December 11, 2007

Advertising and consumer hierarchy

Matt's post about adverts and kids is a fascinating one- I'm pretty sure that I disagree with it whole heartedly- because I think it inverts many of the relationships that we see in present society and misunderstands them. Matt argues that pestering from Kids to parents works, because parents have lost their moral sense and are basically weaklings, unable to withstand a childish tantrum. He also suggests that a good old fashioned bit of discipline is what children need and suggests that these modern day liberal parents are too morally flaccid to apply it. Ultimately in Matt's view advertising responds to but does not shape demand.

I think all of those statements are wrong. Lets start with the idea that the power of pestering represents the decline of morality- I think its worth distinguishing in this area two important concepts: morality and authority. The power of pestering represents the decline of the second of those concepts, but not the decline of the first. If for instance, as Chris Dillow argues, sympathy is the basis for secular morality (and Matt lest anyone need reminding is an avowed secularist- in that he does not decline his morality from theology) then acknowledging the power of the pester and relinquishing authority may be a moral response. Beating children is not something which modern society finds easy to tolerate for instance- even though it would be a good way to disarm the pester. Furthermore there is the argument that morality to be moral must be consistant: and how can it be consistant to call hitting an adult with a stick assault and hitting a child with a stick discipline.

The decline in authority and the growing morality of a society, in terms of both empathy and consistency, (and the decline of a morality based merely on the words of a tyrannical God) have created a new issue which is the increased power within the family unit of children. But something else has also created that increased power. Matt as a good economist will know that much of economics is not just about the distribution of wealth, but about the distribution of information. The facts of the globalised world- which include advertising- create demand by displaying products. Those products are displayed to anyone who participates in the global media market- and consequently it undermines the role say of parents as the sole providers of information to their children. In that sense advertising helps undermine the authority of the parent and creates thus a situation in which the kid will want to look like Christina Aguillera and play Elvis Presley.

Information creates a situation where the child knows the exact cost of something, its proportion to the family budget and its benefits. He or she also knows that the commodity in question is lauded by adults- particularly those advertising to him or her. The adult community has fractured before its eyes. Furthermore adults who crave their time with their children as relaxation time, to fortify them within the family unit, are rewarded with affection for giving into their child's cry for the latest commodity. Information creates power, sympathy creates a tie of power- all those things contribute to strengthening the child and weakening the adult.

Ultimately this reflects back on a much older process- the process by which the child converted from being unpaid labour on a peasant farm- to being a precious entity by which its parents are evaluated. In that change swinging through the centuries, we can see the roots of Matt's angst about declining authority. Advertising's role in this story has been in modern times to strengthen the child's control over information- there are other changes as well that have gone along with that- but as I argued above many of them are in a wider sense goods. But ultimately the strength of pester power comes from two sources- the rise of sympathy for children which gives them a power over their parents- and also the creation of a root to information which is uncontrolled by their parents, through advertising and television.


Dandelion said...

The power of pestering represents the decline of morality to the extent that one views parents as having a moral responsibilty to set boundaries for their children. Iff you afford parents no such responsibility, then you are of course quite right. The power of pestering has nothing to do with morality at all!

Your consistency requirement for morality is also clearly hogwash. Your way of measuring consistency, likewise. It is perfectly consistent to call hitting an adult with a stick assault, but not hitting a child with a correspondingly smaller stick. Leaving aside for the moment one's feelings about violence per se (I'm against it), the fact remains that one has authority and responsibilities towards one's child that one simply does not have towards a random adult. Ergo, in the former case, one is over-stepping one's jurisdiction, whereas in the latter, one is not.

It has never been the case that parents are the sole providers of information to their children. Even before the printing press. By your argument, the government, teachers, peers, books, and the BBC all undermine the authority of parents. You object to a tyrannical god, yet you seem to endorse a tyrannical family system. Weird. And inconsistent.