SANTA GIVES MORE TO RICH KIDS...
Santa Gives More to Rich Kids Than Poor Kids (2005)
Photo: Neil McKie
This was part of my Fine Art, (Environmental Art) degree show at Glasgow School of Art.
Originally I was going to put up a billboard with Maiden Outdoor, advertising directly to both children and adults, telling them some unsettling truths about Santa Claus. (For more on my justification for this project click here.) I had the poster printed, (£130) and ready for posting. Then the day before it was to go up, I got a phone call from Maiden: Due to the press finding out (via the press release I had sent out,) and the fact it was such a "contentious" issue, the board was not going up, end of story.
The newspapers thought the story had legs though. The guy at Maiden I had been organising it with, who had been really nice up until that point, now hated me. On the day the poster was meant to go up the papers ran the story, he rang & grimly told me to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame.
I rang around for a couple of weeks looking for another company with no luck. The last name on my list was Clear Channel. They're the world's largest owner of billboards and hardly likely to step into something that had already generated 'controversy' in the press the first time around.
Bizarrely though they said yes, were really lovely and even offered me a choice of sites. I didn't push my luck by asking them if they were aware of the newspaper coverage. I was just glad to get my degree show back on track.
Reaction online was and still has been staggering. I received emails from all over the world including, my favourite, one from a Native American Chief, supporting my efforts. And a few whimsical death threats and Gas Price Forum members debating whether I should be burnt or decapitated first.
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”
- George Orwell
On Christmas Day, the alleged birthday of Jesus Christ, children around the world awake early to scramble for and salivate over their brand new consumer products, singing songs about Santa Claus and decorating their homes with homages to the new religion. Jesus lurks in the background of the festivities, an uncomfortable reminder of how far the celebrations are from anything he once stood for. Santa Claus provides a much better spokesman for a festival and a society based on rampant greed and materialism.
Christmas Day is perhaps our initial introduction to the modern industrial economy. It is that first gift from the factory that makes the connection between inanimate products and potential human happiness. From then on, we want it more, we want it bigger, better, louder, and more shiny. Relations between family and friends at Christmas become a transaction: Amount of Love = Amount of Money Spent. And after years of free stuff, when we’re dependent on the anticipation and desire, but we find out that Santa isn’t real, it was a lie all along - then the concept of working for the rest of our lives is explained to us.
Although it is an urban myth that Coca-Cola decided Santa was going to be red, their adverts featuring illustrations of St. Nick (created by the same artist who invented Uncle Sam) had a large effect on the way the public perceived and retold the story of Santa to their children. Advertising shaped the myth, and as the image of Santa Claus was used more and more in a commercial function, Santa adapted to meet the needs of producers. The jolly old man became more than a simple carpenter, instead transforming into the largest toy shop in the world. Anything produced by the economy could be delivered direct to your tree at home, overnight, but only if you were ‘good’.
Santa gets consumers when they’re young, and gives them their first taste of what capitalism has to offer them. In later years they might discover brutal truths about the nature of the system, but they’ll always have those childhood memories, the golden Xmas of years gone past, the smell of toys fresh out of the box…
Children are the ultimate consumers, with very little ability to differentiate between advertisements and reality. They have no reason to suspect that the hyped up enthusiasm shown by those promoting a product in an advert is genuine and that they are giving anything other than their honest appraisal.
Despite scientific research showing that children can not tell the difference between regular programming and commercials, there are still no restrictions in the UK or US on adverts that appeal directly to children. Many of these ads rely on the ability of children to ‘nag’ and put pressure on their parents to buy the products featured.
Adults with degrees in advertising, marketing and psychology conspire against 7-year-old children in order to shape their desires, aspirations and purchasing habits. The adverts are designed explicitly to keep and hold the child’s attention and make them remember and recite their message. Children now sing advertising jingles in the playground where they once sang nursery rhymes. Attention Deficit Disorder has become widespread among children in America and increasingly so in Europe, a result of real life simply not being as exciting as the thousands of adverts and other media kids view every year. Children enforce brand hegemony among their schoolmates through social exclusion, mockery and violence. They are utterly susceptible to the technique of lifestyles being associated with products through the power of images.
Those desires the advertisers shape in children from such an early age affect their transfer through puberty. The aspiration for a life like those who ‘live’ in adverts means that as the children grow they will find themselves compared unfavourably with the models and actors leading such perfect, opulent lives in the advertisements. This can be psychologically damaging, affecting the individual’s perception of self-worth. The result is that their value as a human being can only be quantified in terms of the purchases they make on the way to achieving one of the ‘lifestyles’ featured in and endorsed by the media. The fact that the life they aspire to does not exist, only makes it so much more of an expensive target.
Written in 2005.