Cook, Daniel Thomas. (2004) The Commodification of Childhood


ARGUMENT

“The simplified thesis of this book is that markets shape persons in and through the consumer culture of childhood” (11).  In other words, childhood has been shaped by the consumer marketplace and since we have all been children once, we have all been shaped by the market.  Cook argues that notions of children’s of consumers developed in the interwar period when department store advertisers and merchandisers began to orient clothing departments towards the child’s consuming gaze instead of the mother’s.

SUMMARY

Cook studies children’s consumer culture beginning in 1917 with the introduction of Infants Department, the first trade journal dedicated to selling to children.  According to Cook there are two ways that advertisers can bridge the moral boundary associated with using childhood for profit:  “define or redefine commodities as beneficial and functional for children,” or define or redefine children as “full persons who are, in a relatively unproblematic way, desirous of goods” (11).  The clothing began with the former and then shifted to the later.

In the early period of study trade journals used a strategy of “selling the mother through the child” (p 50.)  The market constructed a very particular image of what a toddler is and used this to sell products to the mother: “Their innocence and sacredness were overstressed and over-elaborated in the very act of constructing them as beings perpetually at risk.” (64).  This led the mother to consume out of maternal duty to her child.  “The mother is the moral arbiter of children’s goods, spaces, and beings; she is the shield against the profanity of self-indulgence, of extrinsic monetary value. As the middle term between market and child, the mother as consumer in a sense purifies economic exchange by imbuing commodities with sentiment” (64).

In the 1930s he argues that early twentieth century department stores essentially interpellated children as consumers by asking them directly for their preferences, catering products to their to specific needs/desires, and structuring distinct children’s spaces in gendered, age-graded progressions. The child consumer is a particularly powerful figure in the marketplace because children are generative – they grow into adults and produce more children ensuring capitalists values are passed on to new generations.

Pediocularity – Literally, seeing with children’s eyes.  In the 1930s department store adopted a new child-oriented strategy to selling that Cook terms “pediocularity” (Reorienting consumer goods to be viewed by children instead of mothers.  eg. placing them lower on shelves so they are eye-level for children.) The pediocular approach is more than just one that is child-centered. It privileges the viewpoint of the child as the authority. However this does not disrupt traditional family power structures or remove parents’ “veto power” over children’s purchases: “The switch in perspective from mother (or adult) to child does not obviate mothers or adults; it situates them reactively in relation to the “child’s perspective” (Cook, 2004, p. 69 emphasis original).

On the “discovery” of children’s markets – The markets have shaped what childhood is, they produced it – they didn’t discover it.  And the childhood they produced is a consuming one:  “markets have not invaded childhood … markets are indispensable to the making of social persons in the ongoing consumer culture of childhood and, indeed, in consumer culture at large…. [children] are persons who in turn use markets to remake themselves” (p. 144).

Structure vs Agency In the introduction he outlines the traditional “structure versus agency” debate which promulgates child consumers as either exploited or empowered by market culture.  He rejects this dichotomy (see also Oswell 2013) In footnote #5 he breaks down the main proponents of structure vs agency:

Structure Agency
Leach 1993a, Leach 1993b Kline 1993 Steinberg and Kincheloe 1997 Giroux 2000 Seiter 1993 Seiter 1999 MacNamee 1998 Buckingham 2000

 

Cook explores additional key tension of the time which eached played a role in the development of children as consumers: “sentimental versus exchange value, child versus market, person versus commodity, sacred versus profane” (p. 13)

Mother as consumer – In the early period of study trade journals used a strategy of “selling the mother through the child” (p 50.)  The market constructed a very particular image of what a toddler is and used this to sell products to the mother: “Their innocence and sacredness were overstressed and over-elaborated in the very act of constructing them as beings perpetually at risk.” (64).  This led the mother to consume out of maternal duty to her child.  “The mother is the moral arbiter of children’s goods, spaces, and beings; she is the shield against the profanity of self-indulgence, of extrinsic monetary value. As the middle term between market and child, the mother as consumer in a sense purifies economic exchange by imbuing commodities with sentiment (64).”

Commodities – Marx defined commodities as being outside of ourselves and our labour, but Cook shows how we ourselves become commodities (p. 85).

THEORY/METHOD

Historical analysis of trade journals.

CRITIQUE

The central thesis of Cook’s research is that pediocularity is first evidenced in the children’s clothing industry and then spread to other consumer contexts (2004, p. 3). But while Cook has found that the clothing industry did not adopt a pediocular orientation until the 1930s this does not preclude other industries from doing so in earlier time periods.

HOW TO USE

This is a key text in the history of children’s consumer culture

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One thought on “Cook, Daniel Thomas. (2004) The Commodification of Childhood

  1. Pingback: Buckingham, David (2011) The Material Child. | Cheryl Williams

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