Commodified Kids

– by Paul Robertson
©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

In October 1759, famed French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote to his young friend Sophie Volland the poignant words, “you all die at 15.” Diderot was clarifying his feelings on what it meant to be passing through, what in those days was known as early adulthood. It would be another two centuries before the word “teenager” would appear.

Though penned almost 250 years ago, these words seem strangely applicable to today’s generation of kids as well. In a consumer culture such as ours, many a teen “dies” at the thought of not looking “cool” because they’re not adorned with the latest fashions. In many ways, the purveyors of adolescent merchandise have taught them that this is exactly how they should feel: “Be defined by your accumulation of material goods, or you are ‘dead.'” It is what Dr. Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) calls the “embracing of junk values in the mass culture.”

In her recently released book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Alissa Quart takes us deep into the troubling world of youth marketing. It’s a world where the dollar is worshipped and kids are treated like just another natural resource to be mined and refined. When the process is “working,” young people wait to be transformed by artifacts that will bring lasting significance to their lives … until another product comes along.

This book is a “must read” for parents, youth workers and anyone else serious about understanding the world of today’s young people. Let me share a few highlights I found most insightful and challenging at the same time.

First, Quart points out that this process requires time, starts very early and takes advantage of our children’s vulnerability during the developing years. “Raised by a commodity culture from the cradle, teens’ dependably fragile self-images and their need to belong to groups are perfect qualities for advertisers to exploit.” The marketers’ greatest ploy with all of us is to find a point of weakness and take advantage of it. For our young people, it is the need to belong and be accepted. At times during adolescent development, no need is more vital. Knowing this, corporations spend billions to seize the moment.

Second, we are reminded of the powerful influence of print magazines, especially on girls. Quart writes, “These magazines construct an unaffordable but palpable world of yearning for girls. We are all too familiar with the negative effects of the model body on girls’ self-images, but these new magazines do something new: They help to solidify feelings of economic and taste inadequacy in girls … these magazines underline that girls are not complete or competitive if they don’t wear label dresses at the junior high school dances.” All advertising sells disappointment to our kids and, unfortunately, there is a personal cost. Print ads foster a never-ending message that says “you will never arrive.”

Adding to the body confusion for girls is that fact that most of the celebrities they are trying to emulate are likely to appear nearly naked in public. One only has to recall the bit of cloth Jennifer Lopez wore to the music awards a couple of years ago or flip through the latest issue of Seventeen. As Quart states, “Today’s adolescents are surrounded by more exposed flesh than girls of previous generations, especially from the quasi-pornography of laddie magazines Maxim, FHM and Gear.” Just the other day I was in a major book store and watched three teenage boys sitting on the window sill flipping through these magazines comparing pictures of half-naked women. Not long ago I fast-forwarded through six hours of music videos from 1998 and couldn’t believe how much clothing the artists wore compared to today. These are the images shaping the look our young girls are trying to attain.

Third, male body sculpting and the selling of nutritional supplements has become big business. We now see more and more boys spending endless hours in the gym trying to perfect a body that would make Vin Diesel proud. Quart cites the fact that 35 percent of 60,000 weightlifting injuries in 1998 were for those from 15 to 24 and an amazing 12 percent were suffered by children from five to 15. A Blue Cross/Blue Shield 2001 survey of 10- to 17-year-olds showed that half the children interviewed were “aware” of sports supplements and drugs, and one in five take them! Forty-two percent did it to build muscle and 16 percent just to look better. The bottom line is body enhancement at this age has very little to do with athletic competition and everything to do with looking more attractive to the opposite sex. In effect, they are trying to look like the guys in the girls’ magazines.

Fourth, with the marketplace filled with thousands of different products, burning your “brand” (branding) into the psyche of kids has become critical for marketing success. Alissa Quart puts if perfectly, “The reliance on brands has shifted: brands have infiltrated preteens and adolescents’ inner lives.” Is there a teen on planet earth who doesn’t recognize the Nike swoosh? In many cases, teen magazine ads have been reduced to a single picture of product fantasy and, of course, the logo. Soft drink companies like Coke and Pepsi buy the hearts of kids for a lifetime by becoming school sponsors. Branding has become one of the necessities for companies competing for brain space in young consumer minds that often see as many as 16,000 ads, brand names and logos in a single day. For many young people, their personal identity has become intrinsically tied to their favorite brands.

Finally, Quart sees the attitudes and actions of parents as part of the problem. “The parents of the middle-class Millennials have surrounded themselves with brand names and creature comforts, and they tend to fill the work-driven absence in their children’s lives with DVD players, TiVo and magazine subscriptions. They have taught their children, now teenagers, to need luxury products rather than simply want them.” This is a generation of kids that has learned there’s no such thing as “enough.” Michael Wood of Teen Research Unlimited says 47 percent of all teen income comes directly from parents, many of whom have replaced relationships with resources.

So if we, the parents, are part of the problem in the buying and selling of our kids, how do we respond? Knowing we are targeted just as hard by marketers, how do we counter the pressure to conform to a consumerist culture? CPYU would like to suggest three strategies.

First, take a step back and do a quick survey of our own priorities. When we examine how our time is spent, are we giving an adequate amount to our children? You will never have quality time without quantity time. If a year from now you were lying on your death bed, would you be wanting to trade all the “things” you gave to your kids for a few more hours “with” your kids? More time at the office might mean more money, but if it’s not what your kids really want then you are wasting a lot of valuable time.

Second, if our kids are longing to belong and yearning for acceptance, let it begin at home. I know we all wish our kids were perfect. They would be so much easier to like. However, they deserve to be loved and cherished simply because they are our own. Spend time with your kids doing things that they enjoy even if it’s a stretch for you. It will pay you bigger dividends than any stock investment.

Third, let’s talk to our kids about what they see going on in the world of marketing. Discussions about how products are marketed to your kids will not only be insightful for you, but will provide you with windows of opportunity to counter so much of what is being communicated to our kids. We need to talk with our kids about how they see their friends being affected and then how they see their own values and attitudes being impacted. Bring a couple of teen ads to the dinner table for a discussion starter. You might be surprised what you learn about your own children.

The ever-consuming, ever-changing world of today’s youth is nothing to fear, but it does demand our attention if our kids are going to make it through with a healthy and Godly perspective on life.



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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.