The Latest Addicts
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, December 18, 2006
When hedonism was as innocent as Sylvia Kristel
It may be Christmas, season of splurging, but it’s difficult to say when, on the American calendar, it isn’t the season of splurging. The American economy continues year after year to defy the gravity of debt thanks to its oblivious consumers—their credit cards, their home equity (Americans’ mortgage debt has increased by $3 trillion since 2001; $600 billion of that was used to shop at Wal-Mart and other places rather than to finance living square-footage), their blend of Weimar and Gatsby optimism on a bed of synthetic, green roses. The median household debt is at $100,000, $25,000 more than in 2001. The savings rate is zero or worse. Wages have just begun to creep back up, but they’re still well below their 2000 level when you adjust for inflation. And still: the headlines are all about how retailers expect a bumper crop of overindulging consumers. You can’t change spending addictions any quicker than you can counter an addiction to, say, crack. So spending goes on. As does the dangling of consumer crack before the hapless consumer. Every season has its special fixes. Electronics continue to be the big lure. Adults have had their ears and eyes and fingers overstuffed with gadgetry.
Not so children — the new frontier of marketers’ predatory skills. I’m struck by the guile with which computer companies, cell phone companies, the music industry are all downshifting their attention, now that they’ve ravaged the teen and so-called “tween” market many times over, to very young children—the five, six, seven, eight-year-olds whose acuity for things hip and current and whose brain development will be damaged irreparably if they don’t have their own lap-top, their own blackberry, their own portable music and video collection from Gwen Steffani to “Emmanuelle.”
That last one is an exaggeration, to be sure, but it works symbolically and illustratively: children are being whored to pointless, actually quite damaging, hedonism, as if the ethos of “Emmanuelle” has made its way down, over three decades, to little children, but in more perverse ways than sexual: to make rank consumers of children is to abuse them. And when their parents are the enablers, well, the dots connect themselves. Tobacco advertising, much of it to children, is instructive in this little story — not for its obviously lethal aims, but for the way the very same strategy has been adopted by companies peddling technology and electronics to children. Parents not only don’t raise a peep. They stampede to hook their kids up with the stuff: A drug dealer’s dream. Sylvia Kristel’s hedonism looks the model of innocence in comparison.
Some background. In 1984, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds combined for $10 billion in sales in the United States, $5 billion in sales abroad. That was just before the wars on tobacco. By 1996, domestic sales were past their peak, clocking in at just under $17 billion. Foreign sales? $27 billion. Big Tobacco had discovered the world. Children, especially. Surveys monitored by the World Health Organization in 1999 showed that 25 percent of Jordanian children age 13 to 15, where 17 percent of Jordanians in that age group smoke, had been offered free cigarettes by tobacco companies. In Moscow, 17 percent, in South Africa, 15 percent. Philip Morris three years ago was bitching at Florida for airing television ads that showed rugged Marlboro men in their sheepskin coats and cowboy hats sitting in classrooms and being taught to say “Come to Marlboro Country” in Spanish, Mandarin and Swahili. Philip Morris claimed it didn’t put up Marlboro billboards within 100 meters of schools or playgrounds. Maybe not billboards showing actual cigarettes.
The Marlboro brand is another story: China’s advertising laws forbid actual cigarettes from being shown, but not company logos. “As a result,” Stan Sesser wrote for the New Yorker in 1993, “Philip Morris puts on radio commercials, sponsors sporting events on television, and erects billboards, all without ever referring to or showing a cigarette. Moreover, it has turned Shanghai, China’s largest city, into Marlboro country. In a nation where a telephone is still a rarity, every few yards along Shanghai’s Bund, the famous riverfront promenade, stands a stylish glass-walled phone booth covered on three sides with red-and-white Marlboro logos and with pictures of a cigarette-free Marlboro cowboy, sitting on his horse or walking with a saddle slung over his shoulder. Since Marlboro has been promoted heavily in China for years […] it’s unlikely that many Chinese need to see a cigarette to make the association. ‘Even my grandson, who is three years old, knows that Marlboro is a cigarette, though not a single member of my family smokes,’ Dr. Li Wan-Xian, my host at lunch, who is a professor of epidemiology, says. ‘A cowboy symbolizes a strong, energetic young man with the freedom to do whatever he wants. It tells teenagers that smoking Marlboros will make you fit and proud. The cowboy becomes a role model for youth.’”
The libertarian in me instinctively flinches at any sort of advertising ban, even on tobacco companies, even with those idiotic, because meaningless, one-hundred-meter boundaries of schools and “places where children gather.” Poisons and dangers are everywhere. There are better means to control them. Pretending that they don’t exist by banning their advertising won’t do it. Not nearly as well as counter-advertising, anyway: expose the rabble on its own terms. That Florida ad a few years ago did the job very well, which is just why Philip Morris bitched about it. Force the companies to foot part of the counter-advertising bill, too. But don’t make war on a legal product by constitutionally suspect means. And don’t do it in children’s name, either. It’s the flip side of the tobacco companies’ child-abuse-by-marketing.
Still, marketing to children is every company’s bail-out plan. The tobacco companies did it slyly in the United States in the 1990s, they do it without the sly still all over the world. But techy companies are getting in on the act. A cell phone won’t kill you like a cigarette might, so you can’t exactly argue on health grounds against LeapFrog offering cell phones to six-year-olds, or Hasbro offering video projectors for 8-year-olds. But you can argue against the mere imbecility of marketing these things to children on the pretense that they’re in any way useful, educational or (worse) hip. The appeal here is to parents’ imbecilic sense of hipness. Parents will spring for a $99 “TicTalk Cellphone” for their 6 year old not because it’s useful in any way, but because it creates the illusion of connectedness—to the family, and to culture—when it does the opposite. Cell phones don’t connect so much as, by definition, bridge a separation. But how’s a 6-year-old to be further separated from her parents (or friends, or Catholic priest) if not by the mere fact of putting a cell phone in her hands and making actual contact less than essential? Then there’s that whole run of new audio players, digital cameras and MP3 players being marketed to children just as young. “Little time is left for developing social skills,” the newspaper lift-quote says. Well, yes. But what about the companies' rank exploitation of kids?
Actually, the libertarian in me again instinctively defends a company’s right to act in character. Companies aren’t breaking the law by living up to their soulless nature. They’re in it to make money by any means necessary. The “social conscience” of business is an invention of corporate focus groups à-la-Home Depot to make liberal simpletons applaud every time another big box flattens a neighborhood just because the company sponsors two cripples in the Special Olympics and a six-mile stretch of tarmac in the Adopt-A-Highway program, and oh, so generously gives $100 “scholarship” to a couple of local teachers’ special classroom projects, teachers being too desperate for any help to say no. Companies will do what companies will do. Let them. But show them up at their own game. No one is raising an eyebrow, let alone a voice anyone can hear, about companies’ marketing technology to kids. To the contrary. It’s all seen as part of the great collective improvement of society by pixels, bytes and ear plugs.
The defeat begins and ends with the consumer. We vote with our wallets. Our responsibilities (to our health, our children, our sense of time and proportions) are no longer our own. We’ve surrendered them to someone else’s bottom line. The pliability and docility of the American consumer is as astounding as his ability to keep racking up historic debts without fear or worry, an uncritical servant of whatever marketing comes his (or his children’s) way. Why not take advantage? Why not abuse? And this is how pliable and docile the consumer is in the daily acts that define who we are, the buying and spending that takes up so much of our identity.
Imagine how he is, our hapless consumer, as a consumer of the political establishment. A cog is too good a word for him. For us, that is. Politicians, our Lord and Savior President chief among them, are least to blame for taking advantage. It’s self-abuse, and we seem to be enjoying it, and its bedraggled consequences, so much. Goodbye Emmanuelle, indeed.