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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

Living in a Material World

Farah Ghuznavi

In recent years, there has been a great deal of concern about the rise of the so-called "consumer culture" in Western countries. This is related to the fear that people are failing to appreciate (or de-valuing) the non-material dimensions of their lives, and increasingly choosing to focus on issues of purchasing power - competing with one another to buy newer and better versions of various items i.e. branded clothing, four-wheel drive vehicles etc. The exception to this "bigger is better" philosophy is electronic gadgetry such as the IPod, where small is beautiful, and the smaller it is the more it costs!

Much of the concern over the rise of consumerism relates to the lack of spirituality or ethical values, one argument being that the "meaning of life" has been reduced to a question of what you can afford to buy. This may seem like an extreme criticism, but the fact remains that even a casual survey of advertisements indicates that people are being sold the idea that happiness is dependent on being able to buy things. If you're feeling low, buy yourself an expensive aftershave or a designer bag, and this will make you feel better (hence the origin of the slogan - "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping").

Among other things, there is also the worry that this contributes to creating selfish individuals, and on the whole, a society that is indifferent to the needs of its less fortunate members. After all, if the rightwing political slogan about "caring conservatism" brings out the sceptic in many of us, the term "caring consumerism" has to be an oxymoron (products from the fair trade movement being the exception that proves the rule)!

Interestingly, despite increasing concern about changing social mores and the erosion of values, the focus of such issues has largely been on adult consumers. It is not until relatively recently that the possible impact of consumerist culture on children has been considered. And yet this is an obvious concern, given that children invariably model their own behaviour on that of adults around them.

Hence, as their parents and elders become preoccupied with how to afford ever flashier cars, larger houses in nicer neighbourhoods, and designer accessories, children have also started (at an ever younger age) to want certain very specific toys or clothes - usually whichever branded goods their peers happen to be using. Not surprisingly, business and advertisers have welcomed this opportunity, with ever more aggressive marketing aimed at children (including the creation of the new "customer" category of "tweens" six to twelve years olds).

A recent television programme found that children as young as four or five years old insist on having particular brands of toys. A friend of mine has experienced this problem firsthand, as her five-year-old is preoccupied with all things Barbie-related! Sara has all kinds of Barbie accessories, including Barbie hairbrushes, pencil cases, erasers, bags etc. Her mother, who would prefer her to play with something more educational (or at least, less closely related to a blonde bimbo, whom she does not consider a desirable role model!) is very worried about this. Her only consolation is that her daughter does not actually own any Barbie dolls (YET!), since her main attraction to Barbie seems to be based on (at least at this stage) the fact that all the Barbie accessories are in her favourite colour, pink… Besides, as she is so young, there is still hope that she might grow out of it!

A common trick employed by many advertisers is based on "pester power", which works by motivating children to pester their parents into buying them things. The industry usually targets young children through advertisements repeatedly shown during children's primetime television e.g. Sunday mornings. And as anyone who has seen a howling child or an aggravated parent in a toy-store knows, this strategy clearly works! Very often, harried and busy parents will simply give up and buy the toy, rather than take on the challenging (if not impossible!) task of explaining to the child why they can't have it. The Barbie example given earlier is a classic case of this. And of course, it is even harder to resist when many of a child's peers own the same toy, because it makes it impossible for that child to then understand why he or she should be deprived of it.

The toy industry is of course not the only one to engage in these types of tactics. The fast food industry has long been using highly effective advertising to contribute to what is now a growing child obesity epidemic in developed countries, as well as a selective one (i.e. children belonging to middle-class or wealthy families) in the developing world. And as with toys, clothing and other products, branding is not about quality, as much as being "cool" and doing what everyone else does. The aggressive marketing of fast food chains such as McDonald's might even have been more bearable if they offered any truly healthy options. Alas, that is not as yet the case! A friend of mine who wanted a cheap and healthy meal opted for a McSalad, only to find that McDonald's salads contain more fat than some of their burgers…

Another tactic that works well to draw in young consumers is to offer "free" toys with children's meals (making sure that these are tied into the latest children's films or some other current craze). An English colleague of mine, who is a strict vegetarian, has never taken his children to McDonald's. Luckily for him, the children (who are also vegetarians) have never (as yet) asked to go there. But it is likely to be a matter of time. Because apart from anything else, these children have seen many of their peers showing off the toys that come with "happy meals", so they actually think that McDonald's is a toy store!

One of the few hopeful signs I have seen so far in the fight back against this pervasive consumer culture, is one lone child a teenager, even! - interviewed on the same TV programme mentioned earlier, saying quite firmly that she is not interested in branded clothing or anything else. As she rather scathingly asserted, "Branding is for cows" (since the original term related to the branding of cattle, to signify ownership), and no corporation is going to own her! Unless we see more of such intelligent thinking, it is likely that the branded consumption culture will reduce all of us - children and adults - to mindlessly following the herd in the quest to be in", regardless of the costs (both literal and figurative)…

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