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Quelling crazed consumerism

I want that

I need that

I like that

I want it

I want that

I want this

That is what the chorus was starting to sound like at our house a few weeks ago. Our kids used to only watch Treehouse (advertising free educational kids television) and PBS Kids (in particular for Sesame Street). But then along came the Retro Toon Channel and we couldn't resist. Of course we'd rather watch Bugs Bunny than Dora and would rather watch the Flinstones than Toopy and Binoo and our kids loved the classic cartoons of our childhood too, so we tuned in, or should I say tooned in. We had a TV in our open concept kitchen, dining, sitting and play area, and retro toons were often on as we went about our day. At first the commercials didn't seem that bad. They weren't targeting kids that much, they seemed to be targeting an older generation. It was commercials for things like skin care products. My son was convinced that he needed to buy Grannie some Proactiv for her birthday, but otherwise the commercials didn't seem to be having much effect on the kids.

But then the Christmas commercials started. Not in December, not in late November, but back in October or maybe even September. And that is when the chorus began. It didn't matter what type of plastic crap was being advertised, they wanted it, they needed it, it was the best thing ever. Couldn't the people that market plastic pink princess garbage be hired to market broccoli?

So last week the TV disappeared. We still have one in the basement, but we aren't watching the Retro Toon Channel. It is there to watch specific TV shows at specific times, like the Madagascar movie night that I had tonight with the two kids, a Saturday morning spent catching up on some classic German kids shows on our imported DVDs, our our little girl's daily date with Big Bird and the gang.

What a difference it has made! The chorus has stopped. Our son still has Christmas on his mind, but at least his Christmas wish list is now coming from his head and his imagination, rather than being beamed to him via 30 second segments designed to warp his mind.

Another sad demonstration of where consumerism has led us

I like stuff. I won't pretend that I don't. But I think I have it somewhat in check. I don't buy brands just for the brand. I don't feel the need to run to the stores and spend, spend, spend when a sale is on. Today was Black Friday in the United States and consumers there took the occaision to demonstrate how crazy some have become. A deadly stampede that killed a store employee at a Long Island Wal Mart and a shooting at a California Toys R Us.

Beyond these hopefully isolated incidents, there is research showing that consumerism is stressful to kids. I know that I found it stressful growing up. It seemed like I was the only girl in my class the year Cabbage Patch Kids came out that didn't get one for Christmas and everyone else had theirs with them at school on the first day back. In high school, I wasn't lacking clothing, but I didn't have Ralph Lauren or Benneton like the rich kids in my class and when I thought I had something nice that looked somewhat like their brand name labels, I would get mocked for trying to be like them.

The article Lunchbox Hegemony: Kids & The Marketplace, Then & Now explores these concepts in particular as it relates to marketing junk food to kids. I found this quote particularly telling:
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 are often stuck between giving into a kid's purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the playground.

The keeping up with the Joneses attitude that has become commonplace in Western society is in great part what led to the inflated home prices and excessive consumer debt that are key components of the current economic crisis.

What can be done?

This is the tough question. Obviously there are things that corporations and the advertising industry could be doing to be more responsible with regards to how they market to children. But what can we as parents do? What are we willing to do? When the kids are little and always at home, it is easier. You can choose to not watch TV, choose to not buy brands or characters, choose to not go into stores that market overtly to kids when you have them with you, or choose not to go into them at all to save yourself from acting on and passing on that consumerism.

But we, as parents, are also victims of consumerism. And once kids are out of the house and among their peers, the peer pressure sets in. I'm thankful that my son's school has uniforms. He's only in preschool and a lot of people scoff at the idea of preschoolers in a uniform, but I'm glad he is. When I already see how impacted he is by the shoes or bag that one of his classmates has, I'm glad we're not dealing with him coveting their shirts, jeans, and the rest of what they're wearing. Getting dressed in the morning doesn't involve fighting over what to wear other than whether to wear the red polo or the blue polo.

I think that teaching our kids about the value of helping other people, about the value of nature, and about the value of a dollar, can all help somewhat to curb the corporate influence. However, sometimes I feel a bit helpless to shield my kids a bit from consumerism and some experts validate that feeling:
Corporate and state abdication of responsibility is rationalized on the grounds that responsibility for adverse child outcomes (e.g., obesity, psychological disorders) lies with parents. Both the ad agencies and their client companies take this point of view. The corporation’s mandate is to make money, the government’s is to help them do so.

So we and the kids are essentially thrown to the wolves...great...

More Resources

« Safe or unsafe? | Main | Consensual Living »

Reader Comments (26)

We have opted out of consumerism this year. I actually half started to turn into our local Walmart this afternoon just to pick up a couple of odds and ends I needed before grocery day and threw it in reverse when I remembered it was BLACK FRIDAY.

We have joined the BUY HANDMADE brigade this year, meaning every gift we are giving is either handmade by us or another artisant (IE: Etsy and local Fair Trade stores). The funny thing is the more we get handmade gifts, the less worthwhile the other stuff seems.

Now, Em's is getting a digital camera, and no, I didn't make that, but basically it's about a change in thinking about what we actually NEED versus what we WANT.

We have Nickelodeon Jr here that the girls watch occasionally which gives my 5 year old and instant case of the gimmes. But at the same time she has walked around the last day playing with an Indian corn cob she has named "Jeffrey" and who had to be tucked into bed last night and go out to breakfast with us today.

My girls are five and seven, so too much peer pressure hasn't set in. I hope we can continue this. The best thing I can do is to keep an open dialogue with them and hope for the best.

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterunderthebigbluesky

Great post, thank you so much for writing this! I's this kind of mass consumerism that is one of the reasons we finally gave up our cable TV. I do miss some of the cute shows, but no longer hearing "I want that!" all day long was a huge trade off.

My family was very poor growing up, so I was always left behind on the trends and toys and it was definitely stressful. I hope my kids don't have to face the same.

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

I've often felt very fortunate that so far my daughter isn't envying her peers that much. She's only in first grade, but it's amazing how deep into consumer culture some of the kids are already.

That's not to say my daughter doesn't beg for every toy she sees advertised, just that we're already working on a sense of "do I really need that?" for her, along with encouraging her to have her own preferences, rather than just what her friends like.

Who knows if our luck in this area will hold. Getting across the idea of need vs. want is challenging, but something I like working on early in the hopes it will stick later on as the pressure to be like the crowd increases.

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie - Green SAHM

Good for you for trying to keep the consumerism down in your family! Our son is still very young, but we're trying to keep things simple as well. It's sad that such a wonderful time of year is soiled by this kind of attitude.

November 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkeagansmom

If your child begs for something that he or she saw advertised on TV and you give in then they will beg more the next time.

It is easier to keep the kids out of these sections in the store so your child with not be begging for these highly advertised products.

This is unrelated but I wanted to tell everyone about it.
I was at a Wal-mart on Black Friday. The line was help up twice while the lighted sign by the cash register flashed. Someone had to come to the register and corrected the problem. When I got to the checkout, the cashier said that her boss was on her case(not the word she used). The battery operated Barbie Car listed in the mail-out for $88 was ringing up at $219. The cashier said that her boss was complaining because the cashier kept calling her to override this error. She said that her boss said to not ask her to over-ride another one of these Barbie Cars.

November 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterParentingHelp

One big thing I've tried to do with my children (from a very young age) is discuss commercials in the moment--explain how manipulative they are, explain that the motivation is to encourage people to buy things because the company wants to make money, explain that often the quality or characteristics of an item are exaggerated (if not outright wrong), etc. I think this has made a big difference in how my children view commercials--my 7-year-old started critiquing commercials herself around age 4 or 5, and she's much more of an educated consumer (we research infomercial items on Google, find reviews, etc., and invariably she decides she isn't interested in the product once she knows more about it). It doesn't eliminate the desire for fun toys and such, but I think it makes kids a lot more self-aware as to the goals and effects of advertising, and it makes them less susceptible to unconscious influences of commercials because they (again, even at young ages) hate the idea of being manipulated as much as adults would. Just another tool...

November 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarla

Advertising To Children: What Ethic?...

..into a powerful subliminal hypnosis machine- it’s called TELEVISION. And we know children love TVs a lot. And they're easily swayed by nice advertisements....

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Beyond the entire "Build a Bear Birthday Party" issue two years ago I kinda feel like moving away from the economic hub of the country has allowed our entire family to "opt out" of this kind of crushing consumerist culture. We moved to Nova Scotia. Not only is it economically depressed in comparison to Ontario, the whole province has the same population as Ottawa.

I've talked with other "come from aways" and while we are all going through "NO IKEA????" shock - you get over it! We all noticed that our kids MELLOWED OUT on the "I wants" too.

Everyone here shops at "Frenchy's" for kid clothes - it's like an uber cheap Value Village chain. We don't have a tv and I know that affects things, but my kids don't live in a culture that even has malls to hang out at! They don't see billboards, they don't see many big chains (let me tell you these was a BAND playing when WINNERS opened a store in the shopping mecca of the valley two towns over). The peer pressure, the marketers pressure just isn't as intense because we don't live in a culture that supports that level of consumerism. This applies to our 16 year old as much as the 9 and 5 year olds.

We all feel assaulted by the advertisers as soon as we hit about Quebec City (driving between Nova Scotia and Ottawa for the holidays). The number of ads, the storefronts, it all seems surreal and plastic and fake and very DISNEYOUTLANDISH once you've been away from it for awhile.

So, I think we have a choice in this, without being counter culture..marginalization has its perks!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermudmama

I have always kept my kids away from commercials and most television, etc. in general, but as they get older find it harder and harder. I have also realized just how ill-prepared they are to handle the barrage for "buy this, "must-haves," and "you-have-to-have-this-or-your-world-will-end" mentality. We talk a lot about how commercials are made to get you to buy things you don't necessarily need and often exaggerate (to say the least). It is sad how our society is so driven by things. And our need to have them at whatever cost.

November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrenna

"You can choose to not watch TV, choose to not buy brands or characters, choose to not go into stores that market overtly to kids when you have them with you, or choose not to go into them at all to save yourself from acting on and passing on that consumerism."

Completely agreed! We've followed these suggestions, and they make a HUGE difference in our lives. As a family, we've always had a more minimalistic approach to living, buying only what we truly need, and thinking about why we are heading out to go shopping in the first place, so we aren't side-tracked by the horrible amounts of marketing out there.

Turning off the TV makes a huge difference. My husband and I bought our first TV last Christmas so we could have a movie night at home, but we've gone the last 7 years without one. I haven't missed it in the least. We still refuse to purchase cable tv, and I honestly can't think of any reason why we would. Our girls are 2.5 and almost 6 and they'll watch the occasional movie on weekends, but it's just not part of what they do each day. When we travel and they watch tv with commercials I seriously can't stand listening to them day in and day out. The commercials drive me crazy!

Even without TV I get plenty of opportunity to talk with my oldest about commercialism and marketing. She sees the flyers that come in the mail, the magazines at the grocery store, and other children with character clothing and backpacks. We've had lots of conversations around why mommy doesn't buy anything with Dora on it. It's an ongoing process, but my hope is that by leading an example of not needing to 'keep up with Jones', my children have less to struggle with when they are older. It's hard work when you have debt, too much crap and a a home cluttered with stuff!

A great post (and blog) on the subject is http://mnmlist.com/minimalist-faqs/. Clearing our lives of 'stuff' has definitely been a process for us as a family (and we're still not entirely there yet) but it's so freeing, empowering and quite simply, calming, once you get there. :)

November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamara @ bynature.ca

[...] Quelling crazed consumerism: Dealing with the onslaught of “I want this” and “I need that” around holiday time. [...]

The "rich kids" weren't necessarily rich .... many times it's the parents keeping up with each other by dressing their kids up all fancy-like, which drives the kids to think that labels and brand names are important, and helps perpetuate their social hierarchy based on, well, complete consumerist nonsense. I see that already in my circle of mom friends, and our kids are all only three and under!! One momma will buy the eighty dollar snowsuit, then in the next few weeks there will be a bunch of expensive toddler snowsuits purchased....and we live in Vancouver where there is rarely enough snow to justify each kid owning a snowsuit!! There are parents who are already in debt, digging themselves further in, just so that their kids will not be wearing stuff from the sale rack at Old Navy. Then comes the justifying: I only want natural fibres touching my son's skin; my infant needs a gore-tex quality raincoat because we live in Vancouver; I can sell it on ebay once we're done with it....etc etc.

I know I'm late on this comment, but I feel so strongly about it - parents influence peer pressure in a way that is often unrecognized!

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereva

Oh and I was so so soooo jealous of those kids with the Cabbage Patch Kids in grade 3! Dammit - scarred for life! Or stronger?! :)

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereva

Is it just me, or is the link to "lunchbox hegemony" broken? Is there another way to access that article? Thx!

November 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchristina martinez

[...] and movies and I love seeing my kids get lost in a fantasy world, but I also really dislike the over-commercialization of it all and the princess culture. My kids, however, love it all (which bothers me, but also [...]

Great article. We PVR the shows that the girl watches and for the most part she fast forwards through commercials. She gets an hour of screen time a day. But even those few commercials have a HUGE impact. They have no filter for them. It all seems like the "truth".

I notice it myself - if I read, say, Vanity Fair, I notice myself a few days/weeks later "wanting" something that I saw in a print ad. Crazy!

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

I live in Sweden were it is against the law to advertise to kids. Such a relief! I grew up with advertising to kids in Australia and I much prefer the no ads for kids option (altough of course co.s still manage to find ways to make it into our childrens awareness, it is not as powerful).

November 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNann

Thank you for this article...we have a granddaughter with us a lot and try to stay away from TV with commercials but when there are some she is right there interested in what they are selling...she is only 4 yrs. old.
I just read a piece at "Zen Habits", recommending not buying anything until Jan 2013 and thought it was great challenge even if I fell off the wagon slightly it would deter me from being consumed by holiday buying.
Marketing to kids I think is here to stay so anything we as parents and grandparents can do to monitor what our kids see early on will help them as they get older.

November 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

I was not aware of the "mnmlist.com" blog of Leo's ....I follow "Zen Habits". His information is good and calming. Thank you for sharing.

November 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

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December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeanne

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