Whipped Into a Frenzy

I will not be the first nor the last person to observe this: the Black Friday stampede at a Long Island Wal-Mart that killed Jdimytai Damour suggests our culture is sick. It represents just about everything that is wrong with our economy: the big box store, the exploitation of low-paid seasonal hires, hyped-up materialism, desperation and greed for “bargains” and a “tradition” of post-Thanksgiving shopping, disregard for workplace safety standards — as a friend of mine observed before Damour’s identity was known, “the poor guy was probably an undocumented worker.” He wasn’t, but given past practices by Wal-Mart and other global corporations, my friend’s suspicion was not without reason.

That said, I won’t martyrize Damour; he didn’t “die for our sins.” He died because people — the bargain-obsessed shoppers and the big box operators who whipped them into a frenzy — value things over people, “getting ahead” over courtesy. The store owners could not be bothered to provide adequate security; the shoppers could not be bothered to wait another five minutes for opening time or walk casually to make their purchases. Push down the pregnant woman! What do you mean we have to leave? I’ve been waiting since 9 o’clock last night!

In the wake of this awful event, consider the reported response by the Toy Industry Association to a letter-writing campaign launched by parents demanding fewer advertisements aimed at their children:

“If children are not aware of what is new and available, how will they be able to tell their families what their preferences are?” an industry statement said. “While there is certainly greater economic disturbance going on now, families have always faced different levels of economic well-being and have managed to tailor their spending to their means.”

The full AP article deserves reading. It reports a sociologist and a social worker discussing desperate parents straining their budgets to meet the demands of their kids, despite facing unemployment and homelessness.

And while it is all well and good to counsel such parents on the virtues of saying “no” (with practice, I have become pretty good at it; but then, I’m a dick), the working poor have few other outlets for entertainment than television, where the psychological warfare is waged.

Yesterday — to take a random personal example — my four-year-old son vegged out in front of a full day “Sponge Bob Square Pants” marathon on Nickelodeon. How nice of those programmers at Nick to create 12 hours of non-stop Sponge Bob. They must have done it outta the goodness of their hearts, yes? Uh, no. Sponge Bob sells toys.

“I want that,” my son would say on seeing a much hyped toy. Then another commercial. “I want that.” And another commercial. “I want that.” And so on. All day. Of course, we employed the usual parent artillery: uncommitted speculation (“We’ll see….”), disbelief (“You don’t even know what THAT is!”), outright rejection (“Not in my house”) and sarcasm (“Of course you want that, honey. You want everything.”)

Not pleasant, but not unendurable. I take it as part of the challenge of raising children in a crazed consumer culture. I won’t shelter my kids from the ugliness of capitalism; I would rather arm them with it. That said, I cannot endorse the trial-by-fire so casually described by a toy industry consultant:

Gottlieb also contends that it’s good for children to encounter toy ads — even in cases where products later turn out to be disappointments.

“It teaches, for very low stakes, how to navigate in our consumer culture,” he said.

“They are going to have to spend the rest of their lives listening to every kind of marketing approach, and childhood is where they will learn to cope with it.”

As for the economic pressure on parents, Gottlieb sounds a fatalistic note.

“Believe me, there are families with much bigger issues on their plates right now then worrying about whether their child will be unhappy because they did not get a particular toy,” Gottlieb wrote in his “Out of the Toy Box” blog. “Delivering disappointment goes with the job of parenting.”

Wow. That’s right. Why change the culture? Why exercise some of that “corporate responsibility” so often given a special bullet point in mission statements? Why look where you’re stepping when rampaging through the store to get that useless crap for 50% off!? 

Why listen to parents (who, um, do the purchasing, hell-o!) when they ask you to target ads to them and not their children? Apparently that is too “nanny state” or “paternalistic” for champions of “free enterprise” like Gottlieb. Better to exploit a child’s natural greed and let him or her nag the parent. Corporations don’t want your input, silly consumer; they want your money. Prepare to get trampled.

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2 responses to “Whipped Into a Frenzy

  1. And this is one reason why children need more media literacy and not just 6 hours of teaching math and English for standardized tests.

  2. Thanks for mentioning media literacy. I agree completely. Ironically, Gottlieb probably thinks the sink-or-swim approach he advocates is media literacy — as opposed to, say, media assault.