In This Article Children and Consumer Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Histories
  • Theories
  • Methodologies
  • Consumer Socialization
  • Social Inequalities
  • Parents and Children
  • Education and Learning
  • Tweens
  • Holidays
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Marketing and Business Perspectives
  • Consumer Citizenship
  • Electronic Media
  • Majority World and Nonglobal North Contexts

Childhood Studies Children and Consumer Culture
by
Daniel Thomas Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0006

Introduction

Social research on children as consumers (in the case of this article, up to teenage years) arose in the 1970s but did not take hold as a field of study until the 1990s. The child consumer is most often understood as an emergent social phenomenon that did not exist to any great extent prior to the 20th century, although studies in material culture and literature find evidence of goods for children’s use manufactured and sold as early as the 1700s in Europe. Hence, historical work is a particularly strong thread of inquiry in this area in which scholars, focusing almost exclusively on the US context, investigate how childhood became a site for commercial-consumer activity. Theoretically and conceptually, two problems inform the study of children’s consumer culture, historically or otherwise: One problem centers on the issue of what constitutes children’s consumption, since children rarely are purchasers of their own goods. This article focuses on those studies and discussions whereby the author(s) foreground and address the specifically commercial meanings, activities, and contexts arising in and through interaction with the marketplace in some manner. Hence, many studies of children’s material artifacts or culture are not represented here, mainly for purposes of definition and focus. A second problem in the study of children’s consumer culture revolves around determining the extent to which children are understood as victims or dupes of commercial promotion or, alternatively, are seen as actively engaged in commercial life. Long a formative dichotomy in the scholarly and public understanding of the child consumer, this “exploited versus empowered” distinction often divides scholarship on the topic. It underlies the theories, methods, histories, and topical areas of the subject and implicates the place and role of parents in the consumer dynamic.

General Overviews

Buckingham 2000 offers a thorough critique and overview of the presumptions underlying the tension between good and bad media, particularly as it is manifested in concerns about the disappearance of childhood as ushered in by electronic media. Kline 1993 demonstrates how commercial interests, education, and entertainment have converged historically to produce a context in which children’s culture has become children’s consumer culture. Seiter 1993 focuses on the parent–child tensions that are implicated historically and in contemporary media culture as children’s desires were in the process of gaining both public and domestic legitimacy. Schor 2004 delves into the practices and motivations of the contemporary children’s market research and advertising industries, exposing some of the deep pathologies of market culture. Cross 2004 offers a history of the transformation from the “cute,” wondrous child who was indulged materially by her parents to the “cool,” defiant child who has emerged from consumer culture, in opposition to her parents. Sammond 2005, through the author’s study of Disney, provides a template for investigating how the efforts of various actors—commercial, academic, governmental—have unwittingly combined to construct a model of a “generic” child, which, in turn, has taken on the character of a natural subject informing subsequent action by market actors, educators, and others on behalf of the child. Pugh 2009 suggests that children are concerned less with the goods themselves than with the social “dignity” the goods provide by enabling them to belong to a social world, finding that much of parents’ efforts are directed at managing their children’s ability to belong. Buckingham 2011 is a recent work that contextualizes contemporary theories and debates surrounding children’s consumption, reframing these debates in light of children’s ability to make their own meanings with consumer goods.

  • Buckingham, David. After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A review and critique of a variety of approaches to assessing the relationship among children, electronic media, and the commercial world at large—a significant challenge to Neil Postman’s “disappearance of childhood” thesis—questioning simple notions of “good” and “bad” media and consumption by and for children.

  • Buckingham, David. The Material Child: Growing Up in Consumer Culture. London: Polity, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by a leading scholar in the field, this book offers a comprehensive and critical overview of the debates and issues related to contemporary children’s consumption, punctuated with case studies on obesity, sexualization, media, and education.

  • Cross, Gary. The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this study, Cross theorizes and demonstrates the tension between constructions of the “cute” child invoked by marketing and nostalgically sought by parents and the “cool,” distant child also produced by commercial means. Historically, he argues, the “cool” has been displacing the “cute” in popular culture.

  • Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Television in the Age of TV Marketing. London: Verso, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth and sweeping treatment of the historical interlacing of children’s literary and popular culture with the rise of consumer culture and television. Kline’s book, in an examination of advertising and the rise of character-based toys and their impacts on children’s play, set the key terms of the study of children’s consumer culture.

  • Pugh, Allison. Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on in-depth ethnographic research, this book argues that contemporary children’s consumer culture becomes manifest in an “economy of dignity,” wherein children manage their social relations and to which parents often adjust and attend.

  • Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A study of how the generic notion of the “normal child” arose out of commercial and academic discourse. Sammond places particular emphasis on how both the Disney corporation and Walt Disney the man and figure helped make popular entertainment confluent with, or at least nonthreatening to, the imagined child.

  • Schor, Juliet B. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A social economist powerfully dissects the infiltration of marketing strategy in the lives of contemporary children and families, outlining the psychological and health risks of unchecked consumerism as well as possibilities for alternatives.

  • Seiter, Ellen. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Combining historical analyses of advice to mothers and the marketing of toys to children and parents with a detailed examination of commercial videos aimed at children, this book opened new avenues of inquiry by reorienting the debate on children’s consumer culture to incorporate children’s understandings of goods and advertising and parents’ role in the marketing mix.

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