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How do our kids get so caught up in consumerism?
by Brian Swimme, Ph. D.

In the Merck Family Fund’s Yearning for Balance national survey, 86 percent of people agreed or strongly agreed that "today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming things." This is a touchstone issue for children and the future. The following book excerpt deals with how children today discover what it means to be human.

How are we initiated into the universe? To answer we need to reflect on what our children experience over and over again, at night, in a setting similar to those children in the past who gathered in the caves and listened to the chant of the elders. If we think in terms of pure quantities of time the answer is immediate: the cave has been replaced with the television room and the chant with the advertisement. One could say that the chant has been replaced with the television show, but at the core of each show, driving the action, and determining whether or not the show will survive the season, is the advertisement. That is the essential message that will be there night after night and season after season. Television's Bonanzas, Cheers, and Cosby shows all come and go; the advertisement endures through every change.

What is the effect on our children? Before a child enters first grade science class, and before entering in any real way into our religious ceremonies, a child will have soaked in 30,000 advertisements. The time our teenagers spend absorbing ads is more than their total stay in high school. None of us feels very good about this, but for the most part we just ignore it. It’s background. It’s just there, part of what’s going on. We learned to accept it so long ago we hardly every think about it anymore.

But imagine how different we would feel if we heard about a country that programmed its citizenry in its religious dogmas in such a manner. In fact, it was just such accounts concerning the leaders of the former Soviet Union that outraged us for decades, the thought that they would take young children and subject them to brainwashing in Soviet lies, removing their natural feelings for their parents or for God or for the truth of history, and replacing these with assumptions necessary for their dictatorship to continue its oppressive domination.

Immersed in the religion of consumerism, we are unable to take such comparisons seriously. We tell ourselves soothing cliches, such as the obvious fact that television ads are not put on by any political dictatorship. We tell ourselves that ads are simply the efforts of our corporations to get us interested in their various products. But as with any reality that we rarely pay any serious attention to, there may be a lot more going on there than we are aware of. Just the sheer amount of time we spend in the world of the ad suggests we might well devote a moment to examining that world more carefully.

The advertisers of course are not some bad persons with evil designs. They are just doing their job. On the other hand, we can also say that their primary concern is not explicitly the well-being of our children. Why should it be? Their objective is to create ads that are successful for their company, and this means to get the television viewer interested in their product. But already we can see that this is a less than desirable situation. After all, we parents demand that our children's teachers, to take just one example, should have our children's best interests foremost in mind. Such teachers will shape our children when they are young and vulnerable, so of course we want this shaping to be done only by people who care. So to hand over so much of our children's lives to people who obviously do not have our children's well-being foremost in mind is at the very least questionable.

But at a deeper level, what we need to confront is the power of the advertiser to promulgate a world-view, a mini-cosmology, that is based upon dissatisfaction and craving.

One of the cliches for how to construct an ad captures the point succinctly: "An ad's job is to make them unhappy with what they have."

We rarely think of ads as being shaped by explicit worldviews, and that precisely is why they are so effective. The last thing we want to think about as we're lying on the couch relaxing is the philosophy behind the ad. So as we soak it all up, it sinks down deep in our psyche. And if this takes place in the adult soul, imagine how much more damage is done in the psyches of our children, which have none of our protective cynicisms but which draw in the ad's imagery and message as if they were coming from a trusted parent or teacher.

Advertisers in the corporate world are of course offered lucrative recompense, and, with that financial draw, our corporations attract humans from the highest strata of IQs. And our best artistic talent. And any sports hero or movie star they want to buy. Combining so much brain power and social status with sophisticated electronic graphics and the most penetrating psychological techniques, these teams of highly intelligent adults descend upon all of us, evening upon children not yet in school, with the simple desire to create in us a dissatisfaction for our lives and a craving for yet another consumer product. It's hard to imagine any child having the capacities necessary to survive such a lopsided contest, especially when it's carried out ten thousand times a year, with no cultural condom capable of blocking out the consumerism virus. Could even one child in the whole world endure that onslaught and come out intact? Extremely doubtful. Put it all together and you can see why it's no great mystery that consumerism has become the dominant world faith of every continent of the planet today.

The point I wish to make is not just that our children are such easy prey. It's not just that the rushing river of advertisements determines the sorts of shoes our children desire, the sorts of clothes and toys and games and sugar cereals that they must have. It's not just the unhappiness that in many cases leads to aggressive violence of the worst kinds in order to obtain by force that their parents will not or cannot give them. All of this is of great concern, but the point I wish to focus on here has to do with the question of how we are initiated into a world.

Advertisements are where our children receive their cosmology, their basic grasp of the world's meaning, which amounts to their primary religious faith, though unrecognized as such. I use the word "faith" here to mean cosmology on the personal level. Faith is that which a person holds to be the hard-boiled truth about reality. The advertisement is our culture's primary vehicle for providing our children with their personal cosmologies. As this awful fact sinks into awareness, the first healthy response is one of denial. It is just too horrible to think that we live in a culture that has replaced authentic spiritual development with the advertisement's crass materialism. And yet when one compares the pitiful efforts we employ for moral development with the colossal and frenzied energies we pour into advertising, it is like comparing a high school football game with World War II. Nothing that happens in one hour on the weekend makes the slightest dent in the strategic bombing taking place day and night fifty-two weeks of the year.

Perhaps the more recalcitrant children will require upward of a hundred thousand ads before they cave in and accept consumerism's basic world-view. But eventually we all get the message. It's a simple cosmology, told with great effect and delivered a billion times each day not only to Americans of course but to nearly everyone in the planetary reach of the ad: humans exist to work at jobs, to earn money, to get stuff. The image of the ideal human is also deeply set in our minds by the unending preachments of the ad. The ideal is not Jesus or Socrates. Forget all about Rachel Carson or Confucius or Martin Luther King, Jr., and all their suffering and love and wisdom. In the propaganda of the ad the ideal people, the fully human humans, are relaxed and carefree -- drinking Pepsis around a pool -- unencumbered by powerful ideas concerning the nature of goodness, undisturbed by visions of suffering that could be alleviated if humans were committed to justice. None of that ever appears. In the religion of the ad the task of civilizations is much simpler. The ultimate meaning for human existence is getting all this stuff. That's paradise. And the meaning of the Earth? Premanufactured consumer stuff.

I have mentioned only television here, but of course that is simply one part of the program. To wade into a fuller awareness we need bring to mind our roadside billboards, the backs of cereal boxes, the fifty thousand magazines crammed with glossy pitches, the lunch boxes wrapped with toy advertisements, the trillion radio commercials, the come-ons piped into video programs, the seductions pouring into the telephone receiver when we're put on hold, the corporate logos stitched into our clothes and paraded everywhere and so on and so on. Literally everywhere on Earth, the advertising continues its goal of becoming omnipresent, even entering into space on the surfaces of our capsules. None of what I have said here concerning ads and their effects on children will be news to those educators who for decades have been lamenting this oppressive situation in America. But I bring up the issue for two reasons.

The fact that consumerism has become the dominant world faith is largely invisible to us, so it is helpful to understand clearly that to hand our children over to the consumer culture is to place them in the care of the planet's most sophisticated preachers. If those bizarre cults we read about in the papers used even one-tenth of 1 percent of the dazzling deceit of our advertisers, they would be hounded by the federal justice department and thrown into jail straight-away. But in American and European and Japanese society, and increasingly everywhere else, we are so blinded by the all-encompassing propaganda we never think to confront the advertisers and demand they cease. On the contrary, as if cult members ourselves, we pay them lucrative salaries and hand over our children in the bargain.

The second reason for bringing up the advertisement's hold on us has to do with my fundamental aim in presenting the new cosmology. If we come to an awareness of the way in which the materialism of the advertisement is our culture's primary way for shaping our children, and if we find this unacceptable, we are left with the task of inventing new ways of introducing our children and our teenagers and our young adults and our middle-aged adults and our older adults to the universe. These notes on the new cosmology are grounded in our contemporary understanding of the universe and nourished by our more ancient spiritual convictions concerning its meaning. These notes then are a first step out of the religion of consumerism and into a way of life based upon the conviction that we live within a sacred universe.

Brian Swimme holds a Ph.D. in mathematical cosmology from the University of Oregon and is Director of the Center for the Story of the Universe. He teaches cosmology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. Dr. Swimme is author of The Universe is a Green Dragon and co-author with Thomas Berry of The Universe Story. Dr. Swimme's website is

This edited excerpt is reprinted from The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. Copyright 1996 by Brian Swimme. Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 10545. Used by permission. Available in cloth at $15 (plus shipping) by calling 1-800-258-5838.

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