Dan Cook is a professor in advertising and in the Institute of Communications Research whose work focuses on children as consumers. His 2004 book The Commodification of Childhood explored the development of the children's clothing industry and how it illustrated the rise of the child consumer.
What is the basic tension between our ideas about children and childhood versus the freedom of the marketplace?
There is a dominant belief today that markets, if left unfettered, will solve all social ills. Its adherents argue that commercial interests should have exclusive and privileged access in all social arenas - including children, schools, healthcare and media policy.
Marketers have argued that children, even quite young children, are knowing, choosing consumers and that the marketplace will decide what is right. In this view, parents become obstacles to the free exercise of the marketplace, even as they assert their authority to determine what should be part of their children's lives.
What are the concerns most commonly raised about ads and marketing directed at children?
Some point out that at young ages children are not able to understand the persuasive intent and content of ads, are not able to judge the truth of their claims, and cannot determine the value of goods in a way necessary to make knowledgeable choices. Critics argue that children's commercial culture emphasizes and dramatizes the consumption of goods as a measure of social acceptance, encouraging a confusion of material life with self worth.
Concerns, however, should not be limited to children's advertising, since that assumes that ads can neatly isolate an audience by age. Children encounter advertisements intended for adults more frequently and in greater quantity than ads aimed at them. And advertisements are only one part of a panoply of promotional efforts children regularly encounter, such as licensed characters on backpacks and clothing; tie-ins between fast food chains, films and toy companies; cartoons which serve as advertisements for their own product lines, and food chains which operate in many school cafeterias.
To understand kids' consumption, one must take an expansive view of their everyday lives. Marketers certainly do.
What factors do you think we might consider in drawing a reasonable line between commercial interests and the best interests of children?
We need to challenge the assumption that marketers and advertisers hold the social right to hawk their goods and images to anyone in any place at any time. What is needed are ways to carve out market-free, promotional-free spheres of existence. Some school districts have been able to reverse the trend by removing advertising and food chains from their schools.
Many people complain about commercialism during the holidays, but it's the time when they can least resist it, especially with children. Are there messages we can send or actions we can take with children, either during the holiday season or throughout the year?
The holiday shopping season is particularly difficult because it is a time of giving and sharing, as well as a time children recognize as "theirs," and so consumer goods seem to be a natural part of it. Much like Halloween and birthdays, during Christmas children expect their desires to be consulted and their wishes to be granted. Many families end up with a hangover from hyper-consumption, on top of an already hyper-consumptive life.
It would probably help many families if they did not make Christmas an occasion to promise children rewards for "behaving," tying their obedience and respect to an external motivation and incentive. Also, if the focus of the season is meant to be on giving, then perhaps an emphasis can be made on the exchange of gifts, rather than only the receipt of them for kids.
Much of contemporary practice positions children as receivers who are often "over-gifted" by relatives and loved ones (with all good intentions). If children are, from the beginning, brought into the social obligations of giving and receiving, maybe they will come to understand the season as something other than one of personal accumulation. The effort needs to be made by all to center the social, emotional and spiritual core of this time and shove the ephemeral to the side.