The new exploitation

I recently read Steven Mintz’s book, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. In this excellent and lengthy exposition of how American’s have understood childhood throughout the past 400 years, we learn about some of ways that children have been exploited in the past—through slavery, child labour, and child soldiers. We might think that our children today are kept safe from harmful exploitation. But, ever so subtly, a new and powerful form of child exploitation has crept upon our young: marketing.

Children are one of the most powerful market—and advertisers know this. In fact, they constitute four markets in one. They spend their own money, they spend their parents’ money, they have “please power” by asking their parents for things, and unbeknownst to them, many parents are targeted by marketers and told that good parents purchase their products. One child, four markets. It is no wonder that sugary cereals, toys, video games, movies, and clothes are marketed directly to children.

Without our assistance, however, children can remain completely unaware of the ways in which advertisers target them. It is our responsibility to help our children learn about the power of advertising. We can explain some of the ways in which commercials might “bend the truth” or make toys seems more fun than they are. And when we do this, we are building marketing-savvy children. We are letting them know that we care about them too much to let some advertisers take advantage of them.

An good (but a bit dated) resource for helping raise market-savvy children is “Buy Me That” and “Buy Me That, Too.” These videos are made for children and help to expose the ways that TV commercials trick us into thinking their products are better than they really are. While they might be stuck in the ’90s, the movies can be effective tools for educating our children about the power and deceit of advertising.

And don’t forget how powerful simple living can be. Why don’t we teach by example by being content with what we have and by not basing our life on the acquisition of stuff. After all, the U.S. is 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of its resources. To paraphrase an old cliché, living simply allows others (and ourselves) to simply live.

Whatever we do, let’s make sure that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that our children are no longer in danger of being exploited. Marketing is a powerful and formative tool. Let’s combat the narcissism, materialism, and consumerism of today by raising children who are educated about advertising.

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