SHOP TILL YOU drop! - the cheerful, self-indulgent exhortation of Gucci-shod, Prada-clad women everywhere has taken on a sinister connotation. According to a new book by the American author and academic Juliet Schor, Born to Buy, consumerism is consuming our children, turning them into pasty-faced, stunted, miserable versions of the carefree spirits we want them to be.
Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, psychosomatic complaints and obesity are almost as closely associated with childhood as Barbie, Game Boys and Happy Meals. But according to Schor’s controversial book, the latter is actually causing the former. Children, she believes, are now the main targets of an avaricious and amoral marketing industry which puts profit before everything.
The targeting of children by multi-nationals is a political issue in Britain, too, but so far it is only the food manufacturers facing the music. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, announced last week that a third Labour government would "legislate to ensure children are not bombarded by junk food advertising when they are watching television". Junk food advertisements may have had their chips, but, according to Schor, it shouldn’t stop there.
"By 18 months babies can recognise logos," says Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. "By two they ask for products by their brand name. During their nursery-school years, children will request an average of 25 products a day. By the time they enter primary school, the average child can identify 200 logos and children between the ages of six and 12 spend more time shopping than reading, attending youth groups, playing outdoors or spending time in household conversation."
The children she describes are American, but it is not hard to envisage their British counterparts toddling behind them in Nike trainers. Jamie’s Dinners, the recent Channel 4 series which prompted Kelly’s pledge to ban junk-food advertising, showed a class of primary school children who could all identify Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s and Burger King but did not recognise rhubarb, asparagus or leeks. Advertisers are using ever more sophisticated techniques to reach children, by-passing parents altogether and subtly sending out the message that adults are killjoys who should be ignored.
"Children," says Schor, "have become conduits from the consumer marketplace to the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse." Not surprising, perhaps, as a 1997 study showed that 70 per cent of parents were susceptible to pester power with children admitting to asking for a product up to 50 times before their parents gave in.
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says it is a huge issue for parents. "As a parent, I recognise that advertisers have a very powerful influence on children. If a stranger knocked on your door and said he wanted to come in and talk to your children, you’d tell him to go away. But that is precisely what is happening to children when they watch television. It’s a huge challenge for parents. There are all these strangers out there who want to get at your children in order to get at you."
"Contemporary American ‘tweens’ and teens have emerged as the most brand- orientated, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history," says Schor. "At the same time, evidence of distress among children has been mounting. Rates of obesity are at epidemic levels. Diagnoses of attention- deficit disorder have risen dramatically and record numbers of kids are taking drugs to help them achieve self-control and focus.
"Teasing and bullying is rampant in schools, and includes a new protagonist, the ‘alpha girl’, a mean-spirited social enforcer."
By the end of her study Schor has concluded that: "Involvement in consumer culture causes dysfunction in the forms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints."
IT’S A HUGE leap to make and one which is not entirely justified by the research, but before she gets there, Schor takes a stroll down Madison Avenue to interview the alpha males and females of the advertising industry. What they have to say would induce depression and anxiety in an eternal optimist.
The language is the language of war. Children are "targets". Printed matter is "collaterals". Impromptu interviews with consumers are "intercepts". Advertisers spoke to Schor of "turning kids into users" and of "sending out a virus". Nancy Shelek, president of the Shelek Agency, says: "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do that with kids because they are the most vulnerable."
This can lead to some very miserable children. "In 6th grade all my friends basically dumped me because other people gave them grief about the uncool state of me and my clothes," says Amanda, who is now 17. One advertising executive heavily involved in tween marketing, puts it this way. "I am doing the most horrible thing in the world. We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things. It’s not worth the almighty buck." Bucking the buck is another matter, however. Youth spending in America has almost doubled to $170 million (91 million) in the last ten years.
Greg Philo, Professor of Communication at Glasgow University, says the pressure on both parents and children is immense and it is causing a great deal of unhappiness. "The message children are being given is that their status is inexorably linked with what they buy and what they wear. It causes a huge amount of conflict and misery. Working parents who feel guilty about not spending time with their children, compensate by buying them what they want. The whole of our society is predicated on buying. There is a huge amount of guilt involved."
Schor is at her best when revealing the advertising industry’s trade secrets. One of the hottest trends in youth marketing is age compression, using marketing messages originally designed for older children and targeting them at younger children. Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, sells thongs with sexually-suggestive phrases for children as young as seven.
Duel marketing is used to sell children one image of a company and their parents another. Think about the recent McDonald’s advertisements where parents are reassured by the idea of carrot sticks and yoghurt but the children are still targeted with burgers, chicken nuggets and toys.
‘Trans-toying’, where everyday objects are turned into toys - toothbrushes with characters, shampoo bottles whose tops are cartoon figures, sticking plasters made to look like tattoos and scratch and sniff jeans or socks - is another big trend in the US which is beginning to take hold in the UK. It may seem innocent enough, but child development experts worry that if every item becomes a toy, there is little space for imagination.
"If all children’s experiences are geared towards excitement, surprise and thrills, they may not experience that happiness and well-being are mainly gained through an appreciation of the quotidian," says Schor. Harvard psychologist Susan Linn goes further. "Marketers would have us believe that the purpose of food is to play with it. Isn’t that an obscene value when there are people in the world who are starving?"
FUREDI AGREES THAT children are being more aggressively targeted by advertisers, but he also perceives another trend at work. "We are living in a society which finds it very hard to make a distinction between children and adults," he says. "Look at cross-over films. It’s not unusual to see adults without children going to see films such as Shrek II. The Harry Potter series has been published with adult covers. A third of MTV’s viewers are adults."
Schor, whose previous books include The Overworked American and The Overspent American, is part of a recent backlash against the traditional American Dream. She has helped to set up www.newdream.org aimed at more responsible and ecologically sustainable consumerism. Her research certainly gives ammunition to those who, like her, want advertising to children banned.
In Britain a groundswell of opinion for banning junk food advertising has been spear-headed by Jamie Oliver: "I’d ban it," he says. "I’ve told Sainsbury’s. If they wanted me to make an ad for pre-packed foods, I wouldn’t do it. Kids are very brand aware."
But those seeking a panacea in the ban of junk-food advertising need to be realistic. "In Sweden advertising to children has been banned ever since commercial television began there, but 18 per cent of Swedish children are overweight - much the same as in Britain," says Winston Fletcher, who chairs the Advertising Standards Board of Finance and is a director of advertising agency DLKW. "Advertising to children was banned in Quebec more than 20 years ago, but 28 per cent of children in the province are overweight - about the same as in the rest of Canada where advertising to children has always been permitted."
"There may be other forces at work," says Philo. "But Swedish parents are certainly very appreciative of the ban, especially as far as toys are concerned."
While it is impossible not to be shocked by many of Schor’s findings, there is an element of junk science in her work. Her conclusion that "consumerism is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints" is based on interviews with 300 children using a questionnaire she devised. Her views may have some validity, but they would not pass muster in the medical world where double blind trials are standard and where researchers are very careful to correct studies for factors which could skew the conclusions.
SCHOR, WHO HAS brought her own two children up in a largely television-free environment, does not acknowledge the importance of the retail sector to the American economy or the benefits America has gained from consumerism, free markets and a low level approach to business regulation. She deals with liberal objections to banning advertisements in a page-and-a-half, arguing that consumption is not a matter of purely personal choice but a thoroughly social activity, where what one person buys and consumes affects other people’s choices. How else can one explain the popularity of Nike trainers or the fad for sun-dried tomatoes, she asks. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is a prescription for restricting personal choice.
Professor Furedi says: "It’s a very ambiguous area. Everybody targets children, not just advertisers. Government anti-smoking campaigns, drink and drug campaigns are all directed at children who are perceived as soft targets. But we are living in a society where this is happening all the time and it is part of our job as parents to help kids understand what they see on television. We have to teach children that most of the things they see in the advertisements are lies. But we mustn’t have double standards, we should teach them to question everything that is targeted at them, government campaigns included. It’s a good lesson to learn at a very early age."
Despite his distaste for advertising aimed at children, Furedi is against banning it. "We need to equip our kids to deal with these advertisements. Children have to learn to live in the real world."
He also takes issue with Schor’s conclusion that consumerism and too much television are the causes of depression and anxiety in children.
"Anything children do to excess is a problem," says Furedi. "If they spend three hours a day looking at the sky, that can be a problem. But that is to do with the way that we parent. Parents can restrict television viewing to half-an-hour a day if they want. They can refuse to buy certain foods. What Schor is doing is confusing the failure of parenting with the technological issues. There is no point blaming the goods or the technology if the problem is with the parenting."
The solution, says Furedi, is to change parenting culture. Parents need to get back in control and set some boundaries. You don’t have to give children television in their bedrooms, he says. "Yes, children are being targeted by advertisers and that is not good, but it is not just one sector that is targeting children. This is part of a much broader problem."
Philo is passionately in favour of a ban and has argued for one before Westminster MPs. "It is a huge issue for parents. Family life is made extremely difficult by the way children are bombarded with advertising. It is causing a great deal of pressure and unhappiness. I think we should dump Christmas, too. It is just an orgy of consumerism, and instead give the money to people who need it. But it is not just about banning advertisements to children, we need to think about the kind of society we want to live in and the values we want our children to grow up with. That is the debate we need to be having."
"The worlds of adults and children are merging," says Schor. "In my mind, that’s mainly a good thing. But the commercial aspects of that integration are not working for children. The prevalence of harmful and addictive products, the imperative to keep up and the growth of materialist attitudes are harming kids. If we are honest with ourselves, adults will admit that we are suffering from many of the same influences."