13 December 2007

'tis the season: rampant consumerism

Okay, this is not strictly a holiday post per se, but I figured that Christmas is the perfect time to write a bit about consumer culture and marketing. Everyone, at this time of year, feels the pressure to buy. If you're a parent, you're feeling it even more, because in addition to the ordinary media pressure to spend a lot of money on your family and friends, you have small children begging you for every cool new thing they lay eyes on, because they know that presents are coming. Lots of parents can shift the responsibility to Santa, but since we don't do Santa, we're stuck looking like Scrooges when we don't come through with the cool gifts. And this is the first year where either of our children has really cared about particular presents. I guess I should be glad they waited this long.

Yesterday I read this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Nation about the ubiquity of the Disney princesses. The popularity of Disney princesses for little girls is the flip side of Star Wars and superheroes for little boys, with a slight difference -- little boys' loyalties and affections are divided between Star Wars and Transformers and Superman and Spiderman, while for little girls, the Disney princesses are it. There aren't any competitors in the same league, at least not for a particular age group. Ehrenreich covers the problems inherent with having princesses as role models, but she doesn't get into why they are so popular, so desired by little girls everywhere. I can answer that, at least in part.

This topic is really interesting to me, especially in light of the book I'm currently reading, Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds, by Susan Gregory Thomas. Thomas writes about how consumer culture has evolved over the last few decades, and the ways in which toy companies market to children and prey on the fears and insecurities of parents in order to generate huge profits. It's been a really interesting read so far, in many ways. Where do the Disney princesses come into this? Thomas devotes a whole chapter to the Disney princess phenomenon and its financial success. It's a perfect example of a product being relentlessly marketed to young children (you can find Disney princesses on merchandise ranging from toothbrushes to bedroom decor to clothing to board games). It also falls into the category of appealing to parental nostalgia. Have you noticed the comeback of '80s characters like the Care Bears, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake? It's not a coincidence that the children who grew up on these toys are now beginning to have kids of their own.

Thomas cites studies that show that the only measurable thing toddlers and babies learn from watching TV is character recognition. So it's not that little girls inherently want to be beautiful princesses, it's that from the time they are very small, they are saturated in a consumer culture where corporations deliberately target children as consumers. Children begin to form an emotional attachment, through repeated exposure, to a character. Children are incredibly succeptible to marketing, because until the age of 7 or 8, they are unable to understand the idea of persuasion, and at younger ages, can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. They love Cinderella because they've watched her videos and they have her nightgowns and sleeping bags -- they think of her as a friend because of her presence in their lives -- and so naturally they will want the Cinderella tent and the Cinderella DVD player.

This is true not just of Disney princesses, of course, but all kinds of characters. For my own boys it's Pokemon and Star Wars. Star Wars Monopoly is superior to regular Monopoly because it has Star Wars characters and pictures. I have noticed that my kids are affected not only by media directed at them, but even by media that's not aimed at children. Greg and I were recently having a conversation about diamonds (and nothing positive, because I am not a fan of diamonds) and James, just overhearing the key word, pipes up, "Diamonds? Go to Zales. They're the diamond store," in his most helpful tone. (Also, as a side note: James heard me telling Greg a statistic from the book -- that over a quarter of kids under two have a television in their bedrooms, which I think is appalling -- and said incredulously, "A TV in their BEDROOM? Can I have one??")

I'm pretty anti-consumerism in general, but reading this book makes me want to sell my television and never set foot in a mall again. But it is really helpful to be reading it right now, at this time of year, because I'm able to realize that the overwhelming urge for holiday consumerism I'm feeling, and the ridiculous gift lists my son is composing, are products of the capitalist marketing machine. We are feeling this way because there are people out there whose job it is to make us feel this way, and they are good at what they do. They are getting rich because they are skilled at manipulating consumers. It's casting a new light on the Christmas season for me. I'm not even finished with the book but I'd recommend it to anyone, especially parents.


Samay said...

What exactly does a child under two do with a tv in their bedroom?

Anonymous said...

Heidi -
I'm with you here -
I love the music and the cookies and having all the family home - but all the rest of the ykw is - well -
Why do you think we chose to live in a town that doesn't even have a mall?
Why do you think we are happy spending time shoveling the real thing? It smells so much better!
See you soon!

Jessica said...

Oh dear, just what I need to read before we head to Disney World in April with my parents. I am not worried about K, who only had a short phase of liking Cinderella, but am concerned about this "character recognition" thing with the twins. This desire to find something alternative to the mass media's messages to girls is why I am interested in Waldorf education and the alternative toys and dress-ups places like Magic Cabin offer. I noticed that Borders also has a good series for girls about "Real Princesses" out doing things in nature. Anyway, I will have to check out that book over vacation. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Jessica said...

One other thing -- what K wants most for Christmas is this vet set at Target which included a stuffed animal and various vet instruments. I would love to get it for her, except that *everything* in the set is plastered with the Barbie logo.