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Kvetch, Part Three

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It’s Friday, and there’s something I need to admit up front.

This close to the end of the term, I’m a sucker for arguments about how the population of the United States is becoming infantilized.

For what it’s worth, I also happen to think it’s largely true. 

And that means that I’m a good target audience for Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.

Well, okay.  I’m a good, but not perfect, audience for this book.  And I’ve read at least one other thing by Barber, called Jihad vs McWorld, which was largely about his contention that a great deal of Islamic anti-Western violence is driven by a desperate desire to opt out of the cultural effects of globalization. 

Consumed starts with a couple of chapters of cultural overview, and they can hardly be refuted.  It is the case that many adults in First World countries–in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan as well as in the US–seem to be trying desperately never to pass the age of seventeen.  It is equally the case that the most popular books and films, if not television shows, seem to be made for children.  The Harry Potter phenomenon, for instance, or movies like Shrek and Finding Nemo.

It’s also equally true that something equally weird is happening to children, who seem to be positioned almost as the new adults.  We talk a lot on this blog about pedophilia and things like sexual orientation and free speech, but the simple fact is that the biggest factor in the sexualization of children is not NAMBLA, it’s everything from Gap commercial to Vogue.

Children’s “fashions” are almost uniformly sexualized–you can get thongs for second graders, and all kinds of peek-a-boo and fake-breast-implant stuff for girls not much older than that.

What’s more, the models in fashion magazines for adults are often no more than fifteen themselves.  We have, over the last few decades, redefined feminine beauty so that it fits a woman at exactly one point in her life:  puberty. 

Grown women suffer and struggle to achieve the ideal of large breasts and small hips–but it’s an ideal they once achieved effortlessly, when they were fourteen, which is about the age at which a girl looks like that naturally. 

And since success as an actress or a model comes only if you can achieve “the look,” maybe it shouldn’t surprise us as much as it does when grown men start lusting after actual fourteen and fifteen year olds.  After all, everything, from magazines to television to movies to billboards and back again, tells them that’s what they’re supposed to be hot for.

Barber’s thesis is that this strange set of circumstances is deliberate, part of a strategy on the part of large corporations to keep their consumer base expanding.   Since most first world people have what they actually need, corporations have to get them to buy what they merely want.  Since adults tend to be less impulsive than children and adolescents, and more concerned with things like family and long term goals, children and adolescents make better consumers.  They buy lots of stuff they don’t need and don’t understand the value of a dollar.

I’ve seen enough marketing textbooks–including most of the ones Barber has mentioned so far–to be able to say that this analysis has a grain of truth in it.  Large corporations selling wants and not needs, as Barber put it–I mean, okay, nobody needs an iPod or Grand Theft Auto–do indeed target children and adolescents and do indeed attempt to “groom” them into adults who will be just as impulsive and obsessive about things as they were to begin with.

But I can see where this book is going, and I’m pretty sure that in a chapter or two, I’m going to run into the assertion that corporations are capable of causing people to want things.

If I’m wrong about that, I’ll apologize to Barber.

The causing thing, though, has a few problems for me.

One of them is in the fact that something like 96% of all new products introduced to the market fail.  If corporations could really cause people to want things, this would not be the case.  It would make no sense for them to spend all the money it takes to devise, manufacture and sell a new product they then didn’t bother to cause people to want.

Another of them is the fact that I just don’t see most people as that easily manipulated–sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to manipulate people at all, except in one on one situations, because most people seem to operate according to a tape playing in the back of their heads. 

There’s a metaphor for you.

I suppose I mean that, by the time they reach adulthood, most of the people I know seem to have settled into a set of attitudes and ideas that it’s virtually impossible to talk them out of.  If they believe that the moon is made of green cheese, they will refuse to change their minds even if you launch them into space and land them in the Sea of Tranquility.

Which is to say, I guess, that I think Barber has half a point–I think that we do indeed have an increasingly infantilized population, but I don’t think consumer capitalizing is causing it.

I do think it’s enabling it.

But more on that later.

Written by janeh

April 23rd, 2010 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Kvetch, Part Three'

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  1. OK, I am not discussing my preferred female body shape in this or any other public forum.

    An infantilized population? Maybe. There is selective memory after all. “Mairzie Doats” public officials elected wearing coonskin caps, “Gidget” and “Tammy” movies belonged to a time generally regarded as more mature. Check the dates and audience sizes of “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Flying Nun.”

    That said, North Americans and Europeans are probably not as hardened as they have been. None of us have fled a burning city or been expelled en masse from our homes for 65 years. Few of us have borne arms in defense of our countries or our rights, or watched their men go off to war. Very few of us, measured by historic standards, will have to bury a child. Life is, by historic standards, easy, and little things become more prominent when the big issues aren’t there.

    And we have lots of people trying to help us. If my goal in life is a complete run of HERBIE comics, people will be pleased to sell me that. If I’d rather have the ILLIAD in the original and a set of Greek lessons, they’ll sell me that just as cheerfully.

    Can they decide what I want? Ask the Edsel, or the Corvair, salesmen, or the people with laserdisks and Betamaxes. There’s some slippage at the margins, but mostly the money goes to the organization better at selling me what I already want. There’s just as much money either way, and it’s a lot easier than inventing a want.


    23 Apr 10 at 3:56 pm

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