The socialization of children into market behavior and their indoctrination into the values of consumption are vital to the continuity of a capitalist society like the United States. This chapter focuses on the period of childhood when new consumers are coming of age, the ways marketers shape their buying behavior, the images and values that ads associate with childhood, and the controversies and ethical questions that emerge from marketing to children. It examines these issues from the various perspectives of the advertising industry, government regulators, parents, and activists.
1. The History of Childhood
In his influential book Centuries of Childhood (1962), Philippe Ariès examines conceptions of childhood historically and claims that 20th-century children lived lives of leisure and indulgence unknown in the past. Ariès notes that children in the past were variously conceived as simply little adults, uninteresting, merely tolerated, frequently ignored and, given the precarious conditions under which they lived, liable to disappear at any time. Until the concept of a period of life designated as childhood emerged in the 19th century, children were typically called on to assume their adult roles as much as a decade before being allowed to do so today (at 8–12 years of age).
Similarly, anthropologists studying childhood in a variety of other cultures have noted the uniqueness of our own culture’s attitudes about treating children. Kalahari Bushmen, for example, keep children close at hand as they forage and hunt, thereby providing not only constant supervision but also powerful models of culturally appropriate behaviors for children to emulate. In traditional Samoan culture, the period of life known as adolescence to Westerners is not as stressful or as problematic as in Western societies because adolescents are not faced with a myriad of life-determining choices as they are in the West.
Scholars have uncovered additional historical and cultural evidence that points to a simple, but powerful, understanding of childhood as a cultural construction rather than a biological given. This understanding necessitates an interrogation of the social and cultural factors that make childhood and the experiences of children what they are in any particular society. In contemporary America, advertising and consumerism—along with parents, school, and other agents of socialization—make contemporary childhood a historically specific and culturally unique phenomenon.
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