In this book review essay, Grace Ridnour uses James Roberts’ book Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have to explore the psychology of adolescent consumption habits.
A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid
I’m an individual, yeah, but I’m part of a movement
My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it
They told me to just do it, I listened to what that swoosh said
–Macklemore (a.k.a. Ben Haggarty), “Wing$”
The statement that materialism is prevalent in America’s society for both adults and teenagers is an obvious one, but the causes of this fascination with shiny objects seems to stem from different sources. In James Roberts’ book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have, his reasoning is that the American Dream has evolved and now states that in order to be happy and successful, you must keep accumulating bigger and better things. He speaks of how adults will sometimes go out of their way in order to buy a better car or a larger house because somehow that will make them better than their coworkers. Yes, Roberts’ book is very informative and his expertise with American economics is undeniable, but when he begins to turn into a motivational speaker as the book evolves, my interest is lost. Delving into the psychological part of why we spend so much money on upgrades to already perfectly fine objects and spending more money as we are finally able to receive more money that we should be saving is what I find positively intriguing. I believe that media is the main cause.
I am a teenager who possesses the not so uncommon tendency to buy items on impulse. I do not care about saving money for my family in the later years, spending too much money on a motorcycle when I hit my mid-life crisis, or trying to one up co-workers with my snazzy new car or big house. Adults have to worry about paying off their house, buying a new car, and raising a family. Teenagers buy things to boost their social image, because it makes them feel good, or because advertisements and society tell them to keep consuming. Over the years, media has played a bigger and more important role in people’s lives and in my opinion, teenagers are the most affected.
When I was in elementary school I became obsessed with a book series. When I found out that the series had been turned into a television show, I desperately wanted to buy the videos. Buying three videos, each one priced at fifteen dollars, was the first large purchase I had ever made and handing over my money to my mom left me extremely sad and empty.
I remained this attached to the money I earned all throughout middle school; I almost never spent my own money and by eighth grade I had saved about $100. Then rolling into freshman year, I got a job. My spending habits changed and instead of being even more careful with my money, I began spending my paychecks on more expensive items. Currently, I have spent money on clothes and a trip to Europe with the expectation that I will be spending even more money while there and yet I still haven’t tried to change my spending habits.
It almost seems as though my spending habits become more and more frivolous as I gain more money. Unlike most teenagers, I’ve had a job for almost three years now and yet I become less and less concerned with saving it, even while being completely aware of the problem. That in itself is the core of the problem. In all teenagers’ cases it seems as though spending habits worsen as we become more independent with our money. Why do we need the next iPod, the newest, most glittery nail polish, and the geekiest things we can find to ensure that people know what loyal fans we are to our favorite band or television show? The obvious place to point a finger is directly at the media. No matter what background one might have, if someone asks whether or not media plays a large role in an adolescent’s life, the answer will be yes.
America seems to have driven it in to society’s head that in order to be successful, you must be the best and the best depends on what you own and the cost of what you own. All the infomercials for some of the craziest and most ridiculous things seem to scream the message, “If you don’t own this, your life will continue without meaning!” Recently, I was assigned to write a short essay in my French class about a moment in my life that had greatly impacted me. I had already had a similar assignment in my language arts class but that essay was too long and complicated to translate into French; I wanted something different. As I was talking with my friend, I realized that it seemed as though the only thing I have encountered that has significantly changed my character was discovering the internet. I mean, how sad is that? The fact that the media is so powerful it eclipses every other significant moment I have had in real life.
I feel that consumerism has become a very key component in what makes us not only teenagers, but Americans. In his book, Roberts (2011) defines materialism near the beginning of his book in this way:
I think of materialism as a mind-set, an interest in getting and spending, the worship of things, the overriding importance that someone attaches to worldly possessions. For a consumer who has fully embraced shiny objects, possessions take center stage and are considered to be the primary source of all happiness. (p. 5)
In the chapter “Why Are We So Materialistic?” Roberts addresses three factors as to why adults are so materialistic and yet uses data from a study by Kennon Sheldon and Tim Kasser (2008) that involved college students. The study states that psychological threat leads to an increase in value on extrinsic values. Basically, when we’re stressed, we spend money (Sheldon & Kasser, 2008). This is one of the reasons for the “spending orgy (p. 106)” as Roberts calls it, after 9/11. Another reason for materialism according to Roberts that isn’t as psychological, is that we are literally programmed to be heavy consumers. He claims it is in our DNA to accumulate things, whether it be to impress friends or attract potential partners.
The last factor is media. I feel Roberts does not put enough emphasis on the media influence involved in consumerism. Then again, he only briefly mentions how effective media is at making us spend more from a teenage perspective. His book is geared towards adults so he breezes past media influence and mainly addresses how the television is a main source of advertisement. His brief assessment of media’s influence may be because he has written a piece with Chris Manolis and Jeff Tanner (2008) entitled “Interpersonal Influence and Adolescent Materialism and Compulsive Buying,” but I don’t agree with what is said in that paper either, as they compare impulsive buying with risky behavior by proposing that, “Among adolescents, compulsive buying represents a negative set of behaviors that is related to risky behavior such as alcohol and substance use, early sexual intercourse, etc.” (Manolis, Tanner, & Roberts, 2008).
Excuse me if I don’t completely agree with their introduction statement. As I said earlier, it is common for myself and other teens in high school to impulsively buy things but that’s what makes us normal. I am an average student in high school with the same set of morals as the rest of my peers. I don’t get involved in anything risky and I don’t see an impulsive buy as being a dangerous behavior that could also be associated with drugs and sex in the way stated above. The paper was published in 2008 and at the time, did point out that not much research has been done regarding how important influences in adolescent’s lives are when considering spending habits. I think this is because it is just now becoming more noticeable, such as it was in the 1950s culture. Companies are finally realizing that if they want to make money, they need to target the teens.
When focusing on this issue I believe more emphasis needs to be put on social influences. It isn’t just peers and parents that cause bad spending habits; it’s the creation of the internet, apps, and magazines. The ability to buy an item if you have the app Wanelo is as easy as clicking the buy button. Even on Facebook, when it is a friend’s birthday, a little note appears that says, “Buy a present for John Smith!” I’m not saying that television isn’t a very important source of why we feel the need to buy things, but the internet is slowly taking its spot. I’ve seen teenagers browsing through Pinterest when they were supposed to be working, spending a whole entire class period just scrolling through endless pictures of clothes. I’ve even caught myself trying to waste away the last few minutes of class with a quick browse through Wanelo although I still have yet to actually buy something.
Specifically, I think Disney Channel is an excellent example of the media trying to squeeze as much money out of viewers as possible. As much as I love Disney movies I can’t say that I am particularly fond of the direction Disney Channel has been heading. In the past few years, we have all witnessed Disney collecting studios as a child collects beloved toys. Starting with Pixar, and most recently Lucas Films, and Marvel, Disney is becoming more and more powerful. With The Avengers and everything that comes with it, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor etc., Disney is raking in millions. Besides the appeal to teenagers and adults, Disney hopes to ensnare younger children. Using characters from their current and most popular shows, such as Shake it Up, Disney brings in actors to talk about the new Iron Man 3 movie in order to promote business.
Concerning television, according to the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (recently updated in 2006), any full service television channel that shows children’s television shows is supposed to include a certain amount of educational value for children. The problem is that most channels that are supposed to follow this guideline provide their educational programming at two in the morning or any other obscene time when no one is actually watching, let alone children. So children grow into teenagers having watched their favorite television stars promoting clothes and various other items which encourages them to continue to listen to them once they get their own money. As an article from The American Academy of Pediatrics explains, “Several European countries forbid or severely curtail advertising to children; in the United States, on the other hand, selling to children is simply ‘business as usual.’” (Shifrin, D.L., & et al. 2006)
More and more television shows seem to be specifically designed to be able to create some sort of alternate market. It seems as though every new show on Disney includes someone who can sing. The previously mentioned show, Shake it Up is supposed to be about dancing and yet music videos for completely unrelated songs are released with the news that you can now buy the Shake it Up CD. When True Jackson VP aired on Nickelodeon I was surprised a fashion line wasn’t tacked to the premiere. But of course that fashion line was added once the show gained popularity. Nickelodeon is also responsible for Big Time Rush, and considering it’s a show about a boy band, it’s no surprise they’ve already released a few CDs. Each CD sounds the same but it comes almost as a package deal with the series.
It is so easy to market to teenagers. Even if you don’t watch much television, Twitter and Facebook are always there to inform you about what your friend just bought and Instagram makes recent purchases look even better with a great filter. What I think needs to happen is more restrictions on the ability to purchase items through the internet. I know that as a teen, giving up control seems a little extreme. I think, though, that making it a little more difficult to purchase items would really help teens in the long run. College and the adult life in general are not easy and throwing away money now is definitely not going to help their future.
Kennon M. Sheldon and Tim M. Kasser , “Psychological Threat and Extrinsic Goal Striving,” Motivation and Emotion 32 (2008): 37-45
Roberts, J.A., Manolis, C., & Tanner, J. “Interpersonal Influence and adolescent Materialism and Compulsive Buying,” Social Influence 3, no. 2 (2008): 114-31.
Roberts, James. “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy.” New York: HarperOne, 2011. Print.
Shifrin, D.L., Brown, A. ,Dreyer, B.P., Ginsburg, K.R., Milteer, R.M., Nelson, K.G., & Mulligan, D.A. (2006). Children, Adolescents, and Advertising, 118. Retrieved From: