May 6th, 2001
Keep Commerce out of the Classroom
By George Will
Children, according to one ebullient marketer, are "born to be consumers," they are "consumer cadets" in whom "the consumer embryo begins to develop in the first year of existence." Excited by evidence that children as young as 12 months are capable of "brand associations," and guided by the principle of KGOY (kids getting older younger), marketers study "marketing practices that drive loyalty in the preschool market" and "the desires of toddler-age consumers."
A marketer says, "When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills follow the Procter & Gamble model of ‘cradle to grave.’ . . . We believe in getting them early and having them for life." Another marketer advises, "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that." Sophisticated behavioral studies (e.g., "The Nag Factor," "The Art of Fine Whining") suggest how to turn children into controllers of parents.
Lifetime Learning Systems, an innocuously named company specializing in partnerships between businesses and schools, says "School is . . . the ideal time to influence attitudes." At school, children are comfortable and susceptible to promptings. Hence Channel One, a commercial satellite network serving, if that is the mot juste, 12,000 schools.
Channel One tells advertisers that it is "viewed by more teens than any other television program." It provides 10 minutes of news (broadly defined, to include weather, sports, natural disasters, features and promotions for Channel One) and two minutes of advertising. Children in schools with Channel One spend time equivalent to a full instructional week watching it.
Children ages 4 to 12 spent almost $ 27 billion at their own discretion in 1998, and they are thought to have directly influenced $ 187 billion in parental purchases and to have indirectly influenced another $ 300 billion worth. Teenagers spent $ 100 billion and influenced the spending of another $ 50 billion, so we should perhaps be grateful that advertisers spend "only" $ 5 billion on advertising aimed at children.
But gratitude did not motivate the authors of "Watch Out for Children: A Mothers’ Statement to Advertisers," from which the statements and statistics above are culled. It is published by the Motherhood Project of the Institute for American Values, which is the source of excellent monographs about "the renewal of marriage and family life and sources of competence, character and citizenship."
The report suggests a dreamy "code for advertisers" (e.g., no advertising that promotes "an ethic of selfishness") and some bromides about attentive parenting. However, the report’s considerable value is in sensitizing readers to how desensitized the country has become about encroachments of commerce where it does not belong—in schools, especially.
At the birth of this commercial republic, in which the perennial problem of turbulent passions was to be solved by subsuming them in enterprise, John Adams, hardly a complacent optimist, expressed a cheerful expectation of stately long-range progress: "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." Two centuries later, such a sense of the steady elevation of the American mind seems too serene, in part because of the pull—the relentlessly downward pull—of popular culture, including the forces of commerce.
In 1976, this republic’s bicentennial, Daniel Bell, a sociologist at Harvard, the university that helped furnish Adams’ capacious mind, warned about "the cultural contradictions of capitalism." Capitalism, he said, depends on certain stern virtues, such as asceticism, thrift, industriousness, self-denial, deferral of gratification. But capitalism produces social surpluses, which beget luxury, which begets materialism, self-indulgence, acquisitiveness, instant gratification.
"It is striking," Bell wrote 20 years later, "that in every major city in the world, from New York to Helsinki to Tokyo, every large department store one enters displays cosmetics and fragrances spread across its ground floor." Striking, that is, because "the tension between asceticism and acquisitiveness" has been resolved in favor of the latter. Even more striking evidence of the self-corruption of capitalist culture is this: Once charged with countering the self-centeredness and egotism that de Tocqueville called democracy’s temptation, schools are becoming case studies in the commodification of everything.
It is fortunate, sort of, that advertising is so ubiquitous: It is akin to wallpaper, even audible wallpaper—always there, but unnoticed. However, advertising in schools subverts a lesson children should learn there—that commerce, although valuable, is subordinate to other values. Which is why schools should be commerce-free zones.