The price of back-to-school shopping may be higher than parents think.
New research finds that children as young as five are already capable of judging who's "cool" and who's not based on their peers' consumption habits. The study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, sheds light on what you might call popularity economics: social value as the sum of products and brands flaunted.
"Very young children — as young as first grade, possibly younger — pick up on non-verbal cues that they use to read into what a person is like," says study co-author Lan Nguyen Chaplin, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona.
"More expensive products and brands (are) associated with coolness for younger kids and early adolescents. For older adolescents, (it's) products and brands that differentiate them from their peers; they have a stronger sense of who they are, so coolness now means being different from others."
In three studies using more than 250 participants aged five to 16, young people were asked to create collages, or "consumption constellations," using a diverse set of products, brands, foods, personality traits, and demographics/psychographics that described either a "cool kid" or a "quiet kid who doesn't have a lot of friends."
Participants between Grades 1 and 3 formed their constellations based on single experiences. For example, if an idolized older sibling owned a cellphone, cellphones would thus be synonymous with the child's stereotype of cool.
From Grade 3 to Grade 5, kids drew on multiple experiences and interactions to make generalizations about the social roles of others, and demonstrated a high degree of flexibility in those views.
By Grade 7, however, adolescents were showing greater rigidity in their stereotypes.
"It basically becomes an 'either-or' situation, where you either wear brands like Adidas or Abercrombie & Fitch to be cool or you don't sport these brands and will, by default, not be cool," explains Chaplin.
Study co-author Tina Lowrey emphasizes that popularity can't be bought per se. But with few exceptions, she says costlier brands were most widely associated with cool kids, while material things (brands, products) were twice as likely to compose teens' mental images of social roles than any other category (personal characteristics, food choices, demographics/psychographics).
"There has always been the cool pair of jeans or the store you didn't want to be caught dead in," says Lowrey, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
"But that's really mushroomed 100-fold in the last few decades."
Ann Douglas, a mother of four, says her per-child back-to-school budget is strictly for non-brand names. Her brood has to pay the difference themselves if they want to upgrade to labels that win favour with their friends, with Douglas opining that the "right" brands and accessories these days can "cost hundreds of dollars per item."
A Coach backpack, for example, can top $400, Abercrombie jeans will set buyers back $110, and a coveted iPhone 3GS comes in at $199 — before monthly fees.
"We need to teach our kids that it's who people are, not what they wear, that matters," says Douglas, a Peterborough, Ont.-based parenting author. "Otherwise, some kids don't stand a chance on the playground, or the playground of life."
The good news is that by Grade 10, Chaplin and Lowrey found young people's consumption constellations used far more diverse cues to make sense of the social hierarchy.
"They . . . have a clearer idea of how 'cool' can mean many things, and one can be cool in many different ways," says Chaplin. "So their stereotypes are less rigid, which transfers over to how they view people."