Consumers of the Future
5/6/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Children, according to one ebullient marketer, are ``born
to be consumers,'' they are ``consumer cadets'' in whom ``the consumer
embryo begins to develop in the first year of existence.'' Excited by
evidence that children as young as 12 months are capable of ``brand
associations,'' and guided by the principle of KGOY (kids getting older
younger), marketers study ``marketing practices that drive loyalty in the
preschool market'' and ``the desires of toddler-age consumers.''
A marketer says, ``When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at
General Mills follow the Proctor & Gamble model of 'cradle to grave.' ...
We believe in getting them early and having them for life.'' Another
marketer advises, ``Advertising at its best is making people feel that
without their product, you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that.''
Sophisticated behavioral studies (e.g., ``The Nag Factor,'' ``The Art of
Fine Whining'') suggest how to turn children into controllers of parents.
Lifetime Learning Systems, an innocuously named company specializing
in partnerships between businesses and schools, says ``School is ... the
ideal time to influence attitudes.'' At school children are comfortable and
susceptible to promptings. Hence Channel One, a commercial satellite
network serving, if that is the (BEG ITAL)mot juste, 12,000
Channel One tells advertisers that it is ``viewed by more teens than
any other television program.'' It provides 10 minutes of news (broadly
defined, to include weather, sports, natural disasters, features and
promotions for Channel One) and two minutes of advertising. Children in
schools with Channel One spend time equivalent to a full instructional week
Children ages 4 to 12 spent almost $27 billion at their own discretion
in 1998, and they are thought to have directly influenced $187 billion in
parental purchases and to have indirectly influenced another $300 billion
worth. Teen-agers spent $100 billion and influenced the spending of another
$50 billion, so we should perhaps be grateful that advertisers spend
``only'' $5 billion on advertising aimed at children.
But gratitude did not motivate the authors of ``Watch Out for
Children: A Mothers' Statement to Advertisers,'' from which the statements
and statistics above are culled. It is published by The Motherhood Project
of the Institute for American Values, which is the source of excellent
monographs about ``the renewal of marriage and family life and sources of
competence, character and citizenship.''
The report suggests a dreamy ``code for advertisers'' (e.g., no
advertising that promotes ``an ethic of selfishness'') and some bromides
about attentive parenting. However, the report's considerable value is in
sensitizing readers to how desensitized the country has become about
encroachments of commerce where it does not belong--in schools, especially.
At the birth of this commercial Republic, in which the perennial
problem of turbulent passions was to be solved by subsuming them in
enterprise, John Adams, hardly a complacent optimist, expressed a cheerful
expectation of stately long-range progress: ``I must study politics and
war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy,
geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and
agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting,
poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.'' Two
centuries later, such a sense of the steady elevation of the American mind
seems too serene, in part because of the pull--the relentlessly downward
pull--of popular culture, including the forces of commerce.
In 1976, this Republic's bicentennial, Daniel Bell, a sociologist at
Harvard, the university that helped furnish Adams' capacious mind, warned
about ``the cultural contradictions of capitalism.'' Capitalism, he said,
depends on certain stern virtues, such as asceticism, thrift,
industriousness, self-denial, deferral of gratification. But capitalism
produces social surpluses, which beget luxury, which begets materialism,
self-indulgence, acquisitiveness, instant gratification.
``It is striking,'' Bell wrote 20 years later, ``that in every major
city in the world, from New York to Helsinki to Tokyo, every large
department store one enters displays cosmetics and fragrances spread across
its ground floor.'' Striking, that is, because ``the tension between
asceticism and acquisitiveness'' has been resolved in favor of the latter.
Even more striking evidence of the self-corruption of capitalist culture is
this: Once charged with countering the self-centeredness and egotism that
de Tocqueville called democracy's temptation, schools are becoming case
studies in the commodification of (BEG ITAL)everything.
It is fortunate, sort of, that advertising is so ubiquitous: It is
akin to wallpaper, even audible wallpaper--always there, but unnoticed.
However, advertising in schools subverts a lesson children should learn
there--that commerce, although valuable, is subordinate to other values.
Which is why schools should be commerce-free zones.