Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

Graham Nash wrote the memorable song that lends its title to this essay. The lyrics are about the relationship between a parent and child. Released in 1970 on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, "Déjà vu," the song has reached another generation through its use on television in "The Office" (the U.S. version) and "Six Feet Under." The message is certainly just as relevant as it was almost forty years ago. So what exactly are we teaching the next generation?

Apparently, we're teaching them to be obsessed with fashion and luxury. In a September LA Times article, Monica Corcoran reported:

"Designer labels make up about 15.3% of purchases by 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a recent study by New York-based marketing research firm NPD Group. Five years ago, that figure hovered at 9.6%. And increasingly, luxury brands are catering to younger customers."

I found the article depressing. Yes, it focused on a small group of girls at a swanky private school that caters to the outrageously wealthy denizens of L.A., but consider this:

"In this month's Teen Vogue, glossy ads for oversized fall handbags by Gucci, Chloé, and Louis Vuitton can be found in the first 10 pages of the mini-magazine with a cult following among teenagers. . . .And that's just the ads. The women's media website recently tallied the prices of the merchandise featured in the editorial content of the September issue of Teen Vogue to a total of $74,458. Per their research, Cosmopolitan -- not CosmoGirl, mind you -- rang in at just $27,636.64."

The pressure is on and it's not just the children of wealthy families that feel it. As James McNeal pointed out in an interesting Center for Media Literacy report that holds up quite well despite being dated 1987, there was a time, in the first half of the twentieth century, that children were not targeted as consumers. Those days are far, far behind us. Now the market for kids rakes in billions of dollars every year. Advertisers know just how to cash in, too. explains the simple process of conditioning through advertising. Please note that the article acknowledges that the technique applies to selling to adults, too [the brackets are mine]:

"From a very young age, the media teaches children how to be consumers in society. The media tells children about everything from what types of cereal to eat to what type of clothes to wear. They do this by using a creative technique that doesn't involve selling the product itself.

"Commercials aimed towards children (and pretty much everyone else also) don't sell products at all. Instead, commercials aim to sell an emotional response in regards to their products.

"This affects children [and adults] deeply, as children [and adults] are taught to base their purchases on emotional desires rather than actual need. One such desire is the need to be liked. Children often want to buy products that make them seem cool in the eyes of their peers. If one child wears designer jeans, and those designer jeans are seen as the thing to wear to be cool, other kids will want to wear those same jeans."

It's pretty straightforward. Anyone who came of age by the time television was commonplace in the home has been conditioned to buy what advertisers tell them to buy. But the most significant difference in selling to children in the last decade or so is total media saturation in our society.

Not only are children exposed to massive amounts of advertising in all media, including print, they also see thousands of hours of television, film, video and, significantly, on-line images annually that sell indirectly, often with more dramatic results than the ads produce. Product placement is a burgeoning business because simply seeing something under the "right" circumstances can generate sales. Even a glimpse of a favorite celebrity with or wearing an item can catapult the product to the top of the "must have" list for teens. Notice I said "celebrity," because fame itself is the primary marker, and sometimes the sole marker of status.

Of course, what children see and learn in the home still has enormous impact on their values. But what are they seeing there? Primarily, adults whose lives are ruled by consumption, often excessive consumption, motivated by the desire to have the "right" image -- just like their kids.

We're a society that is so completely image-saturated that image has become more significant than substance. This phenomenon has overtaken us to such a ludicrous extent that even the awards we give to our media stars (images as "role models," being given awards ostensibly based on their talents) are now overshadowed by the fashion show that precedes any awards ceremony and answers the burning question of "who" the stars are wearing. Their wardrobes are then later dissected with greater critical analysis than most of the visual entertainment in which they display their alleged abilities.

"Teach your children well," Graham Nash wrote, ". . . and feed them on your dreams." That's what's happening right now, just about everywhere we look. Dreams of the "right" image: fashionable, trendy, expensive.

What's a kid gonna do?

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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