Yesterday I spent my lunch break browsing the official enquiry report on last year’s riots, so that I could comment intelligently on LBC Radio. I was talking about consumerism, which the report dedicates a whole chapter to as a reason for the riots.
“The riots were particularly characterised by opportunistic looting” says the report from the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel. “The majority of shops targeted stocked high value consumer products – clothes, trainers, mobile telephones and computers.”
There are obviously a broad range of factors involved in the rioting, including parenting failures and family breakdown, social exclusion, and anti-social behaviour generally – most of those charged with offenses had previous convictions, as it turns out. But consumerism was a factor too, as people spotted the opportunity to grab things that they have repeatedly been told they need, and probably deserve, but inconveniently can’t afford.
When the panel surveyed affected neighbourhoods, 77% of people believed that there is too much advertising aimed at young people. It’s a finding that echoes previous research. The Children’s Society found that 89% of people think children are more materialistic than previous generations. In their investigation into the commercialisation of childhood, Compass discovered that more three year olds know the McDonalds logo than know their own surname.
The problem with pervasive branding is that as children grow up surrounded by brands, they learn to identify themselves with them and by them – to the brands’ delight no doubt. We are encouraged to shape our identity through what we own, particularly what we wear. We develop a brand consciousness, and use it to evaluate our own worth as individuals, and the worth of others. We become critically aware that our trainers or mobile phone aren’t the latest, that others’ are better than ours. Our trainers become the standard by which we are judged. If they’re cheap, we are worth less as people – someone others don’t want to be seen with.
If you’re on a low income, you’re automatically priced out of this game. Or you’re forced into compromises, spending less money on other things in order to prioritise conspicuous consumption. If you cannot afford the goods that supposedly make us better people, and TV and the media remind you of your inferiority on a daily basis, it’s hardly surprising that people took the opportunity to loot them when they could.
The report makes a variety of suggestions about how to improve this situation. The one that gets the most attention is Corporate Social Responsibility – encouraging the brands to give something back. This is all well and good, but it is actually likely to reinforce the positive images the brands are cultivating and do nothing to lower people’s acquisitive individualism. They also flag up ‘responsible capitalism’, a phrase politicians have been brandishing earlier this year.
A better idea in the report is that the Advertising Standards Authority should help to educate children about marketing techniques. Schools could teach media awareness and personal resilience.
We should do that, but we can do more. We should follow Sweden’s lead and ban all advertising to children under 12. It’s been illegal in Sweden since 1991, and it wouldn’t kill us (or our economic growth, God forbid) to ease the pressure on children to consume. We can reclaim public space from advertising, and restrict new forms of ads, measures I’ve described before.
Ultimately we need a change of culture, and it will be slow. But if we start with children, we can nurture different values – community, character, intrinsic self-worth. Perhaps the next generation will grow up more resistant to consumerism, and less aggressive in their need to have branded stuff.