The Commodification of Everything   /   Summer 2003   /    Articles

The Commodification of Childhood

Tales from the Advertising Front Lines

Juliet B. Schor

In the last two decades, the children’s market has expanded dramatically, in terms of both direct expenditures by children and their influence on parental purchases. This in turn has led to increased attention to children by marketers and to a process of commodification of both childhood, as a saleable cultural concept, and children themselves, who have become the objects of intense marketing activity. In this paper, I discuss three recent trends that illustrate the move toward increased commodification: the rise of naturalistic research methods to study children, the expansion of peer-to-peer marketing and other forms of grassroots marketing using children themselves, and a new discourse of “kid empowerment” employed by marketers.




In the last ten years, the academic literature has taken note of the growth of commercial influences on childhood, with contributions such as Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg’s Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood, Stephen Kline’s Out of the Garden, Ellen Seiter’s Sold Separately, Henry Giroux’s Channel Surfing, Elizabeth Chin’s Purchasing Power, Henry Jenkins’ The Children’s Culture Reader, and Daniel Cook’s forthcoming The Commodification of Childhood.11xShirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe, Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood (Boulder: Westview, 1997); Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing (London: Verso, 1993); Ellen Seiter, Sold Separately: Parents & Children in Consumer Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993); Henry A. Giroux, Channel Surfing: Racism, the Media, and the Destruction of Today’s Youth (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997); Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Henry Jenkins, The Children’s Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1998); and Daniel Cook, The Commodification of Childhood: Personhood, the Children’s Wear Industry and the Rise of the Child-Consumer, 1917–1962 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). For a journalistic account of the commercialization among teens, see Alissa Quart, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (New York: Perseus, 2003) Some of these texts explicitly address the question of the commodification of childhood, although the literature has yet to settle on a precise definition, and meanings and uses vary widely. Among marketers, the term commodification implies a process in which brand value is disappearing, and the product, increasingly unable to command a price premium, is degraded to the level of an unbranded commodity. In the academic literature, the term is sometimes used almost synonymously with commercialization, as in the notion that children are increasingly involved in consumer, or commercial, culture.

I have in mind a more specific meaning, which comes from classical Marxian theory. For Marx, a commodity is not only bought and sold (as in the commercialization meaning), but also produced specifically for the purpose of exchange. Therefore, the status of commodity is not inherent in any characteristics of the good itself, but emanates from the social relations that govern its production and exchange. Is my sweater a commodity? If it is produced in a factory to be sold on a market, it most certainly is. If I knit it at home for myself, it most certainly is not. But if I knit the sweater at home for the purpose of selling it, it becomes commodified. (Labor power, readers of Capital will remember, is a peculiar commodity, because under capitalist social relations, it is sold on a market, but not necessarily produced for that purpose.)22xLabor power is peculiar for other reasons as well, such as the fact that it is only a capacity to work. Once the labor process commences, labor itself is the relevant input. See Karl Marx, Capital, 3 vols., trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976).

According to this notion, the commodification of childhood refers to a process in which the cultural category childhood is itself produced for the purpose of being sold. And while the notion that a cultural concept can be a product may involve an intellectual stretch, I would argue that this formulation is an insightful illumination of processes now at work in the field of marketing and advertising to children—what industry insiders call “the kidspace.” These industry professionals have become increasingly influential in the social, cultural, and economic construction of childhood. They affect children’s sense of identity and self, as well as their values, behaviors, relationships with others, and daily activities. They help shape the normative vision of childhood that is held by both children and adults. In this sense, they are creating, transforming, and packaging childhood as a productive cultural concept that they then sell to the companies who make the actual products that children buy.

When we conceptualize marketing to children in this way, it becomes apparent that marketers and advertisers are also involved in the commodification of children. This phrase ordinarily refers to a process in which children are literally bought and sold, for example, into a state of sexual bondage or other forms of productive labor, such as plantation or factory work. But it is increasingly the case that advertisers and marketers are also involved in a different type of commodification: they are influential in actually producing children—that is, in raising, educating, forming, and shaping them. And they do this in a commodified form; that is, they produce children in order to sell them back to their clients. They create in-depth research that they then sell. They provide children with cultural products such as television programming, movies, and web content. They sponsor museum exhibits, school curricula, and leisure activities for children, all of which help to create children as social beings. Advertisers have even gotten into the business of structuring the form and content of social interaction and conversation among children, a phenomenon they benignly term “peer-to-peer marketing.” In the last fifteen years, advertisers and marketers have been extraordinarily successful in these endeavors. They have profited from an explosion of expenditures for, and, even more importantly, by children.

I have reached these conclusions on the basis of research carried out during 2001, 2002, and early 2003 in the advertising industry. I conducted interviews, attended industry conferences, shadowed marketers, participated in client meetings, and spent about two weeks as a visiting professor at an agency where I was attached to a group that handled a major children’s account. I read selectively in the trade literature. My aim in this research was to identify and understand how children are being marketed to and how that has changed over time. I took a broad-brush approach, looking across product groups, including toys and food. I investigated conventional advertising (e.g., television, print, radio, and web ads), looking specifically for the major thematic approaches in the messages. I also catalogued the wide variety of marketing and promotional activities that currently comprise the bulk of total marketing expenditures, including sponsorships and viral, stealth, peer-to-peer, and school-based marketing. I studied the transformation and expansion of research about children. In addition to conventional survey, interview, and focus group techniques, new methodologies such as ethnography, videotaping, diaries, and in-home and in-situ observation have become popular.33xAs a complement to this work, I conducted a survey of 300 fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade children. The survey data was used in the creation of a new scale that measures children’s level of involvement in consumer culture. The consumer involvement scale was included in a structural equation model that tested the impacts of consumer culture on a variety of measures of psychological and social well-being. See my forthcoming book Born to Buy: Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood and Culture (New York: Scribner, 2004) for details on the survey and the structural equation model. Three trends in the field of marketing to children help reveal the processes of commodification that are now occurring on a wide scale: the rise of naturalistic research, peer-to-peer marketing, and the new discourse on kid empowerment. These three trends represent only a few of the developments that are re-shaping childhood, and this account is more illustrative than complete. Nevertheless, they are key factors in the transformation of children’s lives.

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