Review of This Little Kiddy Went to Market

Eugene Halton

Contemporary Sociology, vol 39, no 3, 2010, pp. 280-1.

This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood, by Sharon Beder with Wendy Varney and Richard Gosden, Pluto Press, London and UNSW Press, Sydney, 307pp.

Little Kiddies are big money for big capitalism. Whether they go to market or stay home, eat roast beef or have none, they can’t outrun the ever more voracious corporate wolves who hunt them wherever they may be. Sharon Beder argues that the major problems facing children in affluent countries today ‘‘are a direct result of the efforts of corporations to make profits fromchildren and to shape and socialize them to suit business interests’’ (p. 5), and that such ‘‘corporate interference in children’s lives and psyches’’ has produced ‘‘a rapid decline in children’s well-being’’ (p. 3). That is a strong claim, and Beder (with contributions from her coauthors in two chapters) culls a wide array of studies and statistics to support it, drawing especially from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.

The most obvious arena for this interference is consumption. Marketing to children has radically increased over the past generation, up an amazing 170 times from$100 million in 1983 in the United States to almost $17 billion by 2007. As Daniel Cook, Juliet Schor and others have shown, marketers have specifically targeted children for deliberate socialization into consumerism, from inculcating brand identification, to identifying with products as ‘‘cool,’’ to encouraging children to nag parents. In the mid-nineties marketers began to bypass parents and penetrate young psyches directly, targeting children through one of the most basic channels of socialization and identity formation: play. Through television and computer advertising, typically linked with cartoon play characters, children learn to play through commercialized media, and to desire its seductive commodities: toys, dolls, etc. Play has become increasingly identified with commodities, and Beder tracks the money trails in early chapters.

One in three children born in the United States in 2000 are predicted to develop diabetes, 17 percent today are obese, and one third are overweight: facts that testify to the radical reshaping and capture of children’s bodies by the food industries. Beder shows how corporate responses to studies, such as one on childhood obesity in 2002 by the World Health Organization, are typically to deny or lobby against them, or to sponsor ones favorable to industry. Coca- Cola, for example, sponsored an Australian government study which shifted major blame for obesity rates fromdiet to declining physical activity.

The majority of the book traces ways in which corporate powers have influenced education, not only intruding commercial materials into the refuge of the classroom, but promoting a shift toward education as simply a business. The reduction of funding for schools in many English-speaking countries, which began in the 1980s as part of neoliberal policies, not only helped to reduce corporate tax burdens, but also left schools more vulnerable to corporate intrusions. Corporate ‘‘beneficence’’ could make up the difference with self-serving sponsored educational materials, as Beder documents.

Corporate power, through foundations and the presence of CEOs on many educational advocacy groups, has pushed to transform schools into a business model of education. Yet, as Beder states, ‘‘Learning should be about discovery, exploration, and curiosity, not just performance and achievement, which is all the business model is concerned with’’ (p. 70). Teaching for testing, such as tended to result from the ‘‘No Child Left Behind’’ policy, tends to displace teaching for learning.

Beder also strongly criticizes advocacy of ‘‘back to basics’’ models as supporting conformism instead of critical thinking, citing core curricula as one example. But in seeing core curricula as merely presenting ‘‘cleansed’’ views of history and promoting a status quo of compliant student consumers, she avoids the ways the progressive agenda also morphed into postmodern ideology in which relativism rules and anything goes. She ignoreshowthere might be some good things in basics, such as great works or memorization, especially in a world where kids have outsourced their memories and identities to commercialized screens all too eager to condition their awareness. Or what about an anti-corporate revival of basic daily physical education in gym, free play in recess, healthy school lunches, a back to basics program I’ll call ‘‘no child left with a fat behind.’’

A new Kaiser Foundation study has found that children’s media use has expanded far faster in the past five years than in the five years before that, despite the belief of its authors five years ago that media use had reached a ceiling and could not expand any more. Children 8 to 18 report spending more than 7 ½ hours per day interacting with media devices, though when multitasking is considered, the time goes up to over 11 hours of content. Much of this content is commercial, and so it appears that these little kiddies are going to market virtually all of their spare time. The dynamics of how kiddies get captured speak not only of corporate consumerist capitalism maximizing itself, which This Little Kiddy Went to Market amply documents, but also of unbounded technological innovation as another agent of the transformation of social lives and identities.

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