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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

The lore and lure of marketing

The holidays are approaching. Registers are ringing. Big deal.

There’s little point in humbugging the commercialization of Christmas these days. Although the contrasts may be starker for those of us who honor the child in the humble manger, Christmas in terms of commerce is little different -- and probably less insidious -- than the ways marketing pervades our lives morning to night every day of the year.

Articles on consumerism and Facebook in this issue’s Family Life section flag the topic. As we write, the two are engaged in a dance, as both Facebook, which claims 50 million active users, and MySpace, which claims 100 million, are lowering the walls against advertising on their sites.

Of course, like television viewers, who can turn off their sets or use gadgets like TiVo to bypass ads, Facebook users who object to such invasions of their virtual hangouts can simply sign off. But for many, online networking has moved in a short time from a cultural phenomenon to an integral part of their cultural fabric, as important as radio and television, airplanes and cars, cell phones and iPods. And whatever arguments, good or bad, we might make about the potentially damaging effects of these products, few can deny that they have, in many ways, enhanced our connections and enriched our lives.

Besides, as a source for Kris Berggren’s article pointed out, in-your-face consumerism is like an intravenous drug. “You can’t battle it all day long. You just let it drip in.” And beyond potentially insidious effects, marketing and advertising bring us information we want and sometimes need.

So like so many things in life, this matter of consumerism comes down to: How do we get control? If we are breathing, we are targets, but we don’t have to become victims. Good parents buckle their kids into car seats; make sure their children wear helmets when biking; they warn their kids against being too trusting -- unfortunately, not just of strangers, but of clergy and coaches and teachers, groups once regarded as safe. And increasingly, teaching kids -- and ourselves -- to be aware and wary of the many ways in which the corporate culture seduces us to consume is more than a matter of morality. It is about staying healthy, or even alive. We are learning more and more to be cautious about products, even those federally approved, that we had been lulled into believing were safe: food we thought was healthy to eat; toys we thought were safe for our kids; drugs we -- and our physicians -- thought would help us. Little did we suspect as we railed against the commercialization of Christmas that it might be, in some ways, the least of our concerns.

So how do we empower ourselves and our kids to avoid exploitation by the ever present corporate culture? We support legislation aimed at proper controls, we teach ourselves, and we give our kids tools to help them deconstruct the lore and lure of marketing.

It is one more way in which good parenting is hard work because, for one thing, these are not likely to be tools kids are craving, or even tools that parents are dying to give them. Good parents want to empower their kids, and in a culture that ties personal identity and self-esteem to what we own and flaunt, parents can easily be seduced into equating empowerment, at least partially, with purchasing power.

Further, many parents don’t have the tools. Ads that target kids -- especially very young kids -- are a fairly recent development in the advertising world. Three or four decades ago, kids were thought of as future consumers. Today they are regarded as present consumers -- the “pennies” in their pockets add up to billions of dollars collectively. In the child-pleasing culture of America’s middle class, they exercise a huge influence on the buying decisions of their parents.

Fortunately, parents willing to buck the trend have allies. “As marketers become more brazen, parents, educators and health professionals have begun to fight back,” writes Juliet Schor in her book Born to Buy. Schor, a sociologist at Boston College and an expert on consumerism and family studies, is one of a spate of authors offering insights and guidance to help us analyze and deflect the influence of daily exposure, visible and invisible, to those who want to sell us things. The Center for Media Literacy (www.medialit.org) offers articles and teaching aids that can help us deconstruct media and its influence, including the ways “we participate in our own seduction.” An organization called Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org) is one of a few groups tracking developments in the field.

Perhaps as a start, in keeping with the best spirit of the holiday season, well underway in the stores, we could hang up in our homes, along with the wreaths and lights, a copy of Commercial Alert’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, available on its Web site, and pledge to support all through the commercialized year legislation that promotes proper controls.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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