Thursday, September 22, 2011

The siren-song of consumerism

I like Barbara Curtis, and I like this piece she wrote for the Catholic Herald in Arlington, VA about the dangers to teens of consumerism:

OK, so what’s a parent — who needs more than a slingshot to battle the giants — to do? You can start by blocking consumerist channels. Or sitting down and watching your teens’ favorite shows with them to see what’s really going on.

You can counter the pressure of consumerism by helping your teens understand how susceptible we all are to advertising. Take product placement, which took off in 1982 when the movie “E.T.” portrayed the irresistible little alien following a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Within two weeks of the movie’s release, sales for the obscure candy shot through the roof.[...]

Your teens probably think as they watch TV that they’re the customer and that the ads they watch display the products being sold. Not so. For television networks, the customers they serve are their advertisers. And the product sold is the viewer.

That’s why the cost for a commercial can vary from $19 for a 30-second daytime spot on a local cable channel to $2 million for the same amount of time during the Super Bowl, which attracts the largest television audience every year. The price paid by customer/advertiser is based on the number of viewers during that time slot — the same way we buy meat by the pound.

Encourage your kids to look at commercials with a critical eye, identifying what factors underlie the message: guilt, greed, manipulation, fear, flattery, status-seeking

And one final thought: Teens cannot learn to control their impulses for more, more, more if we say yes, yes, yes. Even if you have the money to buy your child everything he wants, it’s really not the loving thing to do.

All of this is good advice, but there's one additional piece of the consumerist puzzle that I think needs to be addressed (and, to be fair to Barbara Curtis, it's sort of outside the scope of her piece). It is, simply, that we parents and our attitudes toward consumerism will have a definite impact on our children, and may, in fact, have the greatest impact of all.

As is often the case in the parenting world, this is true whether we are impulsive spendthrifts or carefully thrifty (or no matter where we fall in between). A child of thrifty parents who is involved in and understands his parents' approach toward consumerism and is able to see the rewards of thriftiness will probably grow up to be thrifty himself; but a child of thrifty parents who is told "No," without explanation when he asks for certain things, who constantly feels deprived of the sorts of toys or games his friends have without understanding at all the reasons why this is so, and who sees what appears to him to be hypocrisy in that his parents will buy the occasional expensive item for themselves (even if it is needed for work, for instance) will quite possibly grow up to be more of a spendthrift and even to resent thriftiness as a tool of unfair parental control.

Similarly, the child of spendthrift parents may adopt their attitudes and values about money and spending, or he may dislike some of the consequences such as unpaid bills, threatening phone calls from bill collectors, and the occasional deprivations of things the family really needs.

It's not that hard to guess how children might be affected by their parents' attitudes towards consumerism and spending in the more extreme cases. But what about those who try to be balanced, to spend and save, to avoid the hype as much as possible and to be responsible consumers?

I think the first question we need to ask is: are we really balanced? Do we really spend to much or save too little? Do we really avoid the hype, or are we constantly intrigued by the newest, latest, greatest things? Are we really responsible consumers, or do we try not to pay too much attention when we hear of sweatshop conditions or violations of human rights?

How important are things in our lives? Do we pride ourselves, say, on dressing simply or eating plainly, but rush out to buy the newest iPhone (tm) or similar device? Do we begin to complain about a computer, television, music player, etc. that still works perfectly fine just because it is a few years old, and better ones have come out since we bought ours? Do we women covet the latest styles in shoes or handbags, and look down on people who buy their shoes or handbags at discount big-box stores? Have we, indeed, ever judged others because they don't have what we do--have we looked down on them for not driving the right sort of car or wearing the right sort of clothing or carrying the right sort of gizmo or gadget?

How susceptible are we to advertising and to peer pressure? Do we find ourselves needing something we never knew existed just because a shiny catalog featuring the item showed up in our mailbox one day? Do we try very hard to keep up with the Smiths or the Jonses, even though our lives aren't really that alike? Do we complain aloud about the things we don't have?

Have we fallen for that most insidious of all consumerist calls, the call to simplify our lives which somehow requires us to get rid of 3/4ths of what we own and then replace it all with simpler, humbler, more well-crafted, more organized and more meaningful stuff?

Our children are watching us. The way we answer these questions, many of which I need to work on myself, is going to impact how susceptible they are to the siren-song of consumerism when they enter the adult world.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for calling out out Real Simple. Maybe I'll do a stand-up routine... I'm so old I remember when simplicity didn't have its own magazine.

Just goes to show you can make a lifestyle bauble out of anything, including simplicity. Even Buddhist "meditation supplies" (as if you need supplies to breathe and notice thoughts) catalogues are filled wtih gorgeous glossy pages with photos of elegant robes, wall-size gold-foil Buddhas for the living room, and jewelry.

(Oh - and I'm old enough to remember when "consumerism" was a good thing - a movement for empowered, informed consumers who could make wise choices based on real information instead of hype.)

rdcobb said...

We've talked to our kids about the great television "scam" since my oldest was about five. And when they see commercials for "great stuff" on television we sometimes looks through the reviews on to discover that they aren't as great as they appear on television.

They have seen my husband and I make a lot of bad financial decisions and been punished by some of them...but that's kind of because we've been learning as we go. I am determined that my kids will have a better understanding of finances than I did when I entered adulthood (mortgages, credit cards, etc). I think every teen and most adults need to read "Life Prep for the Homeschooled Teen".

love the girls said...

"Have we fallen for that most insidious of all consumerist calls, the call to simplify our lives which somehow requires us to get rid of 3/4ths of what we own and then replace it all with simpler, humbler, more well-crafted"

The first time I came across this magazine I had the same reaction as I do with the perfect home, perfect home setting, perfect party, perfect whatever mommy blogs. Unrealistic consumerism.

But that doesn't mean we should not simplify our lives as much as possible. Where most people could and perhaps should get rid of 3/4 of what they have.

Magazines like simplicity can also be seen as baby steps pushing society in the right direction towards a more holistic simpler life. Somewhat like ecological disposable diapers, they're better than the common poison laden types, and a baby step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Every year I give up shopping (clothes, shoes, makeup) for lent. It is really hard for me, especially if we have an event to go to during lent. I am an event shopper and this practice has enabled me to truly see where my consumer habits lie, and how they still affect me.
Anyway, the flip side of this enforced fast is that I've gotten out of the habit of mindless shopping, or boredom shopping. And now that my three daughters are teens and tweens, I'm trying to teach them not to just be consumerists. Develop talents that don't involve going to the mall or figure out how to spend your afternoons without spending $. Play sports or a musical instrument; go to the high school football game. Learn to knit or play bridge. I think the underlying problem for a lot of people is boredom. The few times that I do go to the mall on a Saturday afternoon, I'm struck by how many people (families!) are there, laden with shopping bags, milling about and killing time.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

What can I add? It's all true.

MightyMighty said...

Great post! I liked the way you distinguished between thrifty parents who make their choices clear to their kids, and ones who say 'no' to their kids and 'yes' to themselves. Parents would be wise to say something to their kids, even if the explanation is, "I provide everything you have for free, and I work to pay for all of that and everything I have. If you want luxuries, you can save your allowance, just like I do for the luxuries I want." I don't feel like parents need to be tit-for-tat with their kids (I get to choose the restaurant, you get to choose) unless they want to.

MightyMighty said...

Also, Real Simple drives me nuts! Some of their articles are very, very good. I've gotten great recipes, little kitchen tips, etc. But I am so tired of looking at photo spreads of $1500 outfits. Grrr, don't even get me started on the word "investment" when applied to a $400 skirt. Honestly, unless your weight is very stable, you're done having kids and can at least control the long-term girth of your hips, and you are meticulous about caring for your clothes, very few items will really be an investment. A good coat to wear (I live in the Midwest) and proper outerwear certainly feels like one in the depths of winter. An expensive scarf that snags on my zipper? Doesn't really matter that I spent a ton on it, it still looks ratty after normal use.

Another reason to love garage and rummage sales in high end areas. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm with you on the rummage sales. Milwaukee has the best in the world. But I've pretty much stopped going, because I don't have anywhere to put any more stuff.

Charlotte said...

Agree, Milwaukee and Wisconsin rummage sales are the best. Can still get great stuff for 50 cents.

I love Real Simple magazine, have had a subscription for years. Have implemented many great ideas for organization, and many more for thity, cool decorating.

As far as "investment" pieces of a wardrobe, I'm poor, can't do it. Although I do have a few pairs of investment shoes and an investment coat or two (as in a coat that cost $500 or more - and have had for more than 4 or 5 years - so it's more than paid for themselves.) As a philosophy, I do believe in investment dressing. If people did buy into that, no one would complain about how people dress at mass. But we've all been conditioned at the hog of yearly fashion and 50% off at Kohl's - myself included. If you've ever been to Europe, it's an eye-opener as to how they dress, although they are strating to fall prey to cheap clothes like us.

love the girls said...

Charlotte writes : "I'm poor, can't do it. Although I do have a few pairs of investment shoes and an investment coat or two (as in a coat that cost $500 or more" ROFL

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I don't consider clothes an investment, but I do keep most articles for ten years or more. I got a nice raincoat at an army navy store in Rockville, MD in 2001, thought it was a miracle I had $25 to spend on it, and expect to get another 10 or 20 years out of it. Needless to say, I stopped growing years ago. Shirts do wear out eventually... but that's what Kohl's post Christmas sale is for. I go every two or three years.