors and assistant professors -- in short, they
become us who, in turn, make more of them.

Childhood makes capitalism hum over the long haul.

Kids' consumer culture takes a most intimate thing -- the realization and
expression of self -- and fuses it with a most distant system -- the
production of goods, services and media in an impersonal market.

Cumulatively, this fusion has been forged cohort by cohort and generation by
generation over the twentieth century, making each of us a small conspirator
in its reproduction. The process is so insidious that by the time a child
gains the language and capacity to grasp what is occurring, his or her
attention patterns, preferences, memories and aspirations cannot be neatly
separated from the images and poetics of corporate strategy.

The History We Are

Adults are the living legacies of commodified childhoods gone by. Our
memories, our sense of personal history are to some extent tied to the
commercial culture of our youth: an old lunchbox with television characters
on it, a doll, a comic book, a brand of cereal, a sports hero perhaps,
certainly music of one sort or another.

These may seem like benign artifacts of a fading past, harmless enough,
slated to wind up as pieces of nostalgia at junk shops and yard sales. They
might seem particularly benign when viewed against the backdrop of today's
hyper-aggressive children's marketing strategies which target children who
eat branded foods and play in branded spaces, who are exposed to television
in school courtesy of Channel One and who, to take one infamous example,
learn geometry by measuring the circumference of Oreo cookies.

The "hegemonic power" of that Starsky and Hutch(TM) lunch box of yesteryear
seems almost laughable by comparison.

But the joke unfortunately is on us, in part, because the Teletubbies and
Pokemon of the '90s would not have been possible without the Starsky and
Hutch of the '70s, and those crime-fighting hunks would not have been
possible in some measure without the Mouseketeers of the '50s, whose
apple-pie smiles would not have been possible without the Lone Ranger of the
radio days of the '30s. If we are to intervene in the rampant
commodification of childhood, we need to balance the impulse to place
exclusive blame on corporations for polluting children's minds and bodies
with a larger, historical perspective.

Creating the Child's Point of View

At the opening of the twentieth century, working-class children still toiled
in the factories or worked the streets of the rising industrial city as
bootblacks, newsies and helpers. They (mostly boys) spent their money on
food and candy, in the new nickelodeon theaters, pool halls and restaurants.
Aside from these amusements, there was no children's consumer market to
speak of.

Enter the "bourgeois child" at the end of the nineteenth century, whose
value was no longer economic, but sentimental. Liberated from direct,
industrial labor and placed into school, this child was trained in the
technical skills and social posture appropriate for a new bureaucratic
order. His (again, usually his) childhood was to be full of fancy, not
preoccupied with factory or farm work; his first school, a "children's
garden," as close to Eden as possible.

The image of the bourgeois child would spread beyond the confines of a
rising urban, white, middle class to become the model for virtually all
childhoods in industrialized nations by the millennium.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, department stores began
to recognize and welcome the bourgeois child, providing separate, modest toy
departments with play spaces where mothers could "check" their children
while they shopped. Prior to about 1915, there were also no separate
infants' and children's clothing departments in department stores -- clothes
tended to be stocked by item, not size. One could find children's socks in
hosiery, children's shirts in the men's or women's department, etc.

A Chicago manufacturer of baby garments, George Earnshaw, hit upon something
when he began to convince department store management to devote separate
space to children's clothing and furnishings. Mothers and expectant mothers
were to be served by this new arrangement, which would have "everything they
needed" in one place.

Much ink was spilled in the trade and consumer journals throughout the '20s,
'30s and '40s in the attempt to discern the tastes, priorities and foibles
of "Mrs. Consumer," a caricature which continues today as something of an
icon of consumer society. (How else would we know that "Choosy mothers
choose Jif"?) The first children's retail spaces were built, located,
staffed and stocked with the consuming mother, not the child, in mind.

By the 1930s, however, individualized clothing and toy departments in
department stores gave way to entire "floors for youth" complete with
child-size fixtures, mirrors, and eye-level views of the merchandise.
Merchants hoped to provide children with a sense of proprietorship over the
shop or area by visually, acoustically and commercially demonstrating that
it was a space designed with them in mind.

The basic arrangement was to display older children's clothing and related
furnishings at the entrance to a floor or department. As kids moved through
the department, they encountered progressively younger styles until reaching
the baby shop in the back. A designer of one such floor explained:

Older children . . . are often reluctant to shop on a floor where "all those
babies" are shopping. The younger children are delighted to see the older
children shopping as they go through these departments, for all children
want to be older than they are. The little boy and little girl seeing the
big boys and big girls buying will long for the day when he (sic) too can
come to these departments and buy . . . In this way a valuable shopping
habit is created. (Bulletin of the National Retail Dry Goods Association,
Oct. 1939, p. 72)

Note here how the child's viewpoint, agency and emergent autonomy are
transformed into exchangeable, marketable values. What's new is the way that
the child's perspective is invoked as legitimate authority within the
context of commercial enterprise.

This was the beginning of a fundamental shift in the social status of
children from seen-and-not-heard, wait-till-you-grow-up dependency to having
retail spaces, shelving in stores and media messages tailored to their
viewpoint, making it the basis of economic action. Today, we expect to see
video monitors flashing images of Britney Spears, oversized replicas of
teddy bears, and primary-colored display fixtures every time we walk into a
Kids 'R' Us.

And Now a Word from our Sponsored Kids

Over a number of generations, children and younger adults became key
arbiters of kid-taste in US.

Children moved to the front-and-center of popular culture with the early
successes of Shirley Temple and others like Mickey Rooney in the '30s. Their
images provided a foundation for the publicly shared persona of the
bourgeois child as one who moves in a world virtually independent from adult
concerns and preoccupations -- one that makes sense only in reference to its
own child-logic. Think of the Peanuts characters whose world is totally
devoid of adults of any consequence: all framing is child-eye level, only
the legs of adults are shown, and when adults speak their voices are
non-linguistic trombone-like notes.

Meanwhile, back in the marketplace, children were also acquiring status as
spokespersons for goods throughout the twentieth century -- from fictional
icons like Buster Brown (1910s) and the Campbell's Soup Kids (1920s), to
actors like Cowboy Bobby Benson (1950s), to voice-overs for commercials
during the Saturday morning "children's" television time (1960s). By the
60s, the child spokesperson had become such a fixture that market
researchers felt comfortable enough to query children directly for their
product preferences, giving them a "voice" in the market sphere.

Children -- or to be precise, media-massaged images of children -- now
routinely and aggressively hawk almost any kind of product, from car tires
to vacations to refrigerators to grape juice, as advertisers make use of
both "cute appeal" and safety fears.

Kids frequently serve as peer arbiters in newspapers, magazines and
websites, reviewing movies, videogames, toys and television shows -- as it
is assumed, often correctly, that they have more intimate knowledge about
the detail and appeal of these things than adults do. This is a world under
continuous construction and it is theirs: oriented around their "desires,"
retrofitted to their physical size and tweaked in just the right way to
produce that all-important feeling of inadequacy if this or that product is
not in their possession.

Factoring in the Nag

Kids not only want things, but have acquired the socially sanctioned right
to want -- a right which parents are loath to violate. Layered onto direct
child enticement and the supposed autonomy of the child-consumer are the
day-to-day circumstances of overworked parents: a daily barrage of requests,
tricky financial negotiations, and that nagging, unspoken desire to build
the life/style they have learned to want during their childhoods.

Sometimes the balancing act is overwhelming. "Moms have loosened nutritional
controls," enthuses Denise Fedewa, VP-planning director at Leo Burnett,
Chicago. "They now believe there are so many battles to fight, is fighting
over food really worth it?"

Unsurprisingly, mainstream media provides few correctives. The August 6th
Time cover story on kids' influence on parents gushes over the excesses of
the upper-middle-class in typical fashion, sucessfully detracting from the
larger, more generalized problem of struggling parents.

Slipping the Parent Trap

If kid marketing tactics were merely blatant, their power would not be so
great, but consumption enfolded into daily existence. Places like zoos and
museums are promoted as "educational," toys are supposed to "teach,"
clothing allows for "individuality" and who can suggest that there is
something wrong with "good ol' family fun" at, say, Dollywood?

The children's market works because it lives off of deeply-held beliefs
about self-expression and freedom of choice -- originally applied to the
political sphere, and now almost inseparable from the culture of
consumption. Children's commercial culture has quite successfully usurped
kids' boundless creativity and personal agency, selling these back to them
-- and us -- as "empowerment," a term that appeases parents while shielding

Linking one's sense of self to the choices offered by the marketplace
confuses personal autonomy with consumer behavior. But, try telling that to
a kid who only sees you standing in the way of the Chuck-E-Cheese-ified
version of fun and happiness. Kids are keen to the adult-child power
imbalance and to adult hypocrisy, especially when they are told to hold
their desires in check by a parent who is blind to her or his own
materialistic impulses.

We have to incite children to adopt a critical posture toward media and
consumption. A key step in combating the forces eating away at childhood is
to recognize our own place as heirs of the bourgeois child and thus as
largely unwitting vehicles of consumer culture. The mere autocratic vetoing
of children's requests will only result in anti-adult rebellion.

The challenge facing us all -- as relatives, teachers, friends, or even
not-so-innocent bystanders -- is to find ways to affirm children's personal
agency and their membership in a community of peers while insisting that
they make the distinction between self worth and owning a Barbie or a
Pokemon card -- or any thing, for that matter.

Lunchbox Hegemony? Kids & the Marketplace, Then & Now
Dan Cook, LiP Magazine
August 21, 2001

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