ALISSA QUART BELIEVES THAT KIDS today are victims of an unprecedented barrage of slick, mind-numbing advertising, a phenomenon dissected at length in her book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. To check her thesis, I called a 40-something friend and asked if she remembered which brand of sneakers she wore as a child. My friend burst into song: "Run a little faster, jump a little higher, feel a little stronger, in your P.F. Flyers!"
I was stunned; I'd always thought of her as a Red Ball Jets girl. But I wasn't surprised that the insistent commercial jingles of her childhood remained embedded in her brain. It's hard to imagine a baby boomer who doesn't know which brand of chicken noodle soup is "M'm! M'm! Good? what kind of bread builds strong bodies 12 ways, or why Tony the Tiger starts every morning with sugar-frosted flakes. (For you youngsters out there, it's because they're "Grrrrrrr-eat!") It's certainly true that children today are bombarded by commercial messages in a way that was unimaginable back when there were only three networks, and children spent each endless week waiting breathlessly for the glories of Saturday morning cartoons.
But it's an open question whether Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and their ilk have made today's children more vulnerable to commercialism than their parents were. With so much kid-oriented programming available, no current shows can boast the hegemony--and commercial muscle--of old must-see juvenile hits like "Batman" or "The Monkees"; advertisers on those shows knew that every self-respecting third-grader in the country would either tune in or face playground humiliation the next day. It's impossible for an advertiser to make that kind of direct hit in today's cluttered media marketplace.
Children, Quart argues, have been transformed into "victims of the contemporary luxury economy." To her, the villains in this case are obvious: They are the corporations that heartlessly market to underage consumers, slavering after the annual $155 billion in discretionary income Quart says they control (although the source of that figure is not cited). Some of her anecdotal evidence is chilling, such as the 150 school districts nationwide that have accepted soft-drink companies' sponsorships, taking relatively small donations in return for exclusive on-campus access to the districts' thirsty young customers. Quart reports that one young rebel who wore a Pepsi shirt to his school's Coca-Cola Day was suspended for "insurrection."
Still, isn't criticizing a marketer for targeting a group of affluent consumers, whatever their height, equivalent to deploring your cat for targeting songbirds? It's in the nature of the beast. The real challenge is deciding whose job it is to bell the cat. Quart blames Congress for its failure to regulate advertising to under-18 consumers. She notes with approval that Sweden bans commercials on kids' shows, a move that demonstrates that "many European countries are much more enlightened than the United States in their attitudes and laws toward branding aimed at minors." But that's a spurious comparison. Unlike the United States, where commercial jingles and slogans have been part of the cultural fabric for more than half a century, Sweden didn't allow any commercials on television whatsoever until 1991. (That ban had one unexpectedly lovely unintended consequence. Marketers, desperate to get buyers' attention, started plastering their brand logos on brightly colored hot-air balloons and setting them aloft over Stockholm.) And the current ban on marketing to kids doesn't actually work; to circumvent it, two Swedish channels simply beam their signals from ad-friendlier England.
The author seems to put more faith in legislative action than in parents' own ability to monitor their children's exposure to advertising and limit their purchasing power. Sadly, she may be right. Many parents, whether motivated by guilt or wrong-headed fondness, seem unable to resist their children's demands for expensive branded merchandise, even when those desires wreak havoc on the family budget. A few days ago, I was minding the cash register at our elementary-school book fair when a distressed single mother asked me to total her purchases. She had planned to spend only $60, but her son's wish list totaled almost $100. I offered to take back the most expensive volume, a $28 hardcover version of the Guinness Book of World Records. "It'll be out in paperback soon," I assured her. "He wants what he wants," she responded flatly, digging in her purse for a few more crumpled bills. How can we expect our children to build up any sales resistance when we ourselves are unable to say no?