Lunchbox Hegemony? Kids & the Marketplace, Then & Now

If you want to catch a glimpse of the gears of capitalism grinding away in America today, you don't need to go to a factory or a business office.

Instead, observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched whining you'll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of thousands of hours of market research, of an immense coordination of people, ideas and resources, of decades of social and economic change all rolled into a single, "Mommy, pleeease!"

"If it's within [kids'] reach, they will touch it, and if they touch it, there's at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and buy it," writes retail anthropologist, Paco Underhill. The ideal placement of popular books and videos, he continues, should be on the lower shelves "so the little ones can grab Barney or Teletubbies unimpeded by Mom or Dad, who possibly take a dim view of hypercommercialized critters."

Any child market specialist worth their consulting fee knows that the parental "dim view" of a product most often gives way to relentless pestering by a kid on a quest to procure the booty of popular culture. Officially, marketers refer to the annoyance as children's "influence" on purchases, unofficially it is the "nag factor." The distinction is important because businesses are discouraged from explicitly inciting children to nag their parents into buying something, according to advertising guidelines from the Better Business Bureau.

Do Kids Use Products, or Vice Versa?

One strain of academic thought asserts that media and consumer products are just cultural materials, and children are free to make use of them as they will, imparting their own meanings to cartoons, toys, games, etc.

There's little doubt that children creatively interpret their surroundings, including consumer goods. They color outside the lines, make up rules to games, invent their own stories and make imaginary cars fly. If we lose sight of children's ability to exercise personal agency and to transform the meanings imposed on them by advertising (as well as those imparted by parents), we will forever be stuck in the belief structure which grants near-omnipotence to the corporate realm.

Granting children magical transformative powers of the imagination, however, only further romanticizes an already oversentimentalized view of childhood. Children are human. Imaginations can be colonized. The materials they use to create their own meanings are pre-programmed with brand identification, with gender, race and class clichïàs and with standard good-bad dichotomies. And, as any marketer will tell you, exposure to target market is nine-tenths of the brand battle.

It's Not Just the Corporations

How has this kid consumer world come to be? Easy explanations abound, from spoiled children to over-indulgent or unengaged parents. Easiest of all is to accuse corporations of turning kids into blank-faced, videogame-playing, violence-saturated, sugar-mongering, overweight, docile citizens of the future. Pundits and politicians from far-left to far-right have found ideologically comfortable soapboxes from which to voice their opposition to the corporate incursion into childhood.

Soulless advertisers and rapacious marketers alone, however, cannot account for the explosion of the kids' 4-12 market, which has just about tripled since 1990, now raking in around $30 billion annually, according to latest estimates.

Don't get me wrong, the target of the critique is on track. What is troubling, though, is not just that kids demand goods by brand name as early as two years old. It's the habit of thought which conveniently separates children from economic processes, placing these spheres in opposition to one another, and thereby allowing anyone -- including corporations -- to position themselves on the side of "innocent" children and against "bad" companies or products.

Marketers and advertisers tell themselves -- and will tell you if you ask -- that they are giving kids what they "want," or providing educational devices or opportunities for "self-expression."

The thing of it is, on some level, they are right. 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 often are stuck between giving into a kid's purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the playground.

The relationship is reciprocal. Childhood and consumer capitalism inform and co-create each other. It is not just that the children's market is the Happy Meal version of a grown-up one. It stands apart from others because childhood is a generative cultural site unlike any other.

Children consumers grow up to be more than just adult consumers. They become mothers and fathers, administrative assistants and bus drivers, nurses and realtors, online magazine editors and assistant professors -- in short, they become us who, in turn, make more of them.

Childhood makes capitalism hum over the long haul.

Kids' consumer culture takes a most intimate thing -- the realization and expression of self -- and fuses it with a most distant system -- the production of goods, services and media in an impersonal market.

Cumulatively, this fusion has been forged cohort by cohort and generation by generation over the twentieth century, making each of us a small conspirator in its reproduction. The process is so insidious that by the time a child gains the language and capacity to grasp what is occurring, his or her attention patterns, preferences, memories and aspirations cannot be neatly separated from the images and poetics of corporate strategy.

The History We Are

Adults are the living legacies of commodified childhoods gone by. Our memories, our sense of personal history are to some extent tied to the commercial culture of our youth: an old lunchbox with television characters on it, a doll, a comic book, a brand of cereal, a sports hero perhaps, certainly music of one sort or another.

These may seem like benign artifacts of a fading past, harmless enough, slated to wind up as pieces of nostalgia at junk shops and yard sales. They might seem particularly benign when viewed against the backdrop of today's hyper-aggressive children's marketing strategies which target children who eat branded foods and play in branded spaces, who are exposed to television in school courtesy of Channel One and who, to take one infamous example, learn geometry by measuring the circumference of Oreo cookies.

The "hegemonic power" of that Starsky and Hutch(TM) lunch box of yesteryear seems almost laughable by comparison.

But the joke unfortunately is on us, in part, because the Teletubbies and Pokemon of the '90s would not have been possible without the Starsky and Hutch of the '70s, and those crime-fighting hunks would not have been possible in some measure without the Mouseketeers of the '50s, whose apple-pie smiles would not have been possible without the Lone Ranger of the radio days of the '30s. If we are to intervene in the rampant commodification of childhood, we need to balance the impulse to place exclusive blame on corporations for polluting children's minds and bodies with a larger, historical perspective.

Creating the Child's Point of View

At the opening of the twentieth century, working-class children still toiled in the factories or worked the streets of the rising industrial city as bootblacks, newsies and helpers. They (mostly boys) spent their money on food and candy, in the new nickelodeon theaters, pool halls and restaurants. Aside from these amusements, there was no children's consumer market to speak of.

Enter the "bourgeois child" at the end of the nineteenth century, whose value was no longer economic, but sentimental. Liberated from direct, industrial labor and placed into school, this child was trained in the technical skills and social posture appropriate for a new bureaucratic order. His (again, usually his) childhood was to be full of fancy, not preoccupied with factory or farm work; his first school, a "children's garden," as close to Eden as possible.

The image of the bourgeois child would spread beyond the confines of a rising urban, white, middle class to become the model for virtually all childhoods in industrialized nations by the millennium.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, department stores began to recognize and welcome the bourgeois child, providing separate, modest toy departments with play spaces where mothers could "check" their children while they shopped. Prior to about 1915, there were also no separate infants' and children's clothing departments in department stores -- clothes tended to be stocked by item, not size. One could find children's socks in hosiery, children's shirts in the men's or women's department, etc.

A Chicago manufacturer of baby garments, George Earnshaw, hit upon something when he began to convince department store management to devote separate space to children's clothing and furnishings. Mothers and expectant mothers were to be served by this new arrangement, which would have "everything they needed" in one place.

Much ink was spilled in the trade and consumer journals throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s in the attempt to discern the tastes, priorities and foibles of "Mrs. Consumer," a caricature which continues today as something of an icon of consumer society. (How else would we know that "Choosy mothers choose Jif"?) The first children's retail spaces were built, located, staffed and stocked with the consuming mother, not the child, in mind.

By the 1930s, however, individualized clothing and toy departments in department stores gave way to entire "floors for youth" complete with child-size fixtures, mirrors, and eye-level views of the merchandise. Merchants hoped to provide children with a sense of proprietorship over the shop or area by visually, acoustically and commercially demonstrating that it was a space designed with them in mind.

The basic arrangement was to display older children's clothing and related furnishings at the entrance to a floor or department. As kids moved through the department, they encountered progressively younger styles until reaching the baby shop in the back. A designer of one such floor explained:

Older children . . . are often reluctant to shop on a floor where "all those babies" are shopping. The younger children are delighted to see the older children shopping as they go through these departments, for all children want to be older than they are. The little boy and little girl seeing the big boys and big girls buying will long for the day when he (sic) too can come to these departments and buy . . . In this way a valuable shopping habit is created. (Bulletin of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, Oct. 1939, p. 72)

Note here how the child's viewpoint, agency and emergent autonomy are transformed into exchangeable, marketable values. What's new is the way that the child's perspective is invoked as legitimate authority within the context of commercial enterprise.

This was the beginning of a fundamental shift in the social status of children from seen-and-not-heard, wait-till-you-grow-up dependency to having retail spaces, shelving in stores and media messages tailored to their viewpoint, making it the basis of economic action. Today, we expect to see video monitors flashing images of Britney Spears, oversized replicas of teddy bears, and primary-colored display fixtures every time we walk into a Kids 'R' Us.

And Now a Word from our Sponsored Kids

Over a number of generations, children and younger adults became key arbiters of kid-taste in US.

Children moved to the front-and-center of popular culture with the early successes of Shirley Temple and others like Mickey Rooney in the '30s. Their images provided a foundation for the publicly shared persona of the bourgeois child as one who moves in a world virtually independent from adult concerns and preoccupations -- one that makes sense only in reference to its own child-logic. Think of the Peanuts characters whose world is totally devoid of adults of any consequence: all framing is child-eye level, only the legs of adults are shown, and when adults speak their voices are non-linguistic trombone-like notes.

Meanwhile, back in the marketplace, children were also acquiring status as spokespersons for goods throughout the twentieth century -- from fictional icons like Buster Brown (1910s) and the Campbell's Soup Kids (1920s), to actors like Cowboy Bobby Benson (1950s), to voice-overs for commercials during the Saturday morning "children's" television time (1960s). By the 60s, the child spokesperson had become such a fixture that market researchers felt comfortable enough to query children directly for their product preferences, giving them a "voice" in the market sphere.

Children -- or to be precise, media-massaged images of children -- now routinely and aggressively hawk almost any kind of product, from car tires to vacations to refrigerators to grape juice, as advertisers make use of both "cute appeal" and safety fears.

Kids frequently serve as peer arbiters in newspapers, magazines and websites, reviewing movies, videogames, toys and television shows -- as it is assumed, often correctly, that they have more intimate knowledge about the detail and appeal of these things than adults do. This is a world under continuous construction and it is theirs: oriented around their "desires," retrofitted to their physical size and tweaked in just the right way to produce that all-important feeling of inadequacy if this or that product is not in their possession.

Factoring in the Nag

Kids not only want things, but have acquired the socially sanctioned right to want -- a right which parents are loath to violate. Layered onto direct child enticement and the supposed autonomy of the child-consumer are the day-to-day circumstances of overworked parents: a daily barrage of requests, tricky financial negotiations, and that nagging, unspoken desire to build the life/style they have learned to want during their childhoods.

Sometimes the balancing act is overwhelming. "Moms have loosened nutritional controls," enthuses Denise Fedewa, VP-planning director at Leo Burnett, Chicago. "They now believe there are so many battles to fight, is fighting over food really worth it?"

Unsurprisingly, mainstream media provides few correctives. The August 6th Time cover story on kids' influence on parents gushes over the excesses of the upper-middle-class in typical fashion, sucessfully detracting from the larger, more generalized problem of struggling parents.

Slipping the Parent Trap

If kid marketing tactics were merely blatant, their power would not be so great, but consumption enfolded into daily existence. Places like zoos and museums are promoted as "educational," toys are supposed to "teach," clothing allows for "individuality" and who can suggest that there is something wrong with "good ol' family fun" at, say, Dollywood?

The children's market works because it lives off of deeply-held beliefs about self-expression and freedom of choice -- originally applied to the political sphere, and now almost inseparable from the culture of consumption. Children's commercial culture has quite successfully usurped kids' boundless creativity and personal agency, selling these back to them -- and us -- as "empowerment," a term that appeases parents while shielding marketers.

Linking one's sense of self to the choices offered by the marketplace confuses personal autonomy with consumer behavior. But, try telling that to a kid who only sees you standing in the way of the Chuck-E-Cheese-ified version of fun and happiness. Kids are keen to the adult-child power imbalance and to adult hypocrisy, especially when they are told to hold their desires in check by a parent who is blind to her or his own materialistic impulses.

We have to incite children to adopt a critical posture toward media and consumption. A key step in combating the forces eating away at childhood is to recognize our own place as heirs of the bourgeois child and thus as largely unwitting vehicles of consumer culture. The mere autocratic vetoing of children's requests will only result in anti-adult rebellion.

The challenge facing us all -- as relatives, teachers, friends, or even not-so-innocent bystanders -- is to find ways to affirm children's personal agency and their membership in a community of peers while insisting that they make the distinction between self worth and owning a Barbie or a Pokemon card -- or any thing, for that matter.

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