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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Don't buy into Yuletide hard sell


In a recent national survey, 86 percent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed that “today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming things.” A recent cover story in Newsweek, “How to Say ‘No’ to Your Kids,” detailed tips from experts on how to set limits in an age of excess. Juliet Schor, a professor at Boston College, reports in her new book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner), on one study that has found that children are brand-aware at age 3.

Cosmologist Brian Swimme pointed out that for hundreds of thousands of years in human prehistory children gathered in caves and sat around campfires in the evenings and listened to the elders’ chants and stories, but now “the cave has been replaced by the television room and the chant with the advertisement, the essential message that is there night after night, and season after season.”

Swimme is director of the Center for the Story of the Universe and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He is a sought-after speaker at religious conferences and recently keynoted the Call to Action annual conference in Milwaukee.

Swimme said that advertisements are where our children receive their cosmology, their basic grasp of the world’s meaning, which amounts to their primary religious faith. “I use the word ‘faith’ here to mean cosmology on the personal level. Faith is that which a person holds to be the hard-boiled truth about reality.”

Before a child enters first-grade science class and before entering in any real way into our religious ceremonies, Swimme said, a child will have soaked in 30,000 advertisements. “The time our teenagers spend absorbing ads is more than their total stay in high school.”

We have replaced spiritual development with the advertisement’s materialism, according to Swimme. “When one compares the pitiful efforts we employ for moral development with the colossal energies we pour into advertising, it’s like comparing a high school football game with World War II. Nothing that happens in one hour on Sunday makes the slightest dent in the strategic bombing that takes place day and night 52 weeks a year.”

The fact that consumerism has become our dominant faith is largely invisible to us, according to Swimme, so it is helpful “to understand clearly that to hand our children over to the consumer culture is to place them in the care of the planet’s most sophisticated preachers. If those bizarre cults we read about in the papers used even one-tenth of one percent of the dazzling deceit of our advertisers, they would be hounded by the Justice Department and thrown into jail.”

Advertisers in the corporate world are offered high salaries, and with that financial draw, corporations attract the highest strata of IQs. “And our best artistic talent. And any sports hero or movie star they want to buy,” Swimme added.

“Combining so much brain power and social status with sophisticated electronic graphics and the most penetrating psychological techniques, these teams of highly intelligent adults descend upon us all, even upon children not yet in school, to create in us a dissatisfaction with our lives and a craving for yet another consumer product.

Swimme said it’s hard to imagine any child having the ability to survive such a lopsided contest, “especially when it is carried out 10,000 times a year, with no cultural condom capable of blocking out the consumerism virus.”

During the Cold War, Swimme pointed out, we decried the Soviet tactic of indoctrinating children into communist ideology through such methods as the Pioneer movement. Yet what we do is very similar to those “brainwashing” techniques.

Professor Schor outlines in her book the numerous tactics advertisers use on our kids, many of which turn them into disrespectful whiners. For example, she says there is “anti-adult bias” in the commercials. “Kids and products are aligned together in a really great, fun place, while parents, teachers and other adults inhabit an oppressive, drab and joyless world. … The lesson to kids is that it’s the product, not your parents, who’s really on your side.”

The Christmas season, of course, has become our great annual consumerist feast. It’s a true school for consumerism, wherein we learn to equate desire and delight with material things. Nature writer Bill McKibben wrote: “We celebrate the birth of One who told us to give away everything to the poor by giving each other motorized tie racks.”

Alternatives for Simple Living is an excellent organization that provides resources -- books, tapes, videos and more -- that are antidotes to Christmas consumerism. They’ve sponsored a “Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway” campaign for many years now. Their Web site is

Rich Heffern is an NCR columnist. His email address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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