Walking through Dalston in East London, I saw this book sitting in the window of Oxfam charity shop. Eagerly, I took it from the sales assistant as he climbed out of the window display. Scanning through, I asked “Is this some kind of joke?”, the same response I’ve had from other people I’ve shown it to since.
Next to my new declaration “This book belongs to: Grace Eagle”, the welcome letter, from joint authors Judith Wilske and André Erlen.
Shopping, it’s something all grown-ups do. And that isn’t fair. So that’s why you now have your own book about shopping. This book wants to help you take your first steps inside the world of shopping. Because you’re never too young to go shopping! Off we go!
Judith and André from WHY DO YOU SHOP?
The publishers Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, claim “For all shoppers aged three and up”. The baby in the shopping trolley, the one wedged between a pack of Kleenex and a ladies’ handbag fronting this piece, is definitely under three years of age. Luckily, not only is the cover hardback, each page is made from the same reinforced cardboard, with rounded corners, designed to prevent very young children nibbling them or impaling themselves. I sat comfortably, on the over-ground train to South London, prepared for the beginnings of what I no longer believed could be a beautiful story. Not like the one I would have written for a toddler’s first shopping book. That story, about a young boy or girl who only ever wears brightly coloured bamboo cottons and non-branded pumps – whose best friend is an unregistered, very cuddly rodent that never bites humans and also likes to wear shorts – That story, is about friends who shop together because they enjoy being part of the community. They learn to speak and read, arithmetic and other useful life affirming skills, all key for slotting into modern societies around the world. Lessons like, don’t drop litter or steal, and how smiling at the shopkeeper and saying “thank you” helps to make everyone’s day a bit better. Manners, morals and how to care for the environment.
Unfortunately, not this story. Here, you are ‘educated’ about why you should buy stuff. Clothes, food, electrical items, doesn’t matter, the message is, “Buy it!” whatever it is. Unless it’s not a branded item, then don’t buy it, only buy the “real” thing, “BEWARE: FAKE BRANDS!”
To help you learn the brands, there’s a game, “Do You Know Enough Advertising?” Want to play?
“THIS IS HOW MUCH MONEY I HAVE TODAY:___________”.
You can fill that in on page 7. Below, their tips on how to get more money, even though you might not be able to walk or talk yet. Here we go!
The book is an English translation from the original German publication, both published 2002, and perhaps part of a drive to encourage the growth of the economy in Germany at that time. BUT, “If you don’t get more pocket money, you’ll be driven to steal”? This really isn’t my story – something is very wrong here.
By the time I’d reached page 11, hysteria had set in. With advice from “Shopping is important!”(arguably) to “Refuse any home-made gifts!” (WHAT?). I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I did a bit of both. I found myself talking out loud with a raised voice, to anyone else on the train who was listening to my stream of unfinished sentences “What the h…?” “Why on …?” “Who are these idi…?”
Having angered myself sufficiently by reading the whole thing, it occurred to me, even without the book, these are the messages we’re teaching children. Have you watched children’s TV lately? Adverts and brand galore, and this isn’t new. Children colour in the characters on cereal boxes instead of ones from inside their own little heads. As they grow up, their favourite football club or celebrity are sponsored by brands, or have their own, or both. Schools, same! In China there was uproar in 2011 from anti smokers after a tobacco company started sponsoring primary schools, with slogans like “Tabacco helps you become talented”. As an adult and x-smoker, I can laugh at that. But as a child, I wouldn’t and didn’t understand. Children depend on adults to get it right, and we’re not.
Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Child, cites a British study by research firm BMRB, which said one in four children speak brand names as their first words. Don’t think I’d be too chuffed about that but what else are we expecting? When it comes to buying clothing, or any other product, the consumerist bubble we’ve been bouncing about in isn’t even very satisfying, maybe it never was. It all feels so empty. I’m not against quality items, looking good or using products to shape identity, quite the opposite. What I am against is this incessant need for buying. The whirlwind cycle of products and seasons and pre season and mid season and how superficial and disconnected it all feels. And as for this book, I hope there aren’t too many circling around out there. If you find one, I suggest, you burn it!