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Little Spenders

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Advertising aimed at children is nothing new—remember “Trix are for kids”? But these days, argues Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor, 48, the under-13 set is being roped into consumer culture in increasingly insidious ways. By pushing an awareness of brand names and fostering a kind of status-madness, Schor contends, marketers are creating a climate in which kids’ values are easily skewed. “We are raising a generation that is more materialistic than any in history,” says Schor, a mom of two living in Newton, Mass., who spent four years interviewing marketers and surveying families in the Boston area. Her new book, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, is out this month.

How did you become aware of the extent to which marketers are targeting kids?

My previous books [The Overspent American and The Overworked American] followed consumer trends among adults and I started studying people who were opting out of the work-and-spend lifestyle. But I was having a hard time finding people with children who were jumping off the treadmill. I realized that the consumer culture was shifting toward young people, that they had become the ground zero of consumer culture. That was making it harder for parents to opt out of working long hours to pay for more consumer goods.

What’s changed in the ways advertisers go after kids?

They have always aimed at kids through a limited set of products like cereal and toys. What happened in the 1990s was a dramatic explosion in the amount of advertising aimed at children because of the growth of cable and the increase in kids watching more adult shows. Now, children are influencing adults’ choices of items like hotels and travel destinations. One marketer explained to me, “When I grew up, I got to pick the color of the car. Now kids get to pick the car.”

Do you think advertising should never be aimed at children?

Let’s say we were advertising broccoli—that would be a good thing. But most of the products that are being advertised to kids are unhealthy.

How else are marketers infiltrating kids’ lives?

Some word problems in math textbooks include Nike and Gatorade as examples. And there is one company that gets girls to organize slumber parties for research purposes. Girls maybe given a new TV show to watch, or a food to try, and their responses are collected—it’s basically a focus group.

What makes children vulnerable to these approaches now?

Marketers are trying to take advantage of households where parents don’t have a lot of time. I think that’s particularly true of food. Parents have less time for cooking, which has created a shift toward fast foods.

What role does increased stress for children play here?

Kids are feeling a lot more pressure to achieve now. One of the things marketers have done brilliantly is figure this out. Their message to kids is that the adults in their world—parents and teachers, mainly—are stressing them out while the marketers stand for fun and escape from that pressure.

What is the impact of all this on kids?

I studied 300 fifth and sixth graders and found that those who are more materialistic and consumer-oriented develop higher levels of depression and low self-esteem, headaches and poor relations with their parents.

How do you know consumer culture is to blame? Maybe kids with those problems tend to, say, watch more TV.

My research showed that being depressed, for example, didn’t lead to more involvement in consumer culture. But involvement in consumer culture did lead to depression and other health problems.

Have you detected a backlash against marketing to kids?

In the last year things have begun to change. Some schools have opted out of exclusive soft drink contracts. And there are groups like Dads and Daughters, in Minnesota, which attempts to combat the effects of consumer culture on girls. They got a girls’ clothing label to stop distributing T-shirts that read “Property of Boys’ Locker Room.”

How can parents protect their kids?

They should reduce exposure to electronic media and provide a stimulating environment outside of it. My children have grown up TV-free, and we don’t go to fast-food restaurants. And when my third-grade daughter brought home an ad supplement from Toyota—it was attached to a kids’ magazine—I was in school the next day, and I got apologies from the teacher and the principal.