This essay is adapted from Rescuing the Church from Consumerism, released in August by SPCK Publishing, and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
By Mark F.M. Clavier
Initiation into the Christian faith involves two rites: baptism and confirmation. Baptism is the sacrament whereby one is incorporated into the body of Christ and begins life as a Christian. Within liturgical Christianity, baptism is ideally followed at a later age by the rite of confirmation when individuals profess their baptismal vows for themselves and embark upon their Christian adulthood. Similarly, although the initiation of people into consumerism is more of a process than an event, it can be divided into two stages: in the first stage young children are “baptized” into consumerism and firmly grounded in its worldview; in the second stage they engage as adolescents actively with consumer culture to develop an identity and an understanding of the world. Together these two stages provide the emotional and intellectual environment in which the initiated relate to one another, understand and weigh issues, and experience the underlying pattern of their own lives.
Commercialization of Childhood
During the 1970s in the United States, a disparate collection of activists began to worry about the expanding role of marketing in children’s lives. Eventually, advocacy groups petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to consider imposing various levels of restrictions on advertising to children.1 In the midst of these discussions, however, Congress passed the Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act, which removed from the FTC any authority to regulate marketing to children.2 Subsequently, children’s marketing grew at an astonishing rate, so that by 2006 U.S. children were spending $40 billion and influencing the additional spending of $700 billion a year.3 As with adults, the lives of children changed dramatically within a very brief period.
Although the U.K. and the European Union have maintained much stricter regulations about marketing to children, advertising made similar inroads into children’s lives in Europe during the same period. The arrival of MTV, a channel devoted entirely to lifestyle marketing, is an obvious benchmark of this development. The advent of the internet has made it even more difficult for regulators to limit the exposure of children to advertising now featured on websites, mobiles, online entertainment, and games. So it should be no surprise that despite regulations, the child and teenage market in the U.K. has grown to an astonishing £30 billion a year.4 Indeed, according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, evidence suggests that in the U.K. children are now more “enmeshed” in consumerism than children in the U.S.5
Of course, marketing to children was not a new development. Since at least the late 19th century, businesses have recognized that money can be made from consumer products aimed at children. The impact of this is seen in the very way in which we conceive of childhood: “toddler,” “tween,” and “teenager” are all terms developed by the commercial world to help identify or create focused markets for their goods and services. With the expansion of television ownership, followed by the introduction of computers, the internet, and mobile telephones, however, the opportunities and dimensions of such marketing have vastly expanded. Teletubbies, Elmo, Bratz, Power Rangers, Dora the Explorer, and any number of other brand products influence or define the play of children through their pervasive role in children’s imaginative and sensual world. The age at which brand marketing begins has also been brought forward. Even items that are necessary for infants and toddlers such as dummies, sippy cups, nappies, toys, and bedding come with logos and characters created to draw their attention and lay the foundation for brand loyalty. One recent study determined that reception-age children can typically identify a large number of brands and even “willingly judge their peers” according to brand use.6 A 2003 study of children first entering school found that while only half of them could recognize their own name, speak articulately, or count to five, 81 percent of them could recognize the Coca-Cola logo while 69 percent knew McDonald’s Golden Arches.7 Thus, before children have a chance even to begin developing a sense of self, they have been locked into a consumer world; once they are put in front of the television or computer, there is really no turning back.
The commodification of childhood also means that young children are introduced to a global market before they have any capacity to cope with it. That global market becomes their world; their exposure to television, film, popular music, and the internet far outweighs in time and attention the impact of any local or traditional culture. This “new digital ecosystem” is where children, even from a very early age, spend much of their leisure time, and marketers see this ecosystem as an environment of almost limitless advertising potential.8 Similarly, the fictional characters with whom young children relate are typically creations of the market, and the subjects that interest them most are those that appear on television or in games. For example, in many households various worlds created by Disney to sell products shape children’s earliest lives and provide them with shared memories and interests. Hannah Montana is a good example of a celebrity aimed at a tween. Star Wars is another example of a world created solely for profit — George Lucas notoriously described himself as a toymaker who shoots films — which becomes the “culture” in which children imaginatively live and play. Visit almost any toy shop and you will be hard-pressed to find any goods that are not related to a character from a television program, console game, or film. Consequently, a few global corporations are shaping the imagination and play of millions of children worldwide.
This point illustrates a defining irony of consumerism. Even while it claims to promote individuality, it compels conformity through the virtual and imaginary worlds it creates. As children strive through play and narrative to find their place in the world, they are not given freedom to enjoy their own imagination, drawing from their experience of family, neighbors, friends, and their natural environment. They are not even raised within a particular, organic culture. Instead, they are provided with a limited range of imaginary worlds — such as Disney, Star Wars, Harry Potter, various superheroes, and anime creations like Pokémon — that they explore through film, television, games, and products which do much of the imaginary work for them. In fact, their play is less a form of imagination than of mimicry; they are re-enacting what they have seen on the screen. While some of these creations can be enormously complex and evocative — for instance Harry Potter, which only become widely marketed through toys and films after its initial success — they are all part of a single digital environment that has become the overriding culture in which children live, relate to each other, and develop values. Thus, beginning with Disney cartoons, Teletubbies, Sesame Street, and Thomas the Tank Engine (among others), children become dependent on an imaginary life that is incarnated through products and media.
That imaginary world also tends either to be intolerant of traditional cultures or to co-opt them within a consumer framework. One will rarely find overtly religious or ethnic customs presented in storylines; when they are, it is typically as part of a theme of tolerance. But as children grow older, traditional norms and religious and ethnic customs that limit access to the world of consumerism are subtly undermined. Such cultures may be tolerated, but they are definitely not “cool.” Members of those cultures are, therefore, depicted as intolerant, backwards, crude, and, above all else, boring. For example, in the animated movie Happy Feet, the priestly caste of elder penguins, whose leader is portrayed as a kind of dour Presbyterian minister, attempts to prevent the main character from expressing his true self. To avoid such characterization various micro-cultures package, market, and commodify themselves for a targeted segment of society. One of the most positive depictions of Roman Catholicism is Sister Act, in which a convent of rather staid nuns becomes more appealing by embracing Whoopi Goldberg’s “hipper” form of music. To preserve themselves, traditional cultures such as religions are pressured to translate how they express themselves into ways more acceptable to consumer culture.
Often, however, an overtly antagonistic approach to traditional cultures will be seen as insensitive, and so marketers and media corporations deliberately co-opt them into a consumerist framework. Disney most notably introduced this tactic as early as the 1940s with its animated adaptation of traditional fairy tales. Walt Disney openly expressed his belief that the films ought not to be bound by the original stories; Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book are notable examples of this. Similarly, most children who love Winnie the Pooh are familiar with only Disney’s depiction of him; many have never read the original books by A.A. Milne. Perhaps worse, however, is Disney’s use of cultural stories as commercial vehicles for a set of values, products, theme parks, and food. Films such as Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan, while ostensibly multicultural, do little justice to the cultures they represent or to the classical stories they purport to retell. In fact, the characters and storylines are interchangeable because they are not really situated in any particular culture: their purpose is not to instil or portray a set of cultural norms but to sell an array of products. All of these could be dismissed as benign entertainment were it not, again, for the way they permeate children’s lives. These and other similar stories have become the wellsprings of imagination for millions of children. Any classical story or fairy tale not adapted and popularized by film and ancillary products is soon forgotten. In the end, even traditional cultures are commodified.
The pervasive commercialization of childhood introduces a central paradox of consumerism. While it purports to create a world in which individuals have an almost infinite and unfettered range of choices, it actually limits choice from a very early age. It is only because children are socialized as consumers that they may embark on a life of self-invention through consumption. Any expression of individualism from that point onwards will be expressed within a consumerist framework. Few reach adolescence in a neutral state in which they may freely choose to become consumers. By the time children reach the age at which they have the capacity for critical thought, they know of no other way of being; consumerism has profoundly shaped the way they see themselves and their society. According to the “Children and Marketing Literature” report:
Today’s children and young people are growing up in a cultural environment which is becoming more saturated with promotional messages than ever before. They are persistently encouraged to think of themselves as consumers. We need to ask whether this has consequences for education in citizenship, designed to encourage a rising generation to think of themselves as members of a moral and political community and to see their future as inextricably linked to the quality of public life.9
This situation is deeply ironic: parents who feel strongly about deferring baptism or discussing religion because they want their children to be free to decide for themselves happily raise their children to be thoroughgoing consumers.10 But this simply supports the claim that consumerism is best understood as a religion. Parents are comfortable with their children’s baptism into consumerism because it is their own way of life.
The Rev. Mark F.M. Clavier is dean of residential training at St. Michael’s College, Llandaff, and teaches theology at Cardiff University.
1 J. Howard Beales III, “Advertising to Kids and the FTC: A Regulatory Retrospective that Advises the Present,” George Mason Law Review 12:4 (April 2004), pp. 873-94.
2 Public Law 96–252, 94 Stat. 374 (May 28, 1980): “Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act of 1980.”
3 “Marketing to Children: Trillion Dollar Kids,” The Economist, Nov. 30, 2006 (www.economist.com/node/8355035).
4 Julia Margo, Mike Dixon, Nick Pearce, and Howard Reed, Freedom’s Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2006), p. 142.
5 Ibid., p. 145.
6 Anna R. McAlister and T. Bettina Cornwell, “Children’s Brand Symbolism Understanding: Links to Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning,” Psychology and Marketing 27:3 (March 2010), p. 224.
7 Margo et al., Freedom’s Orphans, p. 144.
8 Alan France, Joanne Meredith and Graham Murdoch, “Children and Marketing Literature Final Report, CRSP 583” (Loughborough: CRSP, 2008).
9 Ibid., p. iv.
10 On the influence of styles of parenthood on “consumer socialization,” see Les Carlson and Sanford Grossbart, “Parental Style and Consumer Socialization,” Journal of Consumer Research 15:1 (June 1988), pp. 77-94.