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Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds Hardcover – May 8, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
According to reporter Thomas, modern marketers believe that "the moment a baby can see clearly, she becomes a consumer." Indeed, as investigative journalist Thomas discovered, some marketers start earlier, with an array of fetal "education" gimmicks designed to broadcast music and vocabulary to the mother's womb. Thomas interviewed a wide range of child development experts, product developers, marketing consultants and educators to write this well-researched exposé of the brave new world of American babies. Parents no longer believe that unstructured, baby-directed play and exploration is a valid use of baby's time. Parents buy videos and toys marketed as tools so that baby's every free moment can be a learning opportunity, even if there's no evidence that babies learn anything from these products. The phenomenon of KGOY—kids getting older younger—has passed from tweens down to toddlers and lap babies. Younger and younger children are watching more and more television and videos, she argues, and identifying with more "licensed character" products. Some of the problem lies with today's Gen-X parents, says Thomas, who's one herself. Having grown up with latchkeys and divorced parents, with only television for comfort, they want to give their own children everything—and marketers know how to play to their insecurities. Thomas ends with Pooh's plea for "Doing Nothing"—an idea many parents may be relieved to embrace. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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You can look at the material in this book as basically covering two topics. One is the part that dwells on how children learn, whether watching television lets them learn any better (or worse). The author also dwells on what drives parents when deciding what to spend on children. The second part is numerous examples of toys, cartoon shows, and franchises that were built into billion dollar businesses through careful branding, advertising, and marketing. Examples are Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Care Bears, Clifford the Dog, Elmo, and lots more.
One of the most useful and fascinating chapters of the book is on the theoretical and psychological insights into how children learn (Ch 3 - 'It's Like Playschool on TV'). The work of such people as Piaget and Vygotsky serve as the basis for much of the material here.
To a great extent this book works.
But... It is not a masterpiece of muckracking like 'Fast Food Nation'. There is also the sense that the author is unwilling to take a strong stand on this targeting of children, relying instead on the reader to come to that conclusion. Thirdly, the material in the book could have been better organized - themes too often intermingle in the chapters. Lastly, given that marketing to children is built on advertising, a crucial piece missing in this book is the lack of mention of any advertisements that targeted children, so the reader has an idea of the kind of advertising over the years that has targeted children.
By the way, did you know that "In 1978 the FTC issued a report contending that commercials targeting children under the age of eight were intrinsically unethical, since children of that age were developmentally unable to discern the subtle differences between fact and fantasy." Unsurprisingly, depressingly, "The investigation and the report were quashed by lobbying efforts on behalf of the advertising industry." [both page 55].
"Exploiting nostalgia was the advertisers' chief ploy. ... the toy industry understood the draw for parents of revisiting their own youth through their children." [page 56] What would have been very useful here, in this book, if the author had actually cited advertisements that did this.
"Babies, especially, and very young children are concrete thinkers. The classic separation anxiety that an eigh-month old baby feels when his primary caregiver leaves the room is rooted in the absolute certainty that she is really gone. [page 72]
Marketers and makers of children's toys all go for the 'acceptability halo' - "a marketer who establishes 'educational credit' can get away with anything." [page 3]
GenX-ers are dealt with in some detail in the book, across several chapters.
"Though the Gen-X mother may say she doesn't care how smart her children are, her spending patterns tell a different story. ... will even lie about fast-tracking their babies." [page 65]
"When asked, as late as 2004, what guiding principles its producers used to design developmentally appropriate TV for infants, a spokeswoman for Baby Einstein replied, 'We're just really good at seeing the world from a baby's point of view.'" [page 86]
A member of the AAP's communications committee (American Association of Pediatrics) had this to say: "There is no excuse for targeting children under two. They should not be watching television, and to target them with a show is immoral." [page 87]
"No legitimate academic research ever showed that Teletubbies was developmentally sound for babies or toddlers." [page 89]
"... toddlers were able to learn from events easily through live demonstrations, or what they believed were live demonstrations, but not when they knowingly viewed the same event via a symbolic medium, such as television." [page 92]
"... watching Sesame Street was 'negatively related' to expressive language use... Teletubbies was negatively related to both vocabulary size and expressive language use ... Barney and Friends was positively related to expressive language use and positively related to vocabulary size ... "
In 2005 an article published in the American Behavioral Scientist by Anderson, a PhD in developmental psychology, had this to say, "... With the exception of [one finding], there is very little evidence that children under two learn anything from television. The evidence indicates that learning from television by very young children is poor and that exposure to television is associated with relatively poor outcomes." [page 101]
Feeding children into the advertising and marketing grinder has consequences also, as one would expect. Take the 'Disney Princess' brand for example.
"One reason for launching Disney Princess was, naturally, to extend the retail life of each character." [page 137]
"... toddler girls didn't want to look like just any fancy Cindrella; they wanted to look like the Disney Cindrella." [page 139]
".. irony attended the marriage of KGOY and Cindrella ... Disney's Cindrella was emerging as the polar opposite of the orignal ... Cinderella causes some some young devotees to behave more like her wicked stepsisters. ... two and three-year old girls competed on the basis of who had the prettier or greater number of accessories..." [page 140]
Finally, sample this: "It's good for kids to learn how to manipulate - that's how you get ahead in this world." - per Rachel Geller, big honcho at the Geppetto Group, a New York based marketing firm.
20 pages of notes, and 10 pages of bibliography - fodder for further reading if one is so inclined, ending with a 12 page index.
Susan Gregory Thomas uncovers and exposes a threat to every child, and the adult that child is to become, that most of us are only vaguely aware of: the unbelievably extensive corporate attempt--clearly successful--to turn our children into unthinking consumers motivated only by status.
Thomas is tenacious in her demonstration of the lengths to which companies go in order to turn our sons and daughters into automatons substituting an addictive desire for the next "must-have" item for the development of imagination and learning.
Most of us were aware that advertising aimed at children was unwholesome, but Thomas shows the myriad ways in which such advertising is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Here it is possible present only a small sample of the lines of attack used not merely by mega-corporations, but also by "parent-friendly" companies. Their armamentarium includes manipulation by findings of academic psychologists, neurological investigation, licensing ploys that limit choice and raise price, collusion by education organizations and revered operations like Sesame Street and Baby Einstein...the list goes on and on. This one book makes the reader a virtual expert on the subject and an able opponent against those who would brainwash your children. (Thomas shies away from the term, but it is impossible not to see the practices she exposes in such terms.)
The importance of this book, and its potential to improve our children's lives, is huge. It is not going too far to say that Susan Gregory Thomas is the Rachel Carlson challenging the practices she describes. Buy, Buy Baby is compulsively readable and spellbindingly interesting, but these are the least of its virtues. If you have kids, or worry about what kids face today, this book is for you
Department of Sociology
City College, City University of New York
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