Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Fight the Power: Children and Adolescents as Consumer Activists

From the Archives: A year ago, we talked about some consumer victories. This year, we could add the productive conversation between SPARK Summit and LEGO about their new Friends line and J.C. Penney pulling their t-shirt that said, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother does it for me.” Can you think of other incidents of consumers pushing back on unhealthy messages and getting a company to respond in a socially responsible way?

Sometimes when we think about media and marketing that targets children and adolescents through sexualized, unhealthy images and narratives, it’s hard not to get discouraged. We may feel that no matter what we do, these same old companies are going to keep using these same old inappropriate strategies to target kids.

I’d like to share some consumer victories with you, along with some ideas for how children and adolescents themselves can become consumer activists and world changers. In a recent post, Push Up Bikini Tops for Kids?, I talked about a push-up top being marketed to young adolescents. Many writers and children’s rights activists believed that it was inappropriate, and condemned this marketing of sexuality to young girls. The company has apparently bowed to the weight of pressure and removed the “push up” label from all bikini tops and then removed the product itself from their website.

In the post Speaking Truth to Target, I tell the story of my friend Marcia, who was offended by the message being sent by a t-shirt in the toy section of her local Target store. She took the initiative to talk to store employees, the manager, and followed up with a phone call. In her own opinion, she didn’t do that much, but she did what she could. She was later informed that the t-shirt had been pulled nationally because so many costumers had complained.

In the article Misogynist T-Shirt Removed Thanks to Online Activism! : Ms Magazine Blog, the author shares the news that a t-shirt picturing a woman with tape over her mouth and the phrase “Enjoy the Silence” was removed from stores after university students saw it and started a petition to complain against the message that it was sending. We can add the conversation between SPARK Summit and LEGO to this list, as well as J.C. Penney’s response to consumer pressure to pull a t-shirt for girls that had an unhealthy message.

All of these stories testify to the fact that consumer pressure can impact inappropriate marketing schemes. In past posts, I’ve encouraged you to think about actions that we as consumers can take to fight against this type of marketing from letter writing to the brand, talking to the managers of stores, online and offline petitions, and so forth.

Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth gives some more exciting suggestions on ways to respond to negative media campaigns in her post Shaping Youth » Using Media With Mindfulness. One that is fun and creative is brand jamming, which, Jussel explains “use advocacy sites that band together en masse to create a larger collective “umpf!” by making mock campaigns to make fun of ridiculous marketing practices. I know some tweens and teens who would love to participate in this kind of response! We can join groups such as this blog and related sites to stand together against specific advertising campaigns. Jussel describes her own favorite, “our own ‘counter-marketing’ practices where we ‘flip the outrage.’” Educating consumers about the process of marketing and using media to do it by exposing the careful and ugly marketing strategies that target underage children. She states, “Let’s just say that the more you educate consumers about the PROCESS and use media to do it, the more they’re forearmed with invisible cloaks and shields in the battle for kids hearts and minds.”

Practical strategies for doing this include showing adolescents how marketing works. Amy of Shaping Youth gives a specific example of walking some teen-agers through how one liquor company was targeting kids using famous hip hop artists and candy colored alcoholic drinks. Once these young people understood the way that the company was targeting them, they got angry, and then they can start using social media to share their outrage with their peers and hopefully keep the unethical company from profiting from such outrageous marketing tactics.One strategy that advertisers have used quite a bit recently is that of baiting outrage, where they put out a particularly provocative product and then wait to get media attention from consumer anger, think of the padded bikini top for young children that I referenced above.

Adolescents themselves can make great advocates because, as shown in this study (In adolescence, the power to resist blooms in the brain) they are at a particular stage of development when their power to resist peer pressure is growing. Many adolescents are hungry to make a difference in the world, to be world changers. By harnessing that energy and helping them learn to be critical media consumers, we can lend them a hand in standing up against these marketing campaigns that are cynically targeting them. Using social media and word of mouth, adolescents and caring adults can work together to fight for their rights and advocate against companies that put a bulls-eye on their childhood.

3 comments on “Fight the Power: Children and Adolescents as Consumer Activists

  1. whatsaysyou
    April 17, 2011

    Thank you, Jennifer. You are right that kids can be consumer activists and we can empower kids about the issues of consumerism. Please keep it up.

  2. Kris
    April 7, 2011

    You might be interested in our newest book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. http://www.rethinkingschools.org/rpcm. Give me a call or e-mail if you would like more information about it.

    Thanks for your work.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      April 7, 2011

      Thanks for sharing this link, Kris. This book could be a great resource for teachers.

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