The growth of consumer culture for children threatens to erode the very way we assess value, warns Daniel Thomas Cook

Corporate interests have succeeded in making childhood a focus for aggressive capital investment. In recent decades, a $100-billion global children’s consumer industry – centred in North America and Europe, with a presence in Israel, Egypt, India, Australia, Japan and parts of South America – has emerged, with the “child consumer” at its core.

The “child consumer” is a fabricated notion, born of the commercial drive to extend markets into every conceivable aspect of people’s lives. This doesn’t mean to say that children do not purchase or desire commercial goods and entertainment. Rather, marketers, advertisers, media consultants and product developers use a certain set of assumptions about what a child is, as well as the nature of his or her motivations and desires.
Market research generates many of the images of the child consumer, which are circulated throughout the children’s trade as reports, press releases and books. Television programmes and commercials are replete with the results of such research, where the children portrayed are nothing more than an agglomeration of characteristics assembled in order to put a face to what is, in fact, a distant and elusive concept. The child consumer in this sense represents abstract economic principles and is devised to personify a market – such as, say, for action figures for boys four to six years old.

Talk to the child

I use the term “fabrication” to draw attention to the ways in which children often serve as fodder for the interests of adults. Since children are generally unable to express themselves authoritatively in public, it is easy for other people or interests to manipulate their public images, thoughts and motivations. The use of the term does not necessarily imply that there are improprieties at play in all market research.

Parents, governments and clergy speak for and in the name of children all the time. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) has sought to serve as the worldwide voice for children who cannot be heard. Now, commercial interests that market to children have begun to claim that they, above all, speak for children.

Children have not always been consumers. They were first thought of as such in early 20th-century America. The development of a children’s consumer market resulted from a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing world, which created greater wealth and coincided with the growth of retail institutions such as the department store and shopping mall, the expansion of consumer credit, a variety of media technologies and changing views of child psychology and development.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a young child’s direct involvement in the consumer world was limited to toys, the local candy counter, some books and a few magazines, which contained advertisements for things such as breakfast cereals.
Direct commercial appeals to children were likewise restricted to a narrow range of goods. If the child could be considered a “consumer” at all during this time, he or she was a derivative recipient of maternal care. Most advertising targeted mothers who were considered preoccupied with providing for the health, safety, education and amusement of their children.
The crucial turning point came when retailers and merchandisers at department stores decided to design retail spaces based on what they thought was the child’s, rather than the mother’s, perspective.

In children’s clothing departments, for example, displays were decorated with age-appropriate iconography (such as ducks and bunnies for young children) and painted in child-friendly colours. Fixtures and mirrors were adjusted to accommodate the child’s height and line of sight so as to facilitate product selection. New floor designs placed older children’s goods at the front of the shop and the youngest at the back in order to expose the younger child to older children’s goods and styles in the hope that the child customer would associate age ascendance with particular products and stores.

Route to purse strings

This “aspirational merchandising”, now a common feature of retail spaces, has been extended to commercials, products and package design aimed at children. Any package designer knows that a child’s product, if it is to have any chance on the market, must appear to appeal to the age group just older than the intended end-user.

Children emerged as customers and consumers in large part because they came to be addressed as individuals with legitimate desires of their own. In the 1960s, the rise of specifically designated children’s television programmes packed with children’s commercials clearly targeted youngsters as their audience and market.

In the same decade, market researchers began to question children directly about their knowledge and opinions of goods and brand logos. Businesses gradually came to realize that seeing the world through children’s eyes and addressing them as consumers, even if they had little individual purchasing power, could open the family purse strings.

Contemporary children’s consumer culture is not solely the product of the marketplace, nor merely a figment of the marketing imagination. It would not exist in its present global form were it not for children’s direct participation in the consumer marketplace. This involvement has been ushered in by intensive efforts of marketers over the decades to name, delineate and cultivate the child consumer as a legitimate market actor.

Commercial machinations surrounding the child consumer also serve a moral function. They position children as independent or quasi-independent beings who are endowed with the social right and wherewithal to desire goods and who, therefore, deserve choice in the marketplace like anyone else. Marketing rhetoric has effectively neutralized most objections voiced by parents, consumer watchdog groups and legislators by claiming that marketers know better than parents what children want because they listen and respond to children’s desires.

Marketers visit children’s bedrooms and query them about their decorating, clothing and music choices. They attend girls’ sleepover parties and convene focus groups to observe twins discussing the benefits of various products. In so doing, marketers venerate children’s commercial choices as a democratic exercise. They insist that, in this way, they are empowering children.

In this way, the child consumer, construed as a knowing and choosing social actor, provides moral cover for the pursuit of market share, often said to be undertaken for children’s benefit. Marketing practice, however, belies its lofty rhetoric.

In an era when advertisers and market researchers regularly describe children as savvy consumers (implying they are difficult to manipulate), at the same time they increasingly deploy sophisticated and often stealthy techniques to undermine children’s consumer choice. Research analyzing toddlers’ dreams, children’s eye movements when viewing television and young persons’ emotional needs for attachment and personal control attempts to unlock unconscious and, therefore, uncontrollable desires.

Many companies today strive to build brand recognition in infancy by having their characters and logos emblazoned on everything from infant drool bibs and potty training seats to school textbooks and food packages. Elaborate co-branding deals among media, food, clothing and sports conglomerates are now commonplace and can saturate a child’s environment.

Distorting social worth

The purpose of branding generally is to render meaningful choice redundant by introducing positive, affective associations between a product or commercial image and the consumer. When pre-linguistic children find themselves submerged in a sea of corporate-produced images of striped fish, baby lions and green, grouchy but beneficent ogres – innocuous as these may seem – that effect is compounded. These are forms of enchantment that veil the extent to which advertising to children serves the interests and values of capital, rather than those of parents and children. Yet aggressive capital investment in understanding children, like any other commercial venture, seeks a definite return. It is not a gift.

The danger of a commercial culture for children, as it continues its spread across the globe, lies not so much in the harmfulness of a particular video game or food item. Rather, the very way we establish the social worth is at stake. We run the risk of viewing places, objects and people only in terms of their commercial value. We may be in danger of losing our ability to discriminate between the market sphere and the rest of social life.

With no point of reference aside from the commercial, the concern is whether today’s child consumer will be willing or able to distinguish the market’s idea of what it means to be a child from his or her own experience of childhood. Will children be able to differentiate the market’s values from those based on familial, communal or religious ties?

Finally, can we be assured that future generations will have the tools to separate and recognize their own welfare – and that of their community and polity – independent of the interests and motivations that incessantly drive commerce? The answers, to be sure, will not be found in any toy store.

CV Daniel Thomas Cook

Daniel Thomas Cook is a sociologist of communication and advertising at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Commodification of Childhood (Duke University Press, 2004).