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Posts tagged ‘consumerism’

Vicarious Consumption: 20th vs. 21st Century

In “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys” Gary Cross discusses the family indulgence of expensive and luxurious gifts during Christmas. Without a doubt, the idea of Christmas and Christmas spending today follows through with Thorstein Veblen’s thesis on “vicarious consumption.” I would even argue that Cross’s explanation on “vicarious consumption” is more so present within the twenty first century than so in the twentieth.
With the rise of technology and advancement of modern day toys, prices continue to rise for even the simplest of gifts. Most parents who can afford expensive gifts are willing to pay. As a prime example of a simple gift gone expensive I have included two pictures below, one of an early, simple twentieth century teddy bear next to one of the most popular teddy bear’s of today, the Build-A-Bear. The Build-a- Bear workshop is a for sure stop for parents during the Christmas season, with bears that talk, sing, and even dance; they are a for sure hit with the kids. But these fancy styled bears come at a price a lot higher than that of the twentieth century teddy bear. With the ability to build, clothe, insert your voice, and include an entire accessory set, the spending possibilities are endless in this “teddy bear wonderland.” Christmas is a perfect excuse for parents to spend more than a hundred dollars on a teddy bear (including accessories and stuffing). Gary Cross agues in “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys” that “trends favored the practice of purchasing toys rather than making them” (59) but with the invention of build-a-bear, parents are able to both make and buy the toy. The idea of making versus buying is now all wrapped into one and it strengthens Cross’s arguments on “parents pampering children” and spoiling them to the fullest during the Christmas season.

20th Century Teddy Bear stamp


Beach Build a Bear w/accesories

Sexy Simoleans

The first Sims game released in 2010

Growing up, I enjoyed playing video games that made me feel like I was watching a movie. That is, I appreciated games with a specific plot that allowed me to participate. The Sims is an interactive computer and video game that basically allows players to simulate daily activities of people in a suburban household. It was developed by Maxis for Windows in 2000 and cost about $60. The game has since been released on MAC, PlayStation, Xbox and GameCube.

To summarize the game is relatively simple. Players, first, get to design each member of the family. You choose their name, skin color, clothes, face, ect. You then spend time in “build mode” designing every detail of the home from size to wallpaper to windows. Once the structure is complete, the player enters “buy mode” and spends money purchasing furniture for the home. Finally, you can enter “live mode” where you essentially become the Sim. You control everything your character does including going to work, going to the bathroom, eating, and interacting with others. The characters also work on building skills such as reading and creativity as well as making sure their needs are met such as satiety and sleep. As the player, it is also your duty to maintain your finances and take care of children if you choose to have them. Many people would say that this sounds like a game that could teach children life skills but there has been some controversy involved with this game over the years. When the game was first released, it was not well censored.

Sims Trailer

When players develop relationships with each other, it is possible for that connection to progress into a sexual one. In the current version, when this occurs, the act is blurred out so nothing can be seen, However, in the original version, this censorship did not exist. There was also a recent “bug” that caused this suppression to fail. The culprit was likely one of the people who have been asking Google, “How do I take the censor off?” Apparently, there is a “Nude Patch” that players can download to be able to permit their Sims to bear it all (for whatever reason). Needless to say, this is the sort of loss of innocence in the common child is exactly what Stearns describes when he says, “…parents worried deeply, if not always effectively, about their degree of control over the entertainment their children received, and about the appropriateness of the entertainment offered.” (Course Packet p. 6)

“Players can allow public nudity, fondling of partners’ buttocks while kissing (both of the same and opposite sex), characters burning to death, and even polygamy (a male can marry numerous females, but a female can marry only one man). Could this game be teaching sexism?”

Appropriateness aside, The Sims continues to maintain popularity from girls and boys of all ages. The have since released multiple Sims continuation games including House Party, Unleashed, Hot Date, Vacation, and Superstar. The franchise has sold more than 100 million copies and I’m not ashamed to admit I am the face of 3 of those!

Glitter Crayons

When I was about 4 years old, I received a set of glitter crayons from my friend Robbie in a pre-school class gift exchange. This may have changed the course of my life forever. That sounds dramatic, but my parents swear that glitter crayons were my entrance into the world of picture-making. Before, I only did indiscriminate scribble drawings, but after I got glitter crayons, I started making pictures. I had long explanations of what was happening in each drawing, which my mom dutifully inscribed on the back of the drawing. What was it about glitter crayons that attracted me so much? Well, the glitter, obviously. For kids (or at least for me), it heightens crayons from everyday color-making tools to a world of magical sparkling colors.

My first drawing with glitter crayons, December 1994.

With the glitter crayons, which were a novel item in the early nineties, I was inspired to create drawings as often as possible. Because of my newfound interest in art at age four, my mom signed me up for a parent-child art class at a local art museum one summer, and since that class, art has been a passion of mine.

Crayons in general are very important objects of childhood. Crayons are made specifically for children, and after childhood most people rarely use crayons. They are not regarded as a high art medium, although they have been used by a few artists in amazing ways. I think that crayons have impacted most of us more than we know, in how we think about, describe, and differentiate colors. Given to us by our parents as a non-toxic and easily removable medium to keep us busy, crayons are more than just that; they are generally our first experience in using color on our own.

Glitter Crayons, courtesy of

“At Crayola, we are all about kids. Kids inspire us, our work, our products, our offices, and our culture. Our kid-inspired culture defines who we are and how we act, which enables us to be creative and allows us to think like the kids we delight everyday.”

Crayola was founded in 1885 as a company called Binney & Smith. In the first few years of the 20th century, they produced slate pencils and invented a dustless chalk to be used in schools which was extremely successful. In 1903 they came out with the first set of crayons under the name Crayola, an eight pack which sold for 5 cents. The name “crayola” came from “craie”, the French word for “chalk”,  and “ola” from “oleaginous” (oily/greasy).  According to, glitter crayons were first released in 1993 (when I was 2 years old).

The idea of crayons as a childhood item connects directly to the course readings by Peter Stearns and Gary Cross. In the 20th century, when parents were more anxious about the development of the child and methods of parenting, “an array of new consumer products was aimed at children” (Stearns 3). Crayons are wholly an item of this 20th century phenomenon as they emerged on the market at the very beginning of the century and are still very popular today. It is also apparent in the above statement from Crayola’s website that they are completely marketing to kids.  Also, because of a “sense of responsibility for providing fun” (Stearns 5), these new consumer products were widely purchased by parents in the 20th century. Also, “a crucial shift involved consumer items for very young children” and “this new consumer practice both reflected and encouraged further commitments to the use of commercial toys to provide childhood pleasure” (Stearns 7). Crayons are commercially produced items that provide childhood pleasure; most people look back on crayons with some sense of nostalgia. The idea that “home should become an entertainment center of sorts” (Stearns pg8) emerged in this time, and Crayons were a way of keeping children entertained and busy. If one views crayons as a type of toy, one might think of them in terms of Gary Cross’s article in which he states that “playthings through the ages have served common purposes in introducing the young to the tools, experiences, and even emotional lives of their parents. But only in modern times have toys become primarily objects for children, props in a play world separated from adults” (Cross 44).

The “American Girl” Franchise

The original line of historical "American Girl" dolls.

When I was little, one of my favorite book series was the American Girl series. This collection of chapter books followed the lives of several young girls from different time periods and classes in American history – all hinging upon the common denominator of their titular national identity and exploring the story directly through the girls’ viewpoints. These books were created chiefly to advertise to children (more specifically girls) the line of character dolls upon which the American Girl company was originally built, in the same vein of such toy lines as Transformers and My Little Pony. Selling for upwards of a hundred dollars (and initially only available by mail-order) when you factor in toy accessories and doll dress-up, the American Girl dolls were expensive enough to require additional persuasion in the form of books, movies, and even games. After all,  parental resistance in the face of cost to satisfying a child’s preference for a particular character or story tends to wane the more enamored the child becomes with the pageantry of  a full product line.

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The resurgence of layaway and Xmas Consumers

Santa and Kmart save the day for cash-strapped consumers


Recent economic trends in this stalling economy have seen the resurgence of layaway programs throughout the U.S.’s major retailers.  This phenomenon is described here in this ABCNews article:

The underlying theme to all of this is the fact that even in times of economic woe and recession, consumers still have to get their shopping craze in for the holidays.  Retailers like Kmart and Walmart have had to reformat their business trends to match the lack of spending money many consumers are facing.  Veblen’s theory of vicarious consumption still powers consumers to go forth and spend, especially at Christmas time, because it has become embedded in middle-class American culture.  Consumers are defying their interests because of the norm of Christmas time spending.  Layaway, once left to the dustbin of history and outmoded shopping models, is back to accommodate these new trends.  Though the U.S. economy is suffering in many ways, ways it hasn’t for some time, the phenomenon and expectation of the commercialization of Christmas, and the newly refounded layaway programs, keeps consumer spending up.  This flies in the face of many consumers best interests.  Vicarious consumption proves to the consumer, however, that things are still normal and people are still doing well.

America Needs To Be Scrooged

When loving middle and upper-class parents decide to satisfy every material desire of their offspring around the holidays, they are also seizing an opportunity to show off their hard-earned wealth to friends and neighbors. How else would a well-to-do businessman let everyone know how hard he has worked other than showering his kids with the latest and greatest toys money can buy during the time of year when indulgence and consumption are as prevalent as chilly weather?

Gary Cross asserts that the holiday spirit of giving is only a veil that covers the true motives behind excessive consumption during the holidays.  Parents spoil their children on Christmas to display the “personal affluence” that the American dream explicitly offers (59). The desire to display wealth and success is an innate characteristic of people living in affluent communities.  While there might be many reasons behind a rich man buying a flashy car, it can always be assumed that because he doesn’t buy a modest car, he wants to look rich.  But parents can’t constantly allow their children to indulge in an endless supply of toys; that would look sinful.  Parents use the loophole commonly known as Christmas to achieve their desire to display wealth without seeming vicarious, simply because everyone else does it.  The idea that Christmas is a time for “eating, drinking, and loafing” plays into the idea that spoiling children during the holidays is socially acceptable (59).

The argument in which this assertion is being made, however, is not black and white.  While I advocate Cross’ belief that parents spoil their children on Christmas for the sake of an affluent appearance, I am not saying that a wealthy father can’t buy his daughter the finest doll on the market only because he loves her.  But Cross’ argument is a generalization that is meant to pertain to society as a whole. Within the masses of affluent people in this country who give tons of gifts to their children for the sake of appearance lies a pocket of parents who give for love and for love only.  These individuals have been, what a Bill Murray fan might call, Scrooged; individuals who, due to particular experiences and circumstances, give for the sake of giving.  From this one can conclude that an ideal society contains a significant amount of Scrooged parents and a much smaller population of those who give for the sake of appearances.

Sandwiches for Christmas

Christmas spirit has been lost, and in turn replaced with feelings of competition and greed. The joys of Christmas are now dependent upon the types and amount of gifts children receive on Christmas morning. Of course, parents want nothing more than to make their child happy, but in order to achieve such in today’s world, one must be prepared to empty their wallets and hope for Christmas bonuses. Christmas is also a time of year for families to display their wealth, and hope that their gifts can compete with, if not trump, those of their neighbors.

In Gary Cross’s article “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys”, Cross states: “But in the nineteenth century these celebrations of indulgence were increasingly focused on the family, in parents pampering children. The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence” (59). Many children today seem to get whatever they ask for, resulting in a generation of spoiled children, and parents are the ones to blame. Competition drives parents into a shopping frenzy, and it seems that most families believe that overspending on your child is better than being out-shined by your neighbor.

The amount and quality of the gifts given to children today has increased in comparison to previous years, as seen by this 10-year old girl receiving a cell phone for Christmas. This girl is one example of the many kids that are now getting cell phones, ipads, and other gadgets at such young ages. Through this gift exchange, the girl is happy, and her parents are able to maintain their reputation within the community, for they are able to keep their child up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies.

Jimmy Kimmel challenged the previously discussed trend of overindulging your children with gifts on Christmas on his late night show. He asked parents to give their kids a gift they would not want for Christmas, and to record their reaction upon opening the present. As one could guess, the kids’ reactions were a combination of upset and anger. This experiment effectively portrayed the expectations children hold in regards to the types of gifts they receive, and the disbelief they have upon not getting what they want.

The vicious cycle of consumerism and competition dominate our society, and it is made especially apparent during the holiday season. It will be interesting to see the buying patterns of kids today once they reach adulthood and have to then shower their children with gifts.