Open Book

Invasion of the Kid Snatchers

Marketers spend $15 billion a year to turn children into compliant consumers

Magazine Issue
November/December 2004
Invasion of the Kid Snatchers

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood

by Susan Linn

New Press. 288 pp. ISBN: 1-565-84783-0

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture

by Juliet Schor

Scribner. 275 pp. ISBN: 0-684-87055-X

In the 1950s and well into the ’60s, American moviegoers experienced a barrage of science-fiction movies about alien/monster invasions. These films included not just the usual round of Martian-assault films, like War of the Worlds, and attacks by nuclear-blighted insects (Them) or awakened dinosaurs (Godzilla), but, more terrifyingly, movies about aliens invading the bodies and minds of ordinary people in small-town America. The two most iconic of these films were Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, in which good, plain folk, including children, were turned into zombies (I’ll always remember one terrifying scene in which a young girl-zombie snacked on the bodies of dead adults).

Critics like to say that these sci-fi invasion movies were “about” American fears of communism or sex or the unspoken threat of McCarthyism; the country was being invaded from inside and out in ways that turned its citizens into totalitarian ghouls. Many of these movies have been remade since, but the underlying message is still the same: our psyches are under threat.

New contributions to this genre always reflect the latest technology, whether rocket ships or computers. In The Matrix, every human being on the planet is nestled in his own pod, hooked up to a vast computer program that supplies ready images that virtually construct our lives. Human life becomes a paralytic dream-state in which alien powers use us to their advantage, as battery fuel. We’re asleep, and other beings feed on our dreams and nightmares; we’re complete creatures of media and totally anaesthetized. It’s a terrifying vision, more clinical even than the girl-zombie feeding on her elders, but in its own way just as chilling, because it presumes our helplessness in the face of an overpowering assault.

The two books under review aren’t science fiction, but they also rely on our emotional responses of helplessness and dread in the face of something both disquieting and mundane: ubiquitous advertising and a relentless materialism. Our kids have become zombies, say the authors, in a manner of speaking. Marketers are the aliens–smart, greedy aliens. And our kids are chomping on their wares.

Consuming Kids and Born to Buy are, at one level, the usual liberal diatribes against rapacious advertisers. But Linn and Schor have upped the ante by saying that we adults are no longer the main targets of corporate marketers: they’re bypassing us to feed and colonize the psyches of our children. And it’s not a matter of just saying no to them–the admen and adwomen are too good at what they do, and too strong. Our autonomy just won’t hold.

Both authors use a cavalcade of facts to make their case. The numbers are hot, and read like items from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The average child sees 40,000 commercials a year on TV. There’s a TV for every American, and 66 percent of children have a TV in their bedrooms. Marketers now spend $15 billion seducing children and adolescents–two and a half times the amount spent a dozen years ago. Kids watch three and a half hours of TV a day and consume another three to four hours of other media from their video consoles, stereos, mini disks, and CD walkmans. Their reality often is media: they don’t watch The Matrix, they live it. The purchasing power of kids (of all ages) has increased 400 percent since 1989. When they shop, they shop at one of 46,000 shopping centers, up 66 percent since 1986.

And American families, working harder than any others in the industrialized world, go into bankruptcy to the tune of one and a half million households a year. Our kids, according to this statistics parade, are the new shock troops of a mercantile, digital future. Their mission, which they’ve been programmed to accept, is to separate us from our money in order to maximize their status–and their status anxiety–among their peers.

It’s easy to go nuts over the statistics, but there’s a serious point here: the reason kids are central to advertisers has to do with the changing nature of the family. As one mother exclaims, “When I was a kid, I got to pick the color of the car. Now my kid picks the car!” Families are more democratic, and kids have more power. They act as advisors to their parents (or they just nag incessantly). Parents (if there are two parents) work so hard that they download money and influence onto their kids to pacify them. The modern equation is: less time = more guilt = more cash. In such a world, it makes sense that President Bush exhorted his citizen-consumers to shop, rather than sacrifice, to shore up the country after 9-11.

Much of what’s useful in these books, especially Juliet Schor’s, is the depiction of just how the marketers have exploited this field, and they’ve been brilliant at it. To study the market, they’ve used so many social science Ph.D.’s that the American Psychological Association has begun to focus on it as an ethical issue. New product launches are so well planned that the release of a new video game, candy bar, or sneaker is more competently executed than the invasion–and occupation–of Iraq: certainly the on-the-ground intelligence is better.

The marketers know who they’re after: their vision of American childhood is covered by the term “age compression” or KGOY–kids getting older younger. Even though many kids, especially preteens or “tweens,” are actually less socially adept than their parents were at their age (perhaps because many are so socially isolated in their media dens), these kids believe they’re really older. And the marketers encourage the illusion. Twenty years ago, Seventeen magazine was aimed at 16-year-olds; now it’s aimed at ages 11 and 12.

Marketers know that kids actually want to become part of an adult world–it’s just they don’t want to become part of their parent’s adult world. So the ad types feed them “anti-adultism.” Parents and teachers are Homer Simpsonized–they’re turned into fools. As one kids’ channel puts it: Kids rule!

A reader might feel that all of this seems pretty harmless, but both authors insist that the rules have changed. At one time, parents were the gatekeepers: ads appealed to them and to their kids. Now it’s divide and conquer. Adolescent rebellion is pretty routine stuff, but under the hegemony of the marketers, even rebellion is becoming part of the KGOY business plan. The more disrespect you can inculcate early, the better for the recruiting and sales schemes of corporate America.

And just when you may think these authors just don’t have a sense of humor, they discuss something truly brilliant and sneaky: the creation of networks of kid-spies whose job is to leak new products to their peers and the public. These networks are run like CIA field operations. They work this way: a toy or sneaker company goes about identifying “alpha” kids or “pups”: the coolest kids on the block, the trendsetters. They give them samples of a new product and cash, and their corporate case-officers then follow up with detailed debriefings about whom they’ve spoken to and what they’ve done with the stuff.

This new form of advertising is called “viral marketing” and it’s a marvel of ingenuity you only wish our real intelligence agencies could emulate.

The real purpose of all these strategies–from standard TV ads to viral marketing–isn’t just enticement, but the creation of craving. If marketers are successful, kids have to have this stuff: their identities depend on it. Drugs are the official addiction problem, but this is the unofficial one, the one our economy depends on. Both authors never seem to talk about kids who actually like what they want (they certainly don’t need any of it). Pleasure–enjoyment–is entirely absent in this material realm, and from these books. When Schor gets the marketers to speak honestly, several, especially the academically trained social scientists, confess to loathing what they do. They know it’s despicable, but they can’t stop–the money’s too good.

So what’s to be done? Schor argues for a parents’ bill of rights, lots of regulation, and more outdoor play space. She likes what the Swedes have done, banning all ads on TV to kids under 12. (The Swedes are always doing something right.) But in First- Amendment America, with its distrust of bureaucrats and regulators, it’s hard to imagine any new government rules beyond the weak measures now in effect. And it’s even harder to imagine what both authors really want: a grass-roots movement of parents working to control the advertisers, and their own children. If the cry of women was “take back the night,” these writers want us all to cry “take back the stuff.” And give us back our kids!

Both books read like legal briefs, and both authors make an overwhelming case. Schor is more judicious; and Linn more aggravated and frenzied. The arguments they make seem unassailable and completely correct–they appeal to whatever shreds of public virtue their overworked, debt-ridden, (mostly) liberal audience still has.

But social commentary is also a convoluted game: it relies on fact, exaggeration, and metaphor. Social critics are like trial lawyers–they must be absolutely compelling to make their case. But the overwhelming truth they tell us is only one version of a truth. It’s possible that they can be right and wrong at the same time. It’s not a matter of just shadings, or nuance. Truths are complicated: that’s why they’re so many of them, and why they so effortlessly contradict each other, depending on the speaker, the hour, and the day.

I have a son who’s 16. He watches too much TV and doesn’t read (except what’s on a computer screen). No doubt he saw more than 40,000 commercials last year. He’s Mr. Blank Slate–the culture’s written all over him. But he’s still selective about what gets through. He doesn’t care much about clothing. He has no taste for music. He deals with the emptiness of our culture by loving sports and going inside himself. He’s a cheerful, loving boy, and he’s already internalized many of the prohibitions on consumption I so naturally feel. I may be lucky–luckier with this child than with my other.

So, if the mind-snatchers are after our kids, we can still hope to inoculate them against their influence. We may or may not be able to, but it sure beats feeling helpless.

In the end, The Matrix is a metaphor, not absolute reality. And even though it comes nicely packaged in our video stores, we don’t have to buy the whole boxed set.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.