Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2004 / 6 Tishrei, 5765

Jane R. Eisner

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Consumer Reports

Commercialization of childhood part of broader overconsumption | (KRT) It's that time of year when, if you are young, the way you dress and what kind of cell phone you carry and what brand of shoes you wear take on great strategic importance, defining who you are and what you very well might become. Or, at the least, who'll sit with you at lunch.

The start of the school year is a childhood marker like no other, and those selling products to children do all they can to exploit it. The polka dots of yesteryear will not do in a season of tweeds and argyles, Pokemon and ponchos.

Commercialization of childhood may not be new, but what should really concern us is the sheer volume of products marketed specifically to children today, and the extent to which brand-name messages have pervaded their classrooms and their bedrooms.

Consider: The typical first grader can name 200 brands and acquires an average of 70 new toys a year. American children view an estimated 40,000 commercials annually. Teen purchasing power has risen so rapidly that teenagers spend on average $100 a week. They now shape their parents' consumer habits to such an extent that one industry estimate says 67 percent of car purchases are influenced by children.

Consumer spending has become almost a patriotic duty, and children have absorbed that message, too. After the horrific terrorist attacks three years ago, Americans were told that the best way to respond to this assault on our nation and our values was to ... shop.

"The sheer extent of children's immersion in consumer culture today is unprecedented," writes economist Juliet B. Schor in her new book "Born to Buy," from which these statistics are drawn.

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This would not be so terrible if America's children were happy, well-adjusted and physically fit, but all evidence is to the contrary. Excessive television watching and a glut of fast-food advertisements have helped this generation become frighteningly obese. Despite having only 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes 45 percent of global toy production - but all those toys are not buying happiness, as rates of childhood depression, anxiety and suicide are increasing.

Schor attributes this overconsumption to a storm of social trends. Marketing to ever-smaller segments has become a precise science. Parents have less time to spend with their children (and tend to buy them things to compensate). Public schools are increasingly forced to rely on commercial sponsorship.

And government is hesitant to regulate or restrict advertising even in public spaces such as schools. The prevailing notion is that consumer culture is a choice, an individual choice, and if a child is strong enough (or a parent strong enough), he or she can just say no.

But Schor argues that "consumption is a thoroughly social activity, and what one person buys, wears, drives or eats affects the desires and behaviors of those around them." She's right - especially for children, who are genetically programmed, it seems, to care obsessively about the desires and behaviors of their peer group.

As anyone who has tried to resist a child's desperate pleas for a costly American Girl doll or the latest graphically violent video game knows, it ain't easy saying no. A few families may be able to banish television altogether - as Schor says she has done - but most of us need some help in keeping the wily reach of consumer culture at bay.

Her recommendations call for a mix of federal regulation, voluntary social cooperation and cultural innovations as safeguards against rampant commercialization. To which I add: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and turn the game to your advantage.

A small but growing movement seeks to persuade young people to use their buying power to support their values. It's called "buycotting" - the inverse of "boycotting" - and surveys find that young people increasingly see it as a form of political expression.

In choosing to buy environmentally friendly skateboards, magazines printed on recycled paper, or locally made products, they use shopping to do good, much as a boycott uses the concerted refusal to shop to force broader social change. (Check out for more information.)

As the rhythms of another school year settle in, we'd do well to tamp down the materialism, turn on the conversation, and try our best to put commercialism in its place.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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