Hey, kids! Madison Avenue wants you!

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Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Propaganda and Disinformation

Troy Jollimore reviews the book “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”, by Benjamin R. Barber, Norton, 2007, in the San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 2007 and writes about “the transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo consumerus” by way of the “consumerization of the child” and infantilization in general by marketers who, using culture jamming and other techniques, have created a population of consumers who are “a ready and pliable modeling clay for the marketers’ sculpting techniques”.

Troy Jollimore is an External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. His poetry collection, “Tom Thomson in Purgatory,” won a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award.

“Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”, by Benjamin R. Barber, is available at Amazon.com via this link. -JS

UPDATE, May 13, 2007: At the end of this article, check out the Benjamin R. Barber interview with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, Comedy Central.

When the movie “Smokin’ Aces” opened in late January, the first paragraph of the review by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott — which, Scott went on to claim, constituted a “fair summary” of the movie — read as follows:

“‘F.B.I.! F.B.I.!’ Blam blam blam blam. ‘[Expletive]. [Expletive].’ Blam blam blam. Spurt of blood. Plot twist. ‘F.B.I.! F.B.I.!’ ‘[Expletive].’ Blam blam blam blam blam. ‘[Expletive].’ ‘F.B.I.!’ ‘Hotel Security!’ Blam. Exploding skull. Guy sits on a chain saw. Montage. [Expletive]. Plot twist. Roll credits.”

Undaunted — indeed, apparently delighted — the studio quoted from the paragraph in their ads. Predictably enough, millions of American moviegoers turned out to see it.

It’s almost certain the studio was not trying to fool unwary readers into thinking Scott had liked the movie. Rather, they simply knew their audience. An audience that likes movies that go “Blam!” and are mostly filled with dialogue that cannot be reprinted in the major papers. An audience that sees professional film critics as either entirely irrelevant or as stuffy authoritarian figures whom it is a pleasure to defy. An audience, that is to say, of adolescents and infantilized adults — a group of people who, as Benjamin Barber makes clear in “Consumed,” have come to represent the mainstream in American entertainment, society and politics.

That, Barber claims, is just the way corporate managers and marketers like it:

“[F]abricating needs is today the self-conscious and acknowledged ‘wisdom’ of the marketers themselves. We no longer have to reference Vance Packard’s warning about hidden persuaders: the persuaders have come out of the closet and are teaching corporate managers the arts of marketing to teens at national conferences and are articulating toddler marketing techniques in textbooks and business-school marketing courses. […] [M]any of our primary business, educational, and governmental institutions are consciously and purposefully engaged in infantilization and as a consequence of that we are vulnerable to such associated practices as privatization and marketing. For this is how we maintain a system of consumerist capitalism no longer supported by the traditional market forces of supply and demand.”

The transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo consumerus takes place in two stages. The first, to borrow a phrase from marketing consultants, is the “consumerization of the child.” (Or, to use child-development scholar Susan Linn’s more appropriate term, “the hostile takeover of childhood.”) This process is not so much an accelerated transition to a more mature stage of development as an enforced intrusion of shopping-centered behaviors, more properly associated with adulthood, into children’s early lives. The idea, essentially, is to put buying power — whether exerted by the kids themselves or by the parents who feel bound to serve their wishes — into the hands of youngsters who have not yet developed the ability to distinguish between what one actually needs and what one merely feels a transitory urge to possess, while at the same time encouraging them to develop brand consciousness (and inevitably, brand loyalty) and the social customs of habitual shoppers. Barber quotes the words of youth marketer James McNeal, who sees the ideal young customer as “a confident little 9 year old with a cute little nose and arms full of shopping bags, emerging from a department store … confident, a big spender, able to cope in the market place.”

The second stage is infantilization proper, the unnatural extension of consumerist adolescence into later stages of life. Here the aim is to preserve and reinforce the gains won through child consumerization by encouraging young people to become Peter Pans who never grow up. The result is a generation of “kidults” who, possessing no deeper conception of character than that provided by the market, attempt to define themselves through brands; people who truly believe that, in the words of Seiko’s monumentally silly slogan, “It’s your watch that says the most about who you are.” A ready and pliable modeling clay for the marketers’ sculpting techniques, kidults soon learn to be entirely unreflective about their wants and impulses, granting automatic authority, not to mention urgency, to every whim they might happen to feel.

One can predict the results of such a process: a populace obsessed with trivial and largely narcissistic concerns; a general lowering of the level of intellectual and political discourse; and a society that regards politics, religion and culture as nothing more than mechanisms for self-satisfaction. Indeed, if Barber is correct, the vision embodied in the consumerist ethos is fundamentally at odds with the very idea of a public sphere:

“[T]he private relates to public as childish stands to the adult. Prioritizing the individual and rendering community private in a way that makes it look like an aggregation of private individual wants and needs is a puerile way to understand and explain the social world. Obviously individualism and narcissism are not synonymous, but the reduction of a commonweal to a series of private first-order desires and the trivialization of the common good as nothing but aggregated discrete private interests can be thought of as a kind of regression.”

Of course, at this point one may be forgiven for wondering whether Barber has overreached. At the very least, his apparent tendency to classify every form of self-fulfillment as either immature or morally questionable should be called into question, as should his apparent failure to consider the possibility that the private sphere, as much as the public, represents and helps to protect important and valuable aspects of human existence. (To my mind, the primary purpose of education is the highly self-oriented goal of self-betterment, and the reading of literature one of the most private experiences that exists. Perhaps Barber means something different by those massively general terms “private” and “public” — but it is not clear what.)

Moreover, Barber is on occasion surprisingly judgmental toward those who do not share his vision of what maturity requires. Choosing not to reproduce, for instance, is on his view unjustifiable and juvenile, and fails (for reasons he does not bother to explain) to represent “a legitimate life choice”; those who make this choice, he goes on to say, are “like children” themselves, devoted to “a narcissistic quest for their own freedom from grown-up responsibility in favor of self-obsessed acquisitiveness.”

But to attribute such motivations to all persons who make this choice is both simplistic and intolerant. Surely, in the final analysis, maturity is a matter not of whether one has children, but of how one behaves toward them — and, more importantly still, how one behaves toward the world that all children will one day take over from us.

Barber closes his book with a number of suggestions as to how late-stage capitalism’s tendency to “corrupt children” and “infantilize adults” might be corrected. Some of these — “cultural creolization” (the process by which global entities are reshaped to conform to and express local cultures and norms) and “culture jamming” (subversion of the global powers using their own methods) are supposed to “grow out of capitalism itself.” Barber seems able to muster only a limited enthusiasm for these responses. Cultural creolization, as he recognizes, can only go so far; the flattening effect of the global market has proven to be far more powerful than the countervailing force exerted by any indigenous or otherwise local culture. As for culture jamming, Barber is right when he despairingly admits that the “marketing industry is the master-jammer and engages less in ‘pretend subversion’ than in instrumental subversion — subversion and transgression as hot sentiments and cool ideals to be associated with commodities to which they bear no relation […].” In other words, the likely fate of any resistance we might manage to offer is to be incorporated by industry, repackaged and sold back to us (with, if we are lucky, a free Che Guevara T-shirt thrown in).

The other type of possible fix, which involves the development of a “transnational citizenry” via the creation of “transnational civic entities,” seems to presuppose cooperative efforts by various individual nations to reign in the excesses of capitalism. “We need democratic sovereignty to moderate market anarchy and market monopoly,” he writes. “But sovereignty is no longer viable within nations alone.” But it is simply not clear to me just what, precisely, Barber has in mind with respect to the second sort of solution, or how, in his view, the inexorable logic of consumerist capitalism might successfully be curtailed or undermined by government action. As in his best-known book, 1995’s “Jihad vs. McWorld,” the analysis of the problem is convincing, but the proffered solutions are sketchy at best. (Indeed, many of the solutions sketched here — various variations on the theme of the rehabilitation of the public realm — seem to more or less repeat those found in “Jihad vs. McWorld.”)

One can understand, of course, why Barber might have wanted to end his book on a (guardedly) optimistic note. (Happy endings sell tickets — though not, perhaps, as many as do plot twists.) Ultimately, however, I suspect that even those readers who are most sympathetic to Barber’s campaign against hyper-consumerism, infantilization and the general dumbing-down of American society — and I count myself among that number — are going to end up finding his proposed solutions more hopeful than helpful.

© 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

Update, May 13, 2007: Here’s the Stephen Colbert interview with Benjamin R. Barber from The Colbert Report on Comedy Central:

Thanks 3quarksdaily