Tall mall tales

Pre-teens 'addicted to shopping'? Don't buy it.

Scott Campbell

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Topics Politics

Few pleasures remain that cannot be turned into a scare story. In late November 2004 many UK media outlets (including the Daily Mirror, Sun, Independent and Sky News) ran worrying stories about how children as young as 10 were addicted to shopping, and claimed that most 10-year-olds had been ‘primed to become a new generation of “shopaholics”’.

This wasn’t a case of the media misreporting serious research – the news stories that both the Independent and Sky News ran were almost exact reprints of a press release from the National Consumer Council (NCC). So how exactly did the NCC – an independent organisation indirectly funded by the taxpayer – discover these facts?

It carried out a survey, which revealed that ‘almost eight in 10 10- to 12-year-olds [that’s 78 per cent] already say they enjoy shopping’ (1). The Independent changed this to ‘have already developed a passion for conspicuous consumption’, just in case ‘shopping’ didn’t sound shallow enough. And according to the NCC, teenagers are all but completely corrupted: ‘The trend continues throughout their teenage years – especially among young women. An overwhelming 94 per cent of girls aged 10 to 19 admitted their passion for shopping.’

Well, who would have thought it? Most girls enjoy shopping! Personally, I thought girls liked reconstructing old cars and collecting war memorabilia. Good thing we have the NCC to tell us otherwise.

What is going on over at the NCC? It finds that most young girls like shopping, and thinks that this qualifies as a social problem. It thinks this means that the girls must be addicted, in need of a government programme to ween them off the stuff.

This, of course, fits in with the government’s explicit push to extend the nanny state into the family. If families can’t stop their girls from shopping, and enjoying it, then clearly the state will have to step in to educate them. ‘One doll good, three dolls conspicuous consumption.’

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this comment from the NCC’s deputy chief executive, Philip Cullum: ‘By the age of 10, most have already been lured into a world of fashionable labels and must-have gadgets.’ ‘Lured into a world…’? ‘Lured into a world of drugs and violence’ – then we’d have cause for concern. Same for ‘lured into a world of crime and corruption’. But ‘lured into a world of fashionable labels and must-have gadgets’?

The NCC’s survey also reveals that ‘despite their love of shopping, eight out of 10 young people think that we all buy things we don’t really need’. In case you missed it, the NCC helpfully drives the message home: ‘Most young people say that we all buy things unnecessarily – but when it comes to their own trips to the shops, they simply can’t stop themselves.’

Just helpless pawns, aren’t they, slaves to shops selling them those useless, ugly products that they don’t really…. Well, actually, they’re not ugly. And they’re not useless. Matter of fact, most of the things we buy we buy because we want to, because we like them, not because we’re addicted.

Of course most of the things young girls buy they don’t really need. Most of the things all of us buy we don’t really need. I don’t really need to own two guitars. I don’t really need a TV in every room just to watch cricket. My wife doesn’t really need to buy clothes from Karen Millen. And Mr Cullum doesn’t really need to go to that restaurant for dinner tonight, does he?

The fact that many people can buy things they don’t really need, but which give them pleasure, is a good sign. We can all point to the odd nasty, spoiled brat who has more toys than sense, and I’ll happily tut-tut at them along with you. But when taxpayer-funded organisations starts lecturing kids about buying stuff, it’s time to stop the cheques.

The NCC is supposed to be non-political – on its website it says that it is independent of any political interests. But then another part of its website says that, as well as having been set up by the government in 1975, about 81 per cent of its funding comes from the Department of Trade and Industry. It also says that it is a ‘non-departmental public body’ – in other words, it’s one of those pseudo-civil service departments that is not officially on the books as a department, but is a part of the civil service in all but name.

The NCC also attempted to tie its report in with the decidedly political Buy Nothing Day. Its press release informs: ‘UK Buy Nothing Day (27 November 2004) challenges people to switch off from shopping for a day. The idea is to make people stop and think about what and how much they buy affects the environment and developing countries. Buy Nothing Day was started in 1993 by the founders of Adbusters and is now an international event celebrated in over 55 countries.’ (2)

Celebrated? I doubt whether people are dancing in the streets of the third world over a few Westerners’ day of consumerist abstinence. The NCC is 30 years old next year – isn’t it time we let it leave home, to see if it can stand on its own two feet?

Dr Scott Campbell is a lecturer in the philosophy department, and in the Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society (IGBiS), at the University of Nottingham. He has written for publications including The New Criterion, Partisan Review, The Skeptic, Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, and American Philosophical Quarterly. He created and ran the Skeptics in the Pub night in London, and runs his own opinion page, Blithering Bunny.

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Topics Politics