Book of the week: Consuming Children: education, entertainment, advertising

7th December 2001 at 00:00

Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen, authors of Consuming Children: education, entertainment, advertising (Open University Press pound;55,hbk, pound;17.99, pbk) believe that child consumerism in the developed world has got out of hand.

With families crumbling, schools interested only in pupils passing exams and volunteer youth movements a shadow of their former selves, they argue, the way is now wide open for big business, aided by ruthlessly targeted advertising, to get at children as never before, mainly through television.

Facing little or no opposition, today's commercial brand leaders have the field to themselves when it comes to teaching children what they want them to want. Promoting badge-appeal (toys, gadgets and clothing that go down well with one's peers) and tribalism (are you a raver, a rapper or a hard-core skater?) are just two of the ways in which advertisers can make the young and immature feel that by purchasing the right trainers or mobile phone, for example, they are buying into a desirable public persona. The result, the authors suggest, may be a type of Bart Simpson clone: streetwise but school-foolish.

Those parents still around with the time and inclination to carry a different message to their children are systematically derided in this newly aggressive commercial culture. Streams of films, sitcoms and cartoons now represent modern mothers and fathers as "dull or too earnest, usually disapproving, slightly ridiculous, unworthy of emulation and as being subjected to well-justified rebellion and rejection."

The rewards for big, often global business can be great: nothing less than a lifetime of spending from those at the threshold of adulthood (although often with considerable purchasing power even as children). But this is to suppose that the present relatively high amounts of disposable wealth are here to stay. If this is not the case, then the current consumers' bonanza may come to seem as absurd to future generations as it does to some critics now. Sheer fatigue may set in, with young people finding other means to make their mark.

The authors discuss ways in which some modern pupils are already using the internet to challenge some of the inflated claims of global companies. They mention, too, the phenomenon of teenage "culture-jamming": subversive and sometimes illegal ways of putting a spoke in the wheels of commerce, from graffiti to vandalism and computer hacking. The spirit of parody, never far from the young, can prove effective in puncturing many of the over-blown commercial illusions foisted upon them.

A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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