LAST December my three-month-old daughter and I visited my parents in New York City. As we pulled up to their house, a UPS van was just pulling out; the package delivered turned out to be a baby "gift" from a formula company: a few free samples of a new formula, a cheap rattle, and a rather sorry-looking stuffed animal.
I knew that the timing of the package's arrival had to be coincidenceâe"even formula companies don't follow their customers' movements that closely. Still, it was alarming to recognize how even our most personal life transitions can be reduced to the sale of a new line of products; just add formula, the package seemed to say, and watch this youngest consumer grow.
In Candy from Strangers: Kids & Consumer Culture, longtime Ottawa journalist Stephen Dale speaks with psychologists, politicians, advertisers, and teen "consultants" as he takes us through the looking glass of youth-targeted marketing and media. As Dale notes, there has been much hand-wringing, both among social liberals and conservatives, about the ill effects of marketing and media on North American children: from Columbine to obesity, "m. & m." has increasingly become everyoneâe(TM)s favourite scapegoat.
Are advertisers manipulating children into becoming hapless consumers? Is violent media to blame for teenage aggression? These are big questions, and ones that have already garnered a lot of attention. Dale provides a survey of the debate, and while it's useful to get an overview, only halfway through the book does Dale's opinion begin to emerge. Happily, when he finally takes command, Dale puts forth a convincing argument. Yes, he says, advertisers are out to manipulate your children and media is often violent, but by focusing on media and marketing, we let those who could really do something about it off the hookâe"government. And, interestingly, not through regulation.
What we need, Dale argues, is to reduce the financial pressure currently placed on familiesâe"a pressure that takes parents away from their children, creating a situation in which television and the Internet act as babysitters. Indeed, Dale asks whether the vilification of the "kid-media/marketing machine" has actually provided a smokescreen behind which conservative politicians can continue to ignore the economic and social needs of families.
Dale does sidestep some major issuesâe"in particular, his critique of our consumerist, money-driven society looks almost exclusively at the middle and upper classes, ignoring the experience of poverty in a time of economic excess.
But ultimately, the book provides a provocative take on a hot political issue. Invoking Marshall McLuhan, about whose legacy Dale has previously written, he challenges us to consider the effects of not just technology (the medium by which m. & m. are expanding) but also economic "advances" on that most tenuous of human states: childhood. âe"Ilana Stanger-Ross