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October 7, 2006

Interesting Book--The Commodification of Childhood

This weekend, I read a review for a book that I thought may be of interest for those who follow the aspects of the media industry we study here at the Convergence Culture Consortium. In our initial formulation of this research group, there was a particularly strong emphasis on what we were referring to as "branding cultures," looking at fan communities as they surround entertainment properties and consumer brands. Although our outlook is much broader than just branding at this point, we retain a strong interest at the marketing process and in finding ways that marketers and consumers can work together to create a media environment in which messages about products and brands get to consumers in ways that are neither manipulative to consumers nor intrusive but which still provides a viable financial model for mass entertainment.

This brings me to the review I found, of Daniel Thomas Cook's The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer, written by Cord Scott of the Lincoln Technical Institute in the August 2006 edition of The Journal of Popular Culture. Cook's book, published in 2004, is part of an increasing attempt to understand how the children's market has been created over the past century and normalized in the lifestyles of Americans. Of course, this "commodification of childhood" both has its negative aspects, as your anti-corporate and anti-branding folks would be glad to point out, as well as its benefits, such as the autonomy consumerism has granted to children in so many ways.

Cook, a sociologist, focuses on how clothing brands began to be formulated in the 1910s and the subsequent development of the industry. As Scott points out, branded clothing becomes "truly a visual outlet for children's self-expression, as well as what parents convey to the public about the child's (and the parents') social standing. I'm taking a course this semester on globalization at Harvard University by anthropologist James L. Watson, who points out the major differences this consumerism has made in the Chinese market, with the creation of the much-discussed "Little Emperor" phenomenon.

Scott considers this book "merely a starting point" but says that is well worth looking at, with only 151 pages (although the writing "can be dense at times"). Most interesting to C3's work may be the book's focus on product placement in the early days of the development of branding clothing, including a clothing line under the Shirley Temple brand. And the book has implications for understanding demography as well, as Cook writes that "the codification of children (in age, size, and gender categories) is one aspect of merchandizing that many take for granted, yet little has been written about the phenomenon."

For anyone interested in such issues, the book was published by the Duke University Press in 2004.

Also, be sure to check out this reviews from Harvard Business School by Michael Zakim.

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