Juliet B. Schor’s ‘Born to Buy’: Prudent or Paranoid?

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, by Juliet Schor

Children spend too much time shopping. They wile away hours before the television, the computer, and the game console. They are overweight. They are undisciplined. They are obsessed with status. They think owning things will make them happy. They want to be rich. They don’t play outdoors anymore. They have too much influence on their parents. They have low self-esteem and overwhelming stress, and they experience levels of anxiety so high that in the past, they would have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. And who is to blame for all this? Evil corporate America, of course.

If you think there is something sinister about McDonald’s including a toy in its Happy Meals, then Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Juliet B. Schor, Copyright 2004, ISBN 0-684-87055-X) is the book for you. If you want an exposÃ?© of the marketing industry and desire to read insider interviews about its motives for the ads and products it chooses, Born to Buy is once again a good choice. And, if you want to know how corporations conduct their marketing research, Born to Buy will give you the scoop. But if you’re looking for a reasonable explanation of the problems that plague our children, look elsewhere. Schor blames the consumer culture and the corporations that fuel it for a wide host of problems, while dismissing other causes, providing largely anecdotal evidence, skewering conservatives, ignoring the roots of materialism, and failing to recognize that the consumer culture has benefits too.

Dismissing Other Causes

Early on in Born to Buy, Juliet Schor blithely dismisses “conservative” arguments for what’s wrong with today’s teens: the high divorce rate, a lack of authoritarian fathers, career-driven moms. She does so by saying “the research shows” that it isn’t so. (She repeatedly refers to “the research” with limited explanation.) After dismissing these “conservative” causes, Schor, with no seeming sense of irony, goes on to describe just how they have, in fact, contributed heavily to many of the problems she blames on corporate America.

For example, she says parents made purchase decisions in the past, and now kids do. (Could that be due to a lack of the authoritarian influence?) She says moms who don’t spend a lot of time with their kids feel guilty and thus buy them too many things. (Could that have something to do with more working moms, perchance?) She tells us the story of Greg, an undisciplined boy whose problems she attributes largely to the “consumer culture.” Greg has bipolar disorder, his parents are divorced, he’s living with a new stepmother, and his real mother buys him explicit CDs behind his father’s back-but Schor has already told us that divorce and a dearth of authoritarian parents doesn’t contribute much to the problems that plague kids, so just view the bipolar disorder as a symptom rather than a cause, and that leaves you with-yes, of course-evil corporations creating a menacing consumer culture!

Anecdotal Evidence

Most of Schor’s evidence for her claims about the impact of consumer culture (which is to blame for everything from obesity to suicide) is largely anecdotal, although she does site some specific studies to support her thesis. She even conducts one study of her own, although the results are not particularly shocking. Ninety-two percent of kids say “yes” when asked if they want to make a lot of money when they grow up. Well, what’s wrong with that? Would you say yes if asked, “Would you like to make very little money when you grow up?”

Skewering Conservatives

Schor clearly has an axe to grind with Republicans and conservatives. She lists some major corporate campaign donors and the amounts they give to political parties: when the majority goes to Republicans, she notes the fact in parentheses-when the majority goes to Democrats, the parentheses are strangely absent. She refers to one group as “extreme right wing,” but you don’t see the term “extreme left wing” or even “left wing” enter the pages of the book.
The conservative, however, will find something to agree with in her book, because conservatives-particularly religious conservatives-are also concerned about the disappearance of childhood, the oversexualization of children, violence in the entertainment industry, and rampant materialism. But what solution does Schor propose to these problems? More government regulations, more undefined spending on public education, higher taxes on businesses, and more power to the federal government.

If Materialism Causes Modern Woes, What Causes Materialism?

Schor pinpoints materialism as the cause of the modern child’s woes-but she fails to ask what causes materialism. Could materialism (i.e. “consumer culture”) be simply another symptom of the underlying problems, rather than the cause itself? If materialism is the cause of all our angst, wouldn’t religion be a possible antidote? Yet Schor talks more about Congress than the Church.

Schor exposes how corporations are using our public schools for marketing research. While I certainly find this alarming (and while every paten should be grateful for the “heads up” so I can keep an eye on what their children are exposed to), I don’t see why this is any more alarming than the fact that government psychologists, sociologists, and educrats have long used the schools for research. While corporate research leads to products, government research leads to policy-and, frankly, I’m more afraid “whole math” than I am of PokÃ?©mon.

The Consumer Culture Has Benefits Too

While I find some material in this book to be revealing and object for concern, I also think a good part of the modern fear of consumerism can be credited to a nostalgia for an earlier time. Technology has advanced at unprecedented rates in the last few decades, allowing entirely new and diverse forms of entertainment and play; yet we parents long for our children to play the same games and live the same way we did as children. Though there is some good sense in this (yes, it’s better exercise to explore the creek than to engage in strategic role play games over the internet), it is also partly a romantic yearning.

When my 15 month old made the connection that by moving the mouse she was moving the pointer on the screen, and when she figured out she could click it to get something to happen on the screen, I knew my child would be growing up in a different world than I had. But that world is not necessarily worse, and in some ways it is better. Parents just have to be vigilant to preserve, as best as possible, the innocence, the imagination, the health, and the dignity of their children. In fact, commercial technology will sometimes help us with this vigilance-the advent of DVRs and Tivo enables us to more easily screen shows and cut out commercials for our children. One day, I believe, DirectTV and cable will allow subscription to individual channels, or perhaps even individual shows, rather than to packages, allowing for more clearly defined market pressures, which should lead to more wholesome family entertainment-without the tentacles of government guiding the way.

The consumer culture has its dark side (and Schor paints this well), but it also fuels the economy, leads to more creative and less physically demanding jobs, and makes possible a previously unimaginable array of choices.

Another Solution

Schor proposes government regulation to curb the excesses of consumer culture, but there is another solution. Those of us who care about the fact that children aren’t allowed to be children long enough need to teach our own children the importance of spiritual things; we need to control their intake of non-nutritious foods, put limits on their spending, demand that they dress in respectful ways, take them outside to play, and see that they refrain from consuming crass entertainment. We need to take private citizen (i.e. non-government action), such as voting with our dollars, organizing corporate boycotts when necessary, and using our freedom of speech to express our disdain for tasteless ads and programming.

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