Socialist Worker

The ghost of Christmas present

The relentless drive for profits means that advertising targets younger and younger children. And we all pay the price, says Nick Grant

Issue No. 1932

CHRISTMAS DAY 1962. I find the box I’d been longing for and break it open. I finally have a pair of Slazenger Challenge Three-Star football boots, as advertised in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. I couldn’t be happier.

At its best Christmas is a time where kids come first. Parents go out of their way to see their children happy.

And the generosity is greatest among those with the least. My boots cost £4, a lot when my dad was bringing home under £20 per week, and had my two—soon three—sisters to provide for. Fast-forward 42 years.

Just as the roast chicken dinner is no longer a once a year treat, the industrialisation of the social exchange of gifts has produced the opposite of joy on a regular and global basis.

Not only will this Christmas plumb new depths of personal debt for givers, it also sees unprecedented levels of demand by the receivers—our kids.

The “nag factor” or “pester power” is the outcome of systematic and very sophisticated marketing strategies with serious social as well as financial impact.

The 2004 Kid Power Food and Beverage Marketing conference cost attendees $2,899 each. Here Kidscreen, the trade mag, presented its Golden Marble Awards to the most successful child marketing outfits in this $15 billion

industry.

The parents who are most likely to relent to the demands these outfits create in children are those who are divorced, or have teenagers or very young kids.

The multi-billion dollar advertising industry is prepared even to raid progressive developmental psychologists such as Piaget for insights about how to win “share of mind” of your children.

And lest we think that Auntie BBC is above all this, the ubiquitous Teletubbies hold pride of marketing place in the US as by far the most successful licensed product—for one year olds!

In much the same way as Noam Chomsky analysed the role of broadcast news in setting the popular political agenda, Harvard psychiatrist Susan Linn has just examined the impact of corporations and marketing on children in her book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.

Despite its North American focus, Linn rings every parental alarm bell this side of the Atlantic. It could equally be called The Manufacture of Desire.

Linn’s book does not hark back to the supposedly perfect family life of the 1950s, so idealised by the family values right wing.

She keenly asserts her pro-choice defence of abortion and unequivocal support of gay rights, and avoids a “golden age” nostalgia which might view the exploitation of kids as a new phenomenon.

She shows how the commercialised basis of radio, with, for example, the sponsorship of continuous afternoon melodramatic serials by soap companies in the 1930s, is a well established feature of US popular home-based culture.

Computer, satellite and audio-visual devices, plus Reaganite deregulation, have only accelerated the phenomenon.

It is this economic role of the mass media, in delivering audiences to advertisers, that is often overlooked when considering only their ideological content.

And our ideology radars are most often tuned to the contents of programmes, not the advertising. In fact the economic reality of TV is that it is a stream of advertising with programmes in between, not vice versa.

When Susan Linn does check out the ideological impact of both the advertising and its wares she finds the usual suspects of junk food, war toys, booze, tobacco, sex...and more sex.

She remarks, “The marketing world is abuzz with the idea that children are getting older younger.” At its most hilarious this encourages Ralph Lauren and Harley Davidson to seek brand loyalty with infant apparel emblazoned with their logos.

It certainly shrinks the notion of “innocent” childhood down to its lowest age range, if not to zero. This is a telling achievement of globalised capitalism in its search to open up every area of life to the market, profit and exploitation.

For the very idea of childhood, a drawn-out stage between infancy and adulthood, was an invention of the mid-19th century.

It was part of the creation of the ideology of the modern nuclear family, which was supposed to stand outside the sphere of production, exploitation and exchange.

Now the corporate pressure is hitting younger and younger. In the marketplace equality for children means not equal rights, but equality with adults in having their lives and desires shaped by the drive to consume capitalism’s commodities.

So the transformation of sexuality into a commodity, which adults have long been familiar with, is now hitting children.

Mattel’s Barbie was usurped three years ago by MGA’s Bratzpack of streetwise girlz and boyz.

Mattel retaliated in 2002 with Lingerie Barbie, selling at $40, kitted out in black lace, garters and bustier. It was withdrawn after protests, though Mattel suggested that it was an adult special edition.

The Bratz are now bestsellers for five to seven year olds, the “sub-tweenies” who, Linn laments, “are now going to be getting even older even younger. I expect they’ll soon be turning to MTV in droves.” That’s where they’ll find the complete blurring of advertising and editorial content.

Karl Marx rooted the alienation of life under capitalism in an analysis of production whereby the fruit of one’s labour is stolen from you, replaced by wages, then re-presented as a market item for your or another’s consumption.

He labelled this “commodity fetishism”. His point was that the problem is far deeper than simply advertising or consumerist pressures.

They themselves are the product of the way production itself is organised under capitalism.

But the growth of advertising has helped to ensure that this fundamental feature of capitalist production is buttressed and spread across every area of life, including those who are too young to know the joys of a grinding day of exploitative work.

While not new, this consumerism has increased enormously the alienation many parents may feel now from their children.

And the distortions on children have grown too. The feeling that the way to attain esteem is through what things they have or like, not through what they are like, is growing. As Marx would put it—the imperative is to define themselves in relation to things not people.

For teenagers the conflict becomes one of reconciling endless teasing and goading with economic powerlessness, especially when work brings such puny rewards in the supermarket or video store.

Is that the end of the matter, then? Are we all, the very young included, trapped in a world of consumerism?

Well, the very fact that the corporations have to spend increasing amounts of money on creating this synthetic world of desire suggests it’s not as simple as that.

Marx, and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s, saw capitalist ideology not as a natural given, but something that had to be constantly reinforced because it conflicts with the other, collective impulses of working class life.

As Linn puts it, “The transformation of childhood into a marketing demographic affects us all. It’s a fact of life but not immutable.”

Today, for example, many parents bemoan the “commercialisation” especially at this time of year. In any class of school students there are many for whom “corporation” and “multinational” are swear words—even as they enthuse about the latest products.

It’s in this sense that the best retort to the hold of the iPod, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas or Britney dolls on our children’s desires is to encourage them to look beyond these alluring surfaces to their conditions of production.

This Christmas remember Iqbal Masih, assassinated aged 13 in Pakistan in 1995 for organising child carpet makers.

Celebrate Canadian school student Craig Keilburger who founded Free the Children in Iqbal’s memory (www.freethechildren.org), and who still tours the world building schools in poverty-stricken communities.

And if you get the chance over this holiday go to the sobering exhibition called Shrinking Childhoods outside the Tate Modern on London’s South Bank, put together by Kids Company.

“I hope Shrinking Childhoods will be a call to action”, says organiser Camila Batmandghelidjh, “for society to recognise how lack of quality adult care causes havoc in children’s lives. Children cannot be held responsible when adults fail them.”

If for the corporations you’re never too young to be a consumer, then for parents, our children are never too young to be part of the resistance.


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Features
Sat 18 Dec 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1932
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