In recent years, scholars have increasingly joined with activists to challenge marketing aimed at children. It is a widely accepted belief that marketers have sold unhealthy foods as well as questionable toys and games, to the detriment of American children. Motivated by declining measures of child well-being, such as heightened obesity rates, increased anxiety and stress levels and decreased exercise levels, some scholars have become outspoken opponents of commercialism in the lives of children.
In addition to criticizing food, toy and game marketing, scholars have questioned the marketing of sports apparel and athletic shoes. Long before the childhood obesity issue began to gain traction as a public health issue, the marketing of athletic shoes to inner-city youth had already dramatized the perils of unbridled consumerism. Starting in the 1980s, reports of violence with teens assaulting other teens over shoes and clothes revealed the alarming degree to which coveted brands provoked destructive behavior.
"I remember during the mid- to late eighties there were a lot of media reports of youths assaulting one another, stealing from others ... when the very expensive sneakers came to be marketed. That's what caught my attention, and I was just baffled by this kind of phenomena," says Dr. Velma LaPoint, a professor of human development in the school of education at Howard University in Washington.
"(My colleagues and I) began to review the literature and there was virtually nothing there that related to this kind of phenomena," she adds.
LaPoint says the athletic shoe obsession among Black youths represented part of a larger trend that extended to athletic apparel and designer label clothes. Concern over the larger trend pushed LaPoint and her colleagues to study how the requirement of school uniforms might improve the K-12 environment for inner-city kids. Research showed that having children wear school uniforms helped lessen the tension around youth consumer culture and created a healthier social climate within schools, according to LaPoint.
In 1999, LaPoint's interest in the dress and fashion issue among Black children led her to organize a conference at Howard, bringing together a broad coalition of researchers and activists looking at all aspects of marketing's impact on children. That 1999 meeting proved pivotal to a group of researchers and activists who would later form the core of what is now the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). Serving on the CCFC steering committee, LaPoint helped bring the CCFC's fourth annual summit to the Howard campus just last month (see story on page 11). Also serving on the CCFC steering committee is prominent psychiatry professor Dr. Alvin Poussaint of the Harvard Medical School and the media director of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.
IMAGE VERSUS ACTIVITY
As a researcher who studies the participation of children in after-school programs and youth sports teams, Dr. Billy Hawkins, a sport studies professor at the University of Georgia, decries the tendency in sports marketing to promote objects for conspicuous consumption rather than for their intrinsic value to foster athletic activity. The marketing focus is too much on image, rather than on kids actually playing sports, he contends.
"I think you can see that with the rate of childhood obesity on the rise, shoe companies seem to be interested in pushing an image with their shoes more so than actual participation in sports," Hawkins says.
Hawkins points out that the conspicuous consumption approach to selling athletic shoes and apparel has flourished over the past two decades while there's been a simultaneous decrease in publicly supported and school-based athletic and recreational activities for children and teens in American society. He also points out there's been a rise in private and corporate-sponsored, club-based sports team activity, which often compete for the most athletically talented kids in a community in a given sport. …