in a Material World
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!
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").
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)!
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.
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).
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!
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
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…
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!
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)…
(R) thedailystar.net 2004