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How Do Our Kids Get So Caught Up in Consumerism?

By — Center for a New American Dream
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

In the Merck Family Fund’s Yearning for Balance national survey, 86 percent of people agreed or strongly agreed that "today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming things." This is a touchstone issue for children and the future. The following book excerpt deals with how children today discover what it means to be human.

How are we initiated into the universe? To answer we need to reflect on what our children experience over and over again, at night, in a setting similar to those children in the past who gathered in the caves and listened to the chant of the elders. If we think in terms of pure quantities of time the answer is immediate: the cave has been replaced with the television room and the chant with the advertisement. One could say that the chant has been replaced with the television show, but at the core of each show, driving the action, and determining whether or not the show will survive the season, is the advertisement. That is the essential message that will be there night after night and season after season. Television's Bonanzas, Cheers, and Cosby shows all come and go; the advertisement endures through every change.

What is the effect on our children? Before a child enters first grade science class, and before entering in any real way into our religious ceremonies, a child will have soaked in 30,000 advertisements. The time our teenagers spend absorbing ads is more than their total stay in high school. None of us feels very good about this, but for the most part we just ignore it. It’s background. It’s just there, part of what’s going on. We learned to accept it so long ago we hardly every think about it anymore.

But imagine how different we would feel if we heard about a country that programmed its citizenry in its religious dogmas in such a manner. In fact, it was just such accounts concerning the leaders of the former Soviet Union that outraged us for decades, the thought that they would take young children and subject them to brainwashing in Soviet lies, removing their natural feelings for their parents or for God or for the truth of history, and replacing these with assumptions necessary for their dictatorship to continue its oppressive domination.

Immersed in the religion of consumerism, we are unable to take such comparisons seriously. We tell ourselves soothing cliches, such as the obvious fact that television ads are not put on by any political dictatorship. We tell ourselves that ads are simply the efforts of our corporations to get us interested in their various products. But as with any reality that we rarely pay any serious attention to, there may be a lot more going on there than we are aware of. Just the sheer amount of time we spend in the world of the ad suggests we might well devote a moment to examining that world more carefully.

The advertisers of course are not some bad persons with evil designs. They are just doing their job. On the other hand, we can also say that their primary concern is not explicitly the well-being of our children. Why should it be? Their objective is to create ads that are successful for their company, and this means to get the television viewer interested in their product. But already we can see that this is a less than desirable situation. After all, we parents demand that our children's teachers, to take just one example, should have our children's best interests foremost in mind. Such teachers will shape our children when they are young and vulnerable, so of course we want this shaping to be done only by people who care. So to hand over so much of our children's lives to people who obviously do not have our children's well-being foremost in mind is at the very least questionable.

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