The Commodification of Everything   /   Summer 2003   /    Articles

Selling Out Childhood

Kiku Adatto

Two girls. Photo by Tony McNeil (2011). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Today we live with a deep unease. If we look closely at the images of children in advertising, photography, and other forms of popular culture, we see that the soul of the child is under siege. There has been a hollowing out of the dignity and moral agency of the child. As the boundaries that separate adulthood and childhood have eroded, children have become subjected to the same forces that have caused the soul to recede from our moral landscape.

The ideals of childhood shape not only our treatment of children, but our inner lives and sensibilities as adults. Central to these ideals is the notion that childhood is a special province of life, a time reserved for play, education, the exploration of nature, the exercise of the imagination, and moral and civic development. To the degree that consumer society transforms and undermines these ideals, the formative project of shaping our communal and civic lives is eroded. Marketing to children commodifies and undermines the ideals of childhood. Children are used to sell products and are treated as products, as objects to manipulate. The selling out of childhood is related to a deeper cultural problem—the selling of the self.

Before examining the representations of children in advertising, photography, and fiction, let me begin with a story that shows how larger cultural changes are played out in our everyday lives.

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