We Are What We Consume

Consumption Culture and Teen Identity, Part 1

Kris Fernhout | Feb 28, 2011

There is little doubt that September 11, 2001 has been and will continue to be a defining moment in American history. In the weeks and months following that day, America was presented with a new type of cultural “normalcy”. We were also called to respond to tragedy through a particular show of patriotism: by going shopping.

While on one hand this exhortation was a call to the American people to participate in shoring up the faltering economy, it was also a telling sign of how our culture copes with grief, loss, pain and ultimately finds happiness: by shopping, spending and acquiring material objects. This idea is further supported by surveys which reveal that 93% of girls under the age of 16 say shopping is their favorite activity. [[John De Graff, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2005), 15.]]

Why do kids enjoy shopping so much? Is it freedom they feel? The thrill and rush of the purchase? Or is it also that they, like everyone else, understand that what they buy is an expression of who they believe themselves to be or who they are becoming?

Adolescent Consumption Past and Present

Consumption of goods and services makes up a significant portion of the American economy. About two-thirds of the $11 trillion U.S. economy is spent on consumer goods. [[IBID., 13.]] In fact, Americans spend so much on “stuff” that the storage business is a $12 billion industry, generating more sales than even the music industry. [[IBID., 32.]]

Consumption of goods is, of course, not reserved to adults; children and adolescents play a significant role. While young children have considerable control over spending, teens have even more purchasing power, estimated at over $100 per week per kid. [[Juliet B. Schor, Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York: Scribner, 2004), 23.]]

Adolescents don’t just control and influence their own spending. Kids have considerable influence over the discretionary and non-discretionary spending of their parents. Experts have found that “kid-fluence” impacts $330 billion in adult purchases. [[IBID., 23.]] It is estimated that adolescents and children influence twenty percent of all spending, and even up to sixty-seven percent of automobile purchases. Some suggest that part of the reason that kids have so much influence over family spending is that time-starved parents regret the lack of time they invest in their kids, so they use “guilt money” as a way to satisfy both their kids and their own troubled consciences.

With so much economic power and influence, where do our students get the information they need to make to make informed decisions on what they should consume? There is little doubt that adults play the primary influencing roles in kids’ lives, especially in regard to moral and spiritual formation. [[Christian Smith, Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 56.]] Yet for the first time in history, many teens are receiving the bulk of the information they use to make decisions about their life from entities who want to sell them something, rather than receiving it from home, from school or from church. [[DeGraff, Wann, and Naylor, Affluenza, 55.]]

As the level of consumption in our culture increased over the last half century or more, advertisers began to see children and adolescents as priceless because of the potential economic power they wielded. The result was an increase in advertising directed at kids, which grew from a $100 million industry in 1980 to a $15 billion industry in 2004: an increase of 15,000 percent. [[IBID., 55.]] The money is spent to help cultivate a desire for “better things”, despite the fact that advertisers really believe that “the satisfaction of primary human needs [is] now met in the most summary manner, by the ceaseless manufacture of pseudo-needs.” [[Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 11.]]

The safe places and refuges available to children and adolescents where they can hide from advertising messages are also dwindling. A company called Cover Concepts calls itself an “in-school communications partner” and claims to reach thirty million students in 43,000 schools with its advertising and marketing techniques. [[DeGraff, Wann, and Naylor, Affluenza, 61.]] Advertisers are willing to go anywhere and do anything in order to reach teen “targets”, using viral marketing techniques in order to get kids’ “eyeballs” on their products. [[Schor, Born to Buy, 20.]]

Branding: Creating Identity Through Signals and Possessions

While the language used by advertisers and marketers may to some people connote imagery associated with warfare and brainwashing, the industry claims their goals are altruistic. The primary goal of advertisers is to promote products in a way that leads to purchasing, but advertisers also say they are seeking to empower kids and promote their self-esteem. [[IBID., 22.]]

This begins to feel like a dubious claim when we consider that “adolescents are subjected to unremitting pressure to conform to the market’s definition of cool” [[IBID., 20.]] and that seventy-four percent of kids acknowledge that “it’s too bad you have to buy certain things to be cool.” [[IBID., 22.]] Ultimately, the goal of many advertisers and marketers is not to empower kids and boost their self-esteem or even to promote products so that they will be purchased. At its most basic level, the goal of most marketing is to create stories that “are developed in such a way as to create narrative coherence with which the reader or viewer can identify," [[Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 199.]] a coherence that creates anxiety within the self that can only be relieved by purchasing a marketed product.

Branding first began in the early parts of the twentieth century when for the first time consumerist capitalism facilitated multiple producers making and offering the same product to a limited number of consumers. These producers began to ‘trademark’ their products as a way of distinguishing them from other producer’s products. [[For a concise history of branding and trademarking see Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, 175 and following.]] However, the goal of creating trademark preference quickly became more manipulative as advertisers and producers both realized that consumers had discretion in how and why they chose products.

At their most basic levels, “Brands are to be understood in terms of experience, lifestyle, and emotion, and it is these qualities that must be sold, while the products themselves remain either wholly unnecessary in themselves or differentiated from similar products by marketing alone.” [[Barber, Consumed, 179.]] As a result, brands are often understood as signs or purely symbolic entities that are completely detached and separate from the products they represent and the functions they are intended to fulfill. [[Schor, Born to Buy, 26.]] A poignant example of this is a recent Toyota Highlander ad. The catch phrase for the ad, “Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you have to be lame,” is delivered by an early adolescent boy from the back seat of the vehicle. The ad has less to do with the concrete functions of the vehicle and more with the symbols and status that the vehicle one drives, in this case a Toyota Highlander, confers on the parent and the kids related to that parent.

While there is little doubt that material objects serve tangible and concrete purposes in the lives of the user, the Highlander ad is a reminder that the majority of the objects we consume are symbols first and objects second. [[Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism (London: William Heinemann, 2009), 1.]] If what someone consumes primarily consists of symbols communicated through brands, then brands become a way of communicating an “individual’s ideology (religious, political, and philosophical beliefs)…[and can] be viewed not as his editorial content but as his ad campaign – designed not to convey verifiable news about the world, but to create positive emotional associations between the individual as product and the customer’s aesthetic, social, and moral aspirations.” [[IBID., 30.]]

Given the power of brands to communicate as symbols, advertisers tend to create pre-packaged ideological understandings of the self. The result is that the “project of the self” becomes heavily commodified, where “self actualization is packaged and distributed according to market criteria.” [[Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 198.]] If this happens without critical evaluation, adolescents will be in danger of allowing the “consumption of ever-novel goods [to become] in some part a substitute for the genuine development of self” where “appearance replaces essence.” [[IBID.]]

Implications for Youth Ministry

The reality of marketing and branding in the mix of adolescent identity formation is something we can either embrace, shake our heads toward, or respond to thoughtfully as engaged leaders. Here are a few questions youth ministry must address in our contexts in order to respond:

  • What stories do you see evident in the lives of kids in your context that are influenced by marketers and advertisers?
  • If brands are little more than a mechanism for signaling ideas and symbols to others, what symbols and ideas are predominantly being communicated to others by kids in your local community?
  • As youth ministries, do we unwittingly also create pre-packaged understandings of the self and faith for adolescents to consume? If so, how do we make following Christ more about appearance over essence?
  • In what ways are you personally influenced by brands and consumerism? How do you think that affects your students?

A recent study [[McAlister and Cornwell, "Children's Brand Symbolism Understanding," Journal of Psychology and Marketing (Feb 2010).]] has shown that preschoolers can easily identify brand names and symbols and are willing to make judgments about products and people based on associations with these brands. If left unchecked, how much more willing are adolescents to make judgments about others based on brands and brand symbolism? What kind of impact will this have on their identity development and discovery and on their long term spiritual formation?

Clearly, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to consumerism’s influence on teen identity development. In Part 2 of this series we’ll take a look at strategic responses that can help you navigate consumption in the lives of kids in your ministry or home.

Action Points

  • Set aside some time to think through the implication questions above, and send this out to a couple of other folks on your ministry team to do the same. Then get together to discuss consumerism’s current influence in your lives and ministry.
  • Choose one brand you identify with that has become part of your own concept of your identity. Take one week to “fast” from that brand in whatever ways possible, then evaluate how you might be different as a result.
  • As you interact with students over the next few weeks, intentionally point out or complement features of their identity that have nothing to do with what they consume. For example, notice a students’ compassion for the concerns of others rather than their new branded shoes or phone.
Kris Fernhout

Kris Fernhout has been a youth pastor for more than 20 years and currently has the ptivilege of being the Student Ministry Pastor at Christ Community Church: Olathe Campus, a multi-site church in Kansas City. He loves coffee, cycling and DJing and just completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in Fuller's Youth, Family & Culture program.


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