There is a problem with over consumption in the West today, the U.S. in particular. We seem to glorify every attitude of violence and gluttony while at the same time marginalizing those who shrink away from consumerism, even branding them as crazy. I’m sure everyone at some point has encountered those “dirty hippies” advocating supporting local businesses and a break from this culture of corporate consumption, or heard of those “crazy” Amish folks and their refusal to indulge in all of the finery and modern trappings of our sleek, sophisticated society. Perhaps you’ve heard of those “militant” Libertarians who hold the crazy belief that monetizing debt and encouraging the citizenry to live beyond their means is no way to nurture an economy?
“Consuming Kids”, likely the brainchild of one of the above groups (or some similar collection of nut jobs), examines how marketing targets children from, as they state, “cradle to grave”, and the deleterious effect that such advertising is having on our society at large. Levelling charges that range from engineering our kids to be self-centered, narcissistic little greed machines, to turning them into obese, diabetic slugs, the film blames corporate media for creating a generation of super consumers who will surely doom us all and usher in the decline of Western civilization faster than Dave Mustaine can down a bottle of Jagermeister; they may be right about that.
As we have said ad nauseam, perhaps the most important reason to devote a large portion of our time as ELA educators to developing multi-literacies with our students is to provide them with the skill set necessary for a critical understanding of the constant barrage of advertising that they will be subject to throughout their lives. Many non-students could benefit from this skill set as well but, sadly, there appears to be little desire amongst the majority of the population to spend any measure of time examining such issues. Most of thier time is taken up with checking their Facebook status’ or keeping up with this or that pro sports team.
This leads us to the largest obstacle that we will face when advocating for the curricular inclusion of multi-literacies; resistance not so much from corporations, but from parents and administrators who either refuse or are unable to see the value of exposing marketing manipulation. The populace at large is unaware of how often and how easily they are manipulated by advertising of all kinds, from the farcical clamoring of the political duopoly (which Jesse Ventura hilariously compared to gang members), to the fascination with stupidity and crass behavior celebrated by practically any reality television program. Consider the fact that corporate media manipulation is nothing new. Since the introduction and widespread use of the television, acceptance of the manipulation seeping through the idiot box has become a way of life for most. We are now several generations into this brave new world of corporate media, and I would put forth the notion that the grasp that it has on our minds is going to prove considerably difficult to shake off, if doing so is even possible at all.
The makers of “Consuming Kids” seem to think that the majority of the problem began when the media industry in the U.S. was deregulated by none other than everyone’s favorite “free market capitalist”, Ronald Reagan. The filmmakers cite the ensuing explosion of marketing directed at children which came to prominence once deregulation was put into place as proof that any notions rejecting government interference are wrong-headed at best, and even criminal when one gets to the heart of it. The filmmakers and interviewees lament this frenzy to inculcate children into the fold of consumerism, and with good reason. Yet, it isn’t really surprising that corporations would take advantage of a deregulated market in the pursuit of as much profit as possible; it’s their job to do so, at least ostensibly. How often do we hear that the primary concern of the corporation is the responsibility to provide the highest returns possible to stockholders, so consequences be damned, we’ve got to tae care of that bottom line no matter what?
Before we go too far in demonizing the profit motive, though, I would like to point out that if there was no correlation to profit in advertising, the marketers behind such aggressive manipulation would be focusing their energies elsewhere. (Yes, I am implying that the average American consumer wants to be manipulated, or at least assured that his fervor to spend is justifiable). While the level to which the advertising is embedded in nearly every aspect of culture can be seen as insidious, I think that we would be going too far in holding a viewpoint that assumes that the greed of corporations is leading them to deliberately destroy our society. Again, some would say, myself included, that marketers will appeal to the sensibilities of the culture at large. It comes down to a question of the chicken and the egg. Does the cultural archetype change in response to advertising, or is it the other way around?
“Consuming Kids” advocates government regulation as the solution to the problem of the media saturation of children, and that certainly is one way to go, however I would like to see more discussion of other factors before we move in this direction. To state that evil corporations are responsible for the decadence that is now commonplace in our culture seems simplistic, even myopic. I would argue that there are a variety of factors that are directly contributing to our descent into unbridled, and fanatical consumerism. Beyond that, whenever the state is involved in regulating human behavior, the abuses that occur far outweigh the potential benefits that such policies claim as intent. Is it right to use government as a vehicle for forcing people to behave in particular ways? Western society prides itself on its Liberalism, (I use the term in the classic, egalitarian sense, not in its politically charged and largely misunderstood contemporary version). I find it ironic then, that today’s Western Democracies consistently turn to government regulation to solve all of their problems. Could it be that our culture of consumerism can trace itself to a flaw much deeper than simply a lack of government regulation? Could it be that perhaps the problem is one of personal responsibility, or lack thereof, and self-chosen ignorance?
Gordon Gekko Plays the Harp
The problem that we face is not one of a lack of government regulation, it is one of a lack of education in critical thinking skills combined with a very real desire on the part of Americans to be consumers above all else. The desire for things, for stuff, permeates every aspect of our lives. Very seldom does government oversight work when it comes to people’s behaviors, at least not in any kind of positive way. All we need to do is look at the failure of the War on Drugs to verify this. Three fourths of the U.S. prison population is made up of non-violent drug offenders. If we stop to ask ourselves why this is, we see that the answer is self-evident: Imprisoning people does not take away the desire to get drugs, it simply creates a black market. There is little difference between this and consumerism. The problem is a cultural and educational one. It wouldn’t make much of a difference if we allowed the government to regulate the time that advertisers could spend preying on our children if all of us are still obsessed with the quest for things above all else. If we have an educated populace that is able to critically address media manipulation, it will become less profitable for corporations to spend so much time in marketing. Hence, when the bottom line is not being met with the strategy, when the profitability dries up, they will change their focus. The true mark of a free people is not to run to the government to solve their problems, but to be educated enough to turn their backs on evil when they see it.