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Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children's Leisure:
Moral Panics in Children's Culture at Century's End
Daniel Thomas Cook
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Children's Leisure: Moral Panics in Children's Culture at Century's End', Leisure
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Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children’s Leisure:
Moral Panics in Children’s Culture at Century’s End
DANIEL THOMAS COOK
Department of Leisure Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Champaign, Illinois
This article examines the relatively recent emergence of a new ethos of acquisition
for acquisition’s sake in the practices of collecting and trading cards and plush toys
purportedly manufactured for children. I analyze public debates surrounding three fads
in children’s popular culture in the late 1990s: sports “chase” cards, Beanie Baby plush
toys and Pokemon trading cards. These crazes take the form of moral panics whereby
sacred values are said to be threatened by the trading of these goods because of what
they teach. That is, “appropriate” play and use of these goods constitutes an exercise
in particular modes of seeing and relating to and in the world.
Keywords
children’s consumer culture, children’s leisure, consumption
“No parent in America should compete with popular culture to raise their children.”
—U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman at the Democratic National Convention, 8/16/00
The realm of children’s leisure has grown into a highly contested, morally loaded social
arena in recent decades. Children’s popular amusements no longer unquestionably pass
as innocent pastime as evidenced in, for example, organized opposition to program-length
commercials on Saturday morning television beginning in the late ’60s, the establishment of
children’s product safety boards, and recent debates about the rating of music, Ž lms, video
games, and internet sites for inappropriate content and access. Innocence here connotes
insularity, a separation from things thought potentially polluting and perhaps dangerous
like hidden advertisements, pointed objects, and sexual or violent images and words.
Vulgarity, prurience, and aggressiveness, however, are nothing new to childhood. The
play, lore, and games of childhood (Western childhood, at least) have for centuries been
known to be fraught with Ž ghting, profanity, and sexuality, in addition to some of it being
downright harmful (see e.g., Avedon & Sutton-Smith, 1971; Fine, 1987; Opie & Opie,
1959). Popular amusements are seen as posing a threat to contemporary childhood precisely because they are popular, that is, not only due to their content, but also because
of their source and reach into children’s life-worlds. Media portrayals of sexuality, violence, and profanity arise not from the playground or the peer group, rather they have
their origins in Ž lm and recording studios, in marketing boardrooms, in brainstorming
Received 10 September 2000; accepted 10 December 2000.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the American Sociological Association Special Session,
“CommodiŽ cation and Leisure: Trends Trajectories and Implications,” August, 2000, in Washington, DC. I thank
Chris Rojek for his comments on an earlier draft. I also acknowledg e valuable research assistance given by Yu-Ling
Chen.
Address correspondenc e to Daniel Thomas Cook, University of Illinois. E-mail: [email protected]
81
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sessions among young executives. Parents seem left to the options of policing their children’s viewing, consumption, and computing practices directly and/or cajoling elected
ofŽ cials and government agencies to police the industries which produce the unwanted
materials.
Children and childhood cannot be insulated and protected from the outside because
inside and outside no longer exist in terms recognizable as merely spatial. New forms of
electronic media together with the  ow and forces of capital have converged in the last
quarter century to give rise to a postmodern version of childhood—a childhood inseparable
from media use and media surveillance (see Buckingham, 2000; Hendershot, 1998; Kinder,
1999). The licensed images of sports, Ž lm, and music personalities adorn everything from
cereal boxes to pens to underwear. These, along with action Ž gures, music videos, and
video games invite preconstructed personae and prenarrativized scenes into the circle of
play (Giroux, 1999; Kline, 1993).
In their play, children no doubt creatively interpret these corporate images and products
and make out of them meanings which were not intended by the designers and manufacturers, leading some observers to see the integration of commerce and children’s culture
ultimately as a benign development (Seiter 1993, 1999). Pouring chocolate syrup over a
Barbie doll and feeding it to a dog (Rogers, 1999), or giving alternative interpretations to
plots and characters in television shows may be signs that children are making their own
meanings out of popular culture. These actions, however, do not insulate children from
exposure to and in uence of corporate images and imaginings; children incorporate the
materials present in the image or product into their worlds in the very act of transforming them. Children’s play, however creative it may appear, remains intertwined with the
material manifestations of capital and commerce—that is, the commodities themselves.
Viewed in this way, children’s popular amusements can be seen to arise from, invoke, and
make use of the world rather than serving as respites from everyday preoccupations and
concerns.
In this article, I approach children’s leisure as activities embedded in and informed
by commercial relationships from the outset rather than as something initially pure and
then subsequently polluted by market incursion. SpeciŽ cally, I examine public debates
surrounding three fads in children’s popular culture in the 1990s: the new sports trading
cards (identiŽ ed by the existence of “chase” cards, see below) which made their appearance in 1990; Beanie Baby plush toys manufactured by the Ty Corporation beginning in
1994; and the Pokemon card/videogame/cartoon/Ž lm merchandising multiplex introduced
in the United States by Nintendo Corporation in 1998. These represent, I argue, an emergent ethos in the commercial construction of childhood in that they privilege the realization of economic exchange value as the goal or point of collecting the card, owning the
toy, or playing the game. Unlike the numerous previous fads in the children’s toy market
since the 1980s (such as Cabbage Patch Dolls, Power Rangers, and the Tickle-Me Elmo
doll), public and media discourse surrounding the selling and trading of these items questioned less the moral lessons imparted by the back stories of the toys and games (i.e., the
characters’ biographies and proŽ les found in comic books and cartoons; see Englehardt,
1986) and focused more on the acquisitive activity which they seem to have encouraged in
children.
Relatively large-scale and active secondary markets grew around the collecting and
trading of sports and Pokemon cards and Beanie Baby toys in the ’90s. Reports of thefts,
violent assault, connivery, bamboozlement, gambling addiction and downright greed surrounding these children’s goods peppered the newspapers and airwaves in the latter years
of the decade. Some observers decried the fervent market activity as antithetical to the
values thought immanent in play and leisure, with some protesters going as far as to Ž le
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lawsuits charging that companies encouraged a form of gambling behavior in children.
Others supported, even lauded, the “real world” lessons learned.
The language of “instruction” brought to bear on this phenomenon is itself instructive.
Surely, something is learned when one encounters and engages with the stories, characters,
and activities sold by popular culture industries, regardless of whether these were explicitly
designed to teach. Taking a cue from Henri Giroux (1999, 2000a, 2000b), I understand
popular media cultural forms as essentially “instructional” or “teaching” mechanisms which
offer models for ways of knowing and being. These forms of culture are central to the
promotion of particular kinds of social literacy through which “people deŽ ne themselves
and their relationships to the social world” (Giroux, 2000a, p. 10). Much like fables of old
(Bottinghelmer, 1986), popular characters, images, and stories encode premises about ways
of acting in the world, about what is good or right, about the appropriate consequences for
one’s actions, and so on (see Giroux, 1999; Kline, 1993; Seiter, 1993).
Under the conditions of present-day media capitalism these “lessons” originate outside
the family and outside the community, all the while taking root in children’s play, and games.
The impetus is never only “building character” or “instilling conscience” in children, but
capturing market share. The moral tension between children and markets drives what may
become a new kind of “culture war,” this time between parents and the makers of popular
culture, if Joe Lieberman has his way.
A Note on Perspective and Method
In this article, I examine some of the public discussion of and reaction to these fads as
found in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and popular magazines in the latter half of the
1990s. The media coverage of these overlapping crazes took on the general form of a
“moral panic,” a concept Ž rst elaborated by Stanley Cohen (1972) in his study of the British
Mods and Rockers con ict in 1960s. A moral panic is a uniquely media-based, media age
phenomenon, whereby a threat to purportedly “common” values or interests is deŽ ned and
depicted in an easily recognizable form in the media. There ensues a rapid, even spiraling,
buildup of public concern which draws out responses and solutions from authorities or
opinion makers. The panic then recedes, sometimes resulting in tangible changes, such as
laws, but just as often not (Cohen, 1972, pp. 9– 26; Thompson, 1998, pp. 1 – 22).
The panics are moral, as Thompson (1998, p. 8) points out, because they give the
“suggestion that the threat is to something held sacred by or fundamental to society.”
Youth and children, most often understood as vulnerable and thus susceptible to threat, are
unsurprisingly also most often the focus of such media panics, currently and historically
(see Springhall, 1998). Drotner (1992) suggests that moral panics work to reestablish a
generational status quo which is undermined by the socially transgressive actions of children
and youth (e.g., sexual behavior, violence, hyperconsumption, and ostentation). A golden
age of previous harmonious times tends to be invoked in media reports by participants,
thereby highlighting the deviance or unacceptability of the behavior in question (McRobbie
and Thompson, 1995). In many ways, moral panics and the deviance they highlight have
now become more or less institutionalized as part of the news cycle and as the staple of
many talk shows (see Gamson, 1998).
Examining media discourses surrounding particular events and activities, such as trading sports cards, Beanie Babies, and Pokemon cards, does not imply or suggest that the
behavior under scrutiny is somehow representative of everyday life. Quite the contrary,
something rises to the level of a moral concern precisely because it is seen as posing a threat
that is out-of-the-ordinary and therefore requires special scrutiny. The issue here rests less
on the frequency or some statistical representatives of the behavior in question and more on
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D. Cook
how those actions come to be framed rhetorically as worthy of concern, that is, how certain
behavior becomes a public symbol for threatened values.1
What “lessons” are the trading, collecting, and selling of cards (sports and Pokemon)
and, to a different extent, Beanie Babies seen to impart? What values and posture toward
the world are these activities said to encourage? We will see that a profound ambivalence
toward the core values of capitalism emerges from this inquiry as it is expressed through
discourses about the market activity of children—white, middle-class children in particular.
What is unique about the cases discussed here is that it is money-making itself, the
acquisitive attitude, which is under Ž re. Yet, it is this attitude which is often heralded as the
basis of capitalism, democracy and freedom itself. Rather than interpreting the trading and
acquiring of these items as an exception outside the realm of children’s leisure, I present a
perspective and approach which locates these activities along a continuum of the ongoing
commodiŽ cation of childhood. Before proceeding to address the speciŽ c cases at hand, it
is necessary to present a brief discussion examining the moral and analytical context of the
relationship between children and markets.
Children and the Moral Constitution of Markets
Market exchange, in the neoclassical conception, exists as an essentially neutral mechanism
enabling free individuals to satisfy preexistent needs, constrained only by their resources
and by the “rules” of the market itself. The foundational image, the key metaphor, for
this conception is Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” (1976/1776 ) of the market
which subtly and imperceptibly guides both personal decision-making (based on unfailing
personal self-interest) and the extraindividual process of creating value. The market appears
as something of a deity—all-encompassing, inescapable, and ever present whether or not
one acknowledges its presence. Unlike a god, this dominant paradigm recognizes no value
except exchange value; morality, culture, history, ethnicity, and gender all ultimately become
subsumed in a cost-beneŽ t, supply-demand calculus (see Carrier, 1997; Carruthers & Babb,
2000).
Alternatives to the economistic model of social action take a number of familiar forms in
the works of early sociologists. Marx (1978) based historical materialism on the critique that
self-interested motivation was not universal human nature, but an ideology created in and by
capitalism that effectively legitimized a system of inequalities. Weber (1958) understood that
culture and cultural values, such as religion, guide and give social shape to economic activity.
Simmel (1978/1900 ) identiŽ ed the double-edged aspects of the money economy which, at
once, enhance human values by enabling expressions of individuality and freedom and also
degrade these by its tendency to level all value to comparable, exchangeable dimensions.
More recently, scholars have brought a number of perspectives to bear on the free
market model to question its universality and neutrality. Anthropologists offer several critiques, questioning the extent to which a commodity logic can unilaterally impose itself
on nonmarket-based societies and social forms. Gift exchange (Parry & Bloch, 1989) and
nonmonetary forms of currency such as cattle (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1997) are but two
ways that commodity and noncommodity intermix and can be said to have “biographies”
and a “social life” (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff, 1986) beyond the conŽ nes of rational calculation. For economic sociologists, markets are embedded in social relations, not the other
way around. Market activity takes place in the midst of social ties, both preexistent and
emergent, not despite them; social relations inform every economic decision and action at
every point (see Carruthers & Babb, 2000; Granovetter, 1985). A feminist critique of the
neoclassical approach also criticizes the prevailing model of the economic actor, the “separative self,” for fostering a disconnected, disembedded posture toward social relations. This
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version of self, argues England (1993), reinforces the existing system of gender relations in
the way it favors personal autonomy to the exclusion of community; it is a self that performs
market transactions as if unencumbered by emotional attachment to others, as if home and
family were epiphenomenal.
These exceptions and caveats to homo economicus underscore the point that a market
is, at base, a social formation—rather than a neutral medium of exchange—which interpolates value in quite speciŽ c ways. Children present another opportunity to question market
ideology. When children become involved in market relations, moral considerations come
into play in ways not encountered in other instances. The selling of babies or embryos, for
example, strikes one as more brutal than the buying and selling of adults (Kopytoff, 1986).
Child labor is regarded as similarly brutal, while the same work performed by adults may
be merely alienating or arduous. Other kinds of issues come to the fore when it comes
to children as consumers. Concerns about how and whether children should be targets of
marketing recently made news as a number of psychologists publicly decried the use of psychological research to market to children. Ethical and political concerns abound regarding
advertising to children, especially when it comes to young children’s ability to discern and
understand the persuasive intent of commercials and advertisements (Kunkel & Roberts,
1991). Children’s goods are often subject to safety tests and scrutiny by governmental agencies for reasons of a different magnitude than things designed for adult use (note consumer
product and safety commissions and  ammability standards in children’s sleepwear).
An aura of sanctity tends to accompany most any activity or thing modiŽ ed as children’s. The moralistic conception of childhood has long historical roots in the philosophy of
Rousseau and his conception of childhood as a virtuous, distinct time of life to be shielded
from the evil wrought by the larger, adult world (see James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998, pp. 13 – 15;
Lears, 1981). Traces and transformations of the innocent, protected child abound and will
not be repeated here (but see Corsaro, 1997; Giroux, 2000a; Higonnet, 1998; James, Jenks,
& Prout 1998; Pollock, 1983). More to the point is the way in which childhood serves as a
key repository of moral sentiments, especially regarding the economic sphere.
In this vein, Zelizer (1985) discusses the transformation of the social value of children,
taking place roughly between the 1880s and 1930s in U.S. culture. She argues that middleclass conceptions of children changed from being considered economically useful during a
period of child industrial labor, to being economically useless, but emotionally priceless and
sacred. The redeŽ nition of children’s worth in sentimental terms, as antithetical to monetary
measurement as well as monetary expression (as in, say, child insurance, see Zelizer, pp.
113 – 137), may have justiŽ ed children’s removal from the labor force; it clearly did not
extricate them from economic consideration completely.
Commerce, of course, did not keep its hands off children, and childhood did not outright
resist the advance of the market. Tensions between the sentimental value of children and the
monetary worth of their goods and pursuits have not dissolved completely, but rather have
found resolution in two basic, interconnected ways. One way reafŽ rms the sacredness and
innocence of childhood by making, selling, advertising, or buying things for children that
are framed as being “good,” or “beneŽ cial” for them. Mothers most often stand at the gate of
children’s consumption, charged with monitoring intake and output and armed with various
theories, and beliefs about child development, health, and the value of play (Seiter, 1993).
Consumption that can be crowded under the rubric of being functional or beneŽ cial for
children often survives moral scrutiny. The other way to circumvent the incompatibility of
monetary and sentimental value is to “give kids what they want.” Here, children are framed
more or less as persons who have desire—usually naturalized, preexistent desire—and who
have the social, perhaps Ž nancial, wherewithal and even the right to consume (Cook 2000a,
2000b).
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These frictions and interactions between commodity and person in the commodiŽ cation
of childhood encode a fundamental tension in the commodiŽ cation of leisure—namely,
the con ict between intrinsic and extrinsic value. Leisure purists, like childhood purists,
approach extrinsic or monetary value as an imposition which corrupts or destroys some true
essence of the activity. Mainstream views of both the nature of leisure and the nature of
childhood continue to deŽ ne each in terms of a preexistent, unqualiŽ ed goodness susceptible
to corruption or pollution by outside forces—that is, by forces such as the workings of the
money economy or the exigencies of adulthood or both. The “best” leisure, in this view
(like the “best” kind of childhood), is that which has no goal or value outside of itself; it is,
in the words of Csikzenthmihalyi (1975), autotelic. The homology between childhood and
leisure, in their pure forms, Ž nds its quintessential expression in children’s play—the site
where the battle, the moral battle, over no less than the deŽ nition of childhood itself is now
being waged.
Sport “Chase” Cards
In 1990, The Upper Deck Company of Carlsbad, CA, which produces mainly sports trading
cards, began randomly including “insert cards” in its packs. In no time, these rare, limited
edition cards were bringing in hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars in the
secondary market of card traders and dealers, all for an initial price of anywhere from $.50
to $10 for a pack of 8 to 20. Not long thereafter, the Topps card company followed suit to
claim its stake in this new, lively market of mainly 7- to 15-year-old, white, middle-class
boys.
Insert cards are also known as “chase” cards because they are the prize players chase
after with every purchase. “Chase” also describes an emergent 1990s marketing strategy for
some children’s goods, whereby the deliberate production of scarcity constitutes a central
component of the object’s value, Beanie Baby plush toys and Pokemon cards being the
other major cases. On the face of it, there is nothing mysterious about the chase strategy; it
is simply giving the “natural” dynamics of supply and demand a little extra boost. Limited
editions of anything from pewter Civil War Ž gures, to Barbie dolls, to automobiles, to
legal tender coins, to stamps, to decorative collector plates have all been part of American
commercial culture for decades. So also have been the periodic reports of how oil companies
and oil-producing nations manipulate their production, and thus the supply, and thus the
price. Limited editions offer the hope of increased value for the collector, turning a purchase
into an investment.
Baseball cards are the most widely known and longest standing of this type, followed
by basketball, football, and hockey cards. Appearing in the late 1800s as advertisements
for cigarettes initially, trading cards in the United States have had a wide variety of content,
including war heroes and crime Ž gures (Nelson & Steinberg, 1997). The chase cards of
the 1990s come in a variety of forms, from special rookie year cards of famous players,
to special edition cards with distinctive coloring or styling to, more recently, cards which
come in the form of a hologram or which have a piece of the player’s uniform attached to
them.
It was not until 1996 that a group of adults/parents Ž led suit against some of the
major sports trading card companies under the RICO (Racketeer In uenced and Corrupt
Organizations) statutes. The plaintiffs contend that the insertion of chase cards is tantamount
to running a lottery that entices children to gamble their money for a few, highly valuable
cards. The three elements which, according to law, need to be present in order for an activity
to be considered gambling are: cost to the player, the element of chance, and the promise
of a prize (O’Shaugnessey, 1996). Defenders of card companies point out that they do not
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set the amount of the prize, that a chase card’s value is not Ž xed but is set only by virtue
of what it can bring in a secondary market at any given time, which is variable. Unlike a
lottery or casino, where winnings are set in Ž xed monetary amounts, the prize in this case
is dependent upon a combination of factors, including the popularity of a player, his (or
her) performance, and list prices set by dealers. According to the New York Daily News,
the card manufacturers were obligated to state the odds of obtaining chase cards on packs,
a practice used against the card companies in the suits (O’Shaugnessey, 1996, p. 36).
The plaintiffs charge that chase cards had changed the sports card industry “from
a wholesome pastime to a frenzy for the almighty dollar” (O’Shaugnessey, 1996, p. 36).
“Wholesome,” along with “innocent,” are terms regularly used to described a past threatened
by chase cards and by the practices they promote. Worshipping or admiring the sports Ž gures
pictured on the cards, collecting them for the sake of collecting them, or trading them for
other cards as a form of currency, and not for cash value, apparently do not disrupt the
middle-class version of appropriate childhood fun.
One Montreal grade school teacher noticed students’ interest in the cards in the early
’90s and set up a lunchtime table for trading. He expressed a common ambivalence in 1995.
They learned the value of what they had, the art of bargaining, and mediating, to
give and take and bend a little to get what you want . . . . Children have to learn to
co-operate and to give in order to get.
Before 1990, trading cards were worth a minimal amount. Then the craze hit in
1990 and many became valuable. Card companies advertised heavily and some
produced cards in limited quantities so they sold out quickly. Wayne Gretzky rookie
cards sold for $1,000.
It was like a stock market, a form of speculation. Children were spending $20 or
more at the store for a single card. Some of my students had cards valued at $100.
If the emphasis on collecting is because of a child’s interest, it’s Ž ne, but gambling
is not healthy for a 9- or 10-year-old and the whole card economy was promoting
that at the time. (Whittaker, 1995, p. C1)
Speculation, the calculation of costs and beneŽ ts by virtue of chance or guessing, here
undercuts the “health” of collecting and trading. The focus on a goal, that is, on realizing a
proŽ t, exerts a force external to the activity itself thereby drawing children out of the circle
of play and into a wider, impersonal arena of exchangeable, monetary value.
Reports of frenzied activity by collectors fuel the view that such focused and directed
trading is unhealthful, even addictive. The attorneys who Ž led the lawsuit hired a consultant
who found a poster child, an exemplary case, for their cause—an addicted card gambler.
In the words of Dr. Sheila Blume, medical director of addiction services of a Long Island
(NY) Hospital:
He spent everything he had. All he wanted was to buy the cards : : : He wasn’t
collecting them; he was using it as a lottery. He said it made him feel better : : : the
classic words of a problem gambler : : : To hear something like that from an 8-yearold was scary. (O’Shaugnessey, 1996, p. 36)
This suit, and similar ones against Topps, Upper Deck, and Pinnicle Cards of Texas in
subsequent years have been dismissed, mainly because of the issue of how prize value is
set, but others are still pending (Alvord, 1998, p. B1). By 1999, class action lawsuits had
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D. Cook
been Ž led also against the professional sports leagues, Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL,
and NHL, who own the license to the players’ images and who also proŽ t from trading
cards (McGregor, 1999).
The recourse to legal action has been generally met with skepticism in the press.
Reporters, defendants, and those interviewed have tended to doubt the legitimacy of the
claims of addiction, questioning the motives of unscrupulous barristers who are seen as
attempting to proŽ t from the situation. In the fall of 1999, the HBO cable television program,
Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (Winn, 1999), reported on the sports card addiction and
legal issues. An attorney for one of the plaintiffs referred to chase cards as “cardboard
crack,” claiming the term is how “kids” refer to the cards.
The analogy between chasing rare cards and chasing a high is evident. The deeper
analogy is a moral-political one between the use of a highly addictive form of cocaine, most
often associated with underclass, urban, non-White drug culture and what is essentially a
collecting hobby mainly of White, middle-class, and suburban youth. Perhaps most telling,
the analogy is unfounded. There is scant evidence that sports trading card practitioners
themselves refer to the cards as crack, though of course some claim an addiction. “Cardboard crack” is sometimes used to refer to the role-playing card game, Magic, mostly by
practitioners themselves, and more generically as an addiction to role-playing card games
in general. To the best of my knowledge, no lawsuits have been Ž led against the manufacturers of these other games. The trading of sports cards is not associated with role-playing
games; the act of trading appears to be the central activity with no role playing involved.
The association between underclass drug culture and middle-class card trading that the
attorney insinuated is best understood as an incitement to moral panic on the part of the
potential plaintiffs in the class action suit. It trades on the fears of parents, on a favorable
litigious legal atmosphere, and on class cultural assumptions about childhood innocence,
the vulnerability of youth, and the danger of the proximity of children to material-monetary
desire.
Beanie Babies
Beanie Babies are small plush toys Ž lled with polyvinyl chloride pellets which come in
various animal characters. Invented by manufacturer Ty Warner (Ty, Inc.) of suburban
Chicago, Beanies (as they are known) caught on not due to a massive marketing blitz but
to the interest of mainly adult collectors. First on the market in 1994, each comes with an
ear tag in the shape of a heart which gives the character’s name, date of “birth” and a poem
which describes it. Beanies are distributed solely through small retail outlets like  orists,
greeting card shops, and party supply shops. They cannot be found in department stores or
chain toy stores like Toys R Us. By 1995, Ty Corporation had distributors in the United
Kingdom and Germany.
Beanie Babies began to incur public moral condemnation in 1997 when Ty, Inc., began
to retire some of the toys and produce only limited quantities of new ones. Perhaps originally
produced as a children’s plush toy, selling for $5 or $6 a piece, some Beanie Babies have
sold for in excess of $1200. The secondary market arising from the collecting and selling
of Beanies has included websites and price guides indicating value, eBay website auctions,
sales in  ea markets, and transient tent sales, television shopping networks, as well as
the promotion and sale of “Teenie Beanies”—more diminutive versions of the diminutive
animals—through the McDonald’s restaurant chain in 1997 and 1998.
In addition to planned scarcity, the policing of authenticity enhances their collectible
status. The heart-shaped identiŽ cation tag attached to the ear of each toy functions as an
indication of authenticity (by having a bar code and model number in addition to the “birth
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date” and “biography”). By 1995, the point was made explicitly with the tags stating that
the toy was a “Beanie Baby Original.” The tag also became part of the toy, part of the
indication of its condition to the extent that Ty and other companies manufactured tag
protectors, plastic envelopes which would shield them from damage. The value of a Beanie
falls drastically if the tag is damaged or missing. Leaving the tag on or trying to protect
it makes any kind of play and cuddling unsatisfying at best. In this way, concerns about
collectibility and marketability renders the object nonuseful as a toy but highly exchangeable
for money. It enters a different status of objects as a commodity or potential commodity
and not something with which a child can play.
The signiŽ cance of the tag in the ecology of Beanie Baby collecting and value situates
them squarely in the realm of adult, nonplay pursuits. Their moral and economic status
moreover derives from the monopoly which adults have gained over them in response to the
planned scarcity. In the popular press, especially during the height of the craze in 1997 and
1998, adult greed and instrumental behavior toward the cuddly creatures fed the frenzy. A
number of large sales by independent groups as well as the McDonald’s promotion made
for good press as Beanie seekers congregated in one place all vying for a limited number of
toys. The Plain Dealer of northern Ohio reported on one such event in April 1997 describing
how 800 people “swarmed” the Strongsville (OH) Holiday Inn. Stories of those who waited
all night in line and those who spent $1000 on four of them add to the view of the phenomena
as out of control (O’Donnell, 1997, p. 1B).
Adult excess fueled by exchange value fever is wonderfully illustrated in a Kansas City
Star article describing a woman who purchased 39 McDonald’s Happy Meals (marketed for
children) only to throw out the food and keep the promotional Teenie Beanies. Promotion
rules state that the Beanies can only be sold to children or to adults accompanied by children.
“What began as an enjoyable hobby for children has turned into an often frantic scramble,
with adults hoarding the toys in hopes of turning a quick proŽ t,” the article surmised (Everly,
1997, p. A1). Citing adult backlash, the article offers a local teacher’s view that adults are
“teaching children some poor lessons as they grab Beanie Babies.” She mentioned her
experience with parents who “coerce” their children into buying Beanie Babies for their
monetary value and not the ones they “like” (Everly, 1997).
The Columbus Dispatch was not so diplomatic: “This Beanie Baby business is getting
ugly. From a cheap, cuddly and collectible diversion, the bean-bag toy has developed into
a craze that isn’t bringing out the best in people” (Gebolys, 1997, p. A1). The McDonald’s
promotion drew so much interest that they sold many of the toys separately from their meals
and ran out of the 100 million toys well ahead of the planned Ž ve-week stint. Admitting that
it might be something of an urban legend, the newspaper reported that “Kids in New York
are renting themselves to adults who are frantic to qualify for the McDonald’s giveaways
by having a child in their cars” (1997, p. A1). Children were said to have posted protests on
a Beanie Baby website (www.beaniebaby.com) urging McDonald’s to tell parents to stay
away from the soft critters.
A second McDonald’s promotion of Teenie Beanies in 1998 also sparked strong words
against parents’ actions who, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal,
turn the promotion into a circus, who waste their lunch hours in long lines, who
punch other adults in the head. Maybe they can’t say no. Maybe they’re afraid of
disappointing their kids. Maybe they’re bereft of legitimate ways to entertain their
children.
Whatever the reason, it’s a pretty sad commentary on the relationship between
parents and children in this society. (Franzen, 1998, p. 12)
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The manager of a Denver-area McDonald’s was delighted with the promotion.
“On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we had people lined up out the door
all the way to the parking lot,” said Jackie Strunk, supervisor of the McDonald’s
at Southwest Commons : : : After customers made their initial purchases and ate
their food, they didn’t leave. “There were probably 200 people all standing back
waiting for us to put up the next toy. When we put out Peanut the Elephant, a big
cheer went up and they all went up to the counter to order.”
Some customers didn’t bother with all that food. They ordered 10 Happy Meals
to get the toys and told the server to keep everything but perhaps a burger and a
Coke. (Wolf, 1998, p. 3D)
Over this time, legends grew around the predatory character of adults in search of the
bean bag booty. Reported in the Columbus Dispatch: “Two cartons of Beanie Babies were
stolen from a delivery truck at a Wisconsin shopping center last week. Elsewhere, drivers
for United Parcel Service say they’ve been stalked on their delivery routes by near-frantic
buyers” (Franzen, 1998, p. A1).
As the craze continued into 1998, similar scenes were repeated in stores that had
received new shipments. “Somehow they Ž nd out within Ž ve minutes that you get a shipment and they are here,” says Emma Lukens, Poor Richard’s gift shop ofŽ ce manager in
Doylestown, PA, calling crazed customers “vultures.” “Then the kids come in with their
crumpled dollar bills and Ž sts full of coins, and they can’t Ž nd the ones they want. It’s a
shame” (Mannix, Egan, Atlas, & Tharp, 1998, p. 53). Some parents were reported to have
sought toy appraisers attempting to determine how far their collection of Beanies would go
in paying for their children’s education (Mannix, et al.).
Other vignettes tell a moral story to the public. The Tampa Tribune offered the following
on Aug. 8, 1998.
While shopping at Nordstrom in Walnut Creek, Calif., last Christmas, 11-year-old
Nicole Charles found the Beanie Baby she was looking for: Seaweed, a brown
otter.
She held the $5 toy in her hands for a few moments, thinking of a friend who
would love to have it.
“You’re not going to buy that, are you?” a woman asked.
Before Nicole could answer, the woman snatched it from her hand and accosted a
clerk to ring it up.
In that instant, Nicole saw the seedy underbelly of the culture surrounding these
warm and fuzzy animals. Her mother was furious.
“They’ll kill you for them,” said Nicole’s mother, Kathy Charles. “They practically
attack the salespeople when they bring them out. I’m really discouraged. It’s
become an adult business.” (Smiley, 1998, p. 3)
That this incident occurred nine months earlier than it was reported here may be incidental to
the lesson imparted, but it calls attention to the timing and cadence of moral panics because
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the report coincided with the hoopla surrounding the second McDonald’s promotion. The
reference to an “adult business” gestures to an analogy whereby greed, consumption, and
pornography are equally repulsive when children are at issue. Offering Beanie Babies as
“innocence, love and everything else that’s right with America,” according to the Tribune,
they also
reinforce values we’d rather not teach children, such as greed, envy and even gluttony. In what has become a multimillion-dollar collector’s market, the tremendous
demand for Beanies is not driven by moral or spiritual health, or even ‘cute for
cute’s sake.’ It’s obsession and dollar signs. (Smiley, 1998, p. 3)
Note the discursive contrast at work here. Predatory adults, hiding in the weeds to
pounce on the new shipments (the woman “snatched” the toy and “accosted” the clerk),
are positioned in clear opposition to children whose pure motivations are made evident by
their display of “crumpled dollar bills and Ž sts full of coins.” Adults pollute the spirit of
these fuzzy animals, taking the form of what Cohen (1972) called “folk devils”—corrupting
in uences who arise from within the social order. These adults are bereft. Their behavior
in the particular instances mentioned speaks to a general moral problem threatening the
relationship between parents and children in society.
Adult, monetary greed has few antidotes when it is positioned as being exercised at
the price of children’s fun and well being. The assumption in these morality vignettes is
that both the toy and the child are innocent, or at least benign. Left to themselves, all
would be right with the world—except that there would have been no Beanie Babies and
no McDonald’s were it not for the very same economic system which brings both toy and
commodity to the child in a single object.
Pokemon
If trading cards and Beanie Babies pose threats to sacred childhood either directly or indirectly through adults, the Pokemon craze stands as the clearest crystallization of hyperconsumption and hypermoralizing to date. Pokemon is the creation of Satoshi Tajiri, a son of
a Nissan salesman who grew up in suburban Tokyo in the 1960s (Chua-eoan and Larimer,
1999, pp. 83 – 84). Pokemon (which is both singular and plural) are “pocket monsters,” animated hybrid characters which occupy the world of Nintendo’s Game Boy (a hand-held
computer game). The object of Pokemon, with more than 50 different monsters, each transforming or “morphing” into two other characters, is for the player to “catch” (or collect)
them all. The player, known as a trainer, guides the Pokemon, who do battle with each other.
Instead of dying in battle, they faint only to revive, and Ž ght again.
Arriving in the United States in 1998 as a television show and videogame, Pokemon
has become a market now supported by plush toys and items with licensed images on
backpacks, pencils, wrist watches, and cameras. Two feature-length Ž lms opened less than
a year apart in November 1999 and June 2000. The trading cards have garnered most of the
public attention and controversy because they incorporate the chase card strategy, making
some monetarily valuable to collectors or players who are mainly boys ranging in age from
3 or 4 years old until about 12.
Combining the chase card gambling components of sports card collecting with the
iconography of miniaturized monsters, Pokemon has garnered some of the most intense
criticism as well as some ardent defenses. There are some reasons for this increased attention.
Pokemon appeals to young, early grade school and even preschool children, making their
proximity to exchange value and to the pursuit of money that much more of a moral
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violation. In addition to the large number of characters to know and memorize, the complex
rules of Pokemon require intense study and assiduous application to grasp, effectively
excluding most parents and teachers from even vicarious participation or understanding.
These, combined with diminutive but quasi-occult-looking characters and a number of
incidents of crime and trickery associated with the game, produced moral panic.
The trading and collecting of Pokemon cards in many ways mirrors that of sports trading
cards. For many children, the point of the cards is to chase after the rare, monetarily valuable
ones. The age-range of Pokemon enthusiasts complicates matters because of the variable
comprehension of ideas of value and the structure of a trade for members of different
age groups. As the popularity of Pokemon began to heighten in anticipation of both the
Christmas shopping season and the scheduled release of a feature-length animated Ž lm in
November 1999, so too did associated incidents.
Many children who returned to school in autumn 1999 did so with pocket monsters
in their pockets and backpacks. A number of crimes and incidents sprung up around the
selling and trading of Pokemon, bringing to the fore the tensions evident when children
and the raw pursuit of proŽ t commingle. Older or more knowledgeable kids cheated other,
unknowing kids out of valuable cards.
One such incident, reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune occurred in Georgia where
a 6-year-old named Zack Gibson “learned the hard way how unreasonable adults can be”
(Hagerty, 1999, p. 1E). After having been teased by other children at summer camp for
trading away a $30 card for a “worthless” one, Zack came to tears. His father saw the
incident as a life lesson, telling him a “trade is a trade.” Zack learned this “lesson” so well
that days later he pulled the same stunt on another fellow camper. The second boy’s mother
was so upset with the trade that she contacted the camp directors with her complaint. At
Ž rst resistant, Zack’s family made him rescind the trade having to explain that this time a
trade was not a trade (Hagerty, 1999).
Children outtrading or hoodwinking other children is common enough to be part of
the Pokemon narrative. One father, writing for The Baltimore Sun, poked fun at his own
family’s minidrama unfolding over Pokemon.
At home, when I ask where the 8-year-old is, the most chilling reply I can get is:
“Oh, he’s downstairs with his friends. They’re playing with their Pokemon cards.”
To me, this is like hearing: “Oh, he’s downstairs with his friends. They’re playing
with some nail-bombs.”
Because right away I know one thing: Somebody’s going to end up crying.
See, what they’re really doing down there is trading their Pokemon cards. And
these trades have a way of going sour in a hurry. (Cowherd, 1999, p. 1E)
Debating about how to handle bad trades between his 8-year-old and his 4-year-old, the
father describes a common dilemma:
It’s a classic no-win situation.
If you step in and negate the trade, the 8-year-old will go nuts and you’ll probably
have to tie him down with tent pegs. If you don’t negate the trade, the 4-year-old
will never trust anyone again for the rest of her life.
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Twenty years from now, she’ll end up dialing some mental health hot line at 3 in
the morning and sobbing: “I’ve never been right since my big brother scammed
me in Pokemon cards : : : .” (Cowherd)
The dilemma here centers on the kind of lesson that trading can be made to impart by an
involved, concerned parent—how exchange value takes on a pedagogical function. The author’s humorous tone is common among many similar commentators not only of Pokemon,
but also of Beanie Babies and sports cards, as many Ž nd it difŽ cult to take cuddly creatures
and cartoon characters seriously, yet seem impelled to do so.2
Trading between these siblings becomes a problem because it involves something
external to or above the family circle, the play circle in one family’s basement. Cards were
more or less valuable because of the workings of larger dynamics informing the exchange
value of the cards, not because of the personal preferences of the children involved. The
4-year-old could get “ripped off,” and could understand her situation in those terms, precisely
because a strong, perhaps hegemonic deŽ nition of value existed beyond her ability to control
it. A community of other traders could, as in the case of Zack Gibson above, impose
interpretations of the meaning of the deal. It is a community organized around market
considerations. Technologies such as eBay on-line auctions, card swap centers, dealers, and
the like all Ž gure into the understanding and calculation of value, and thus into the creation
and negotiation of the meaning of the cards, of the deal, and of the nature of the relationship
between the players. The market is present in the basement; it is part of the activity, not
separate from it.
The larger, community acceptance of the value of these cards (which includes that of
the licensed, adult dealers also) provides the basis for the numerous thefts and frauds related
to Pokemon. In California, a 14-year-old boy ran over a schoolmate with his bike and stole
150 of his Pokemon cards (Metro Boy, 2000, p. B4). Also in California, two eighth-graders
were arrested in connection with the theft of over 170 cards from school lockers (Corwin,
1999). In Philadelphia, four middle school students were arrested for attacking others to
get their Pokemon cards (Moran, 1999, p. B1). In Toronto, four to Ž ve teens allegedly beat
a 14-year-old boy with a hockey stick and wrestled him to the ground after he refused to
give up his Pokemon trading cards (Pokemon Mugging, 1999, p. A14). In Laval, Quebec
in October 1999, another 14-year-old was stabbed by a boy attempting to recover Pokemon
cards taken from his 10-year-old brother (Pokemon Mugging, 1999, p. A14). Police seized
over 1,000 counterfeit cards from a Denver store, in what is said to have been a part of a
world-wide, multimillion dollar business in fake Pokemon products (Seibert, 1999, p. A-01).
Collectibility and exchangeability preŽ gure the object and activity itself. Monetary calculation and goal orientation make containing Pokemon solely within the frame of play and
leisure, that is, as an activity for its own sake, a difŽ cult proposition. Illegalities surrounding
Pokemon only intensify the connection with monetary value. One commentator, echoing
the concerned father above, understood the point of the card games as one of hoarding
and that, inevitably, there are losers (Solomon, 1999, p. 19). School yards have been called
“trading pits” (Solomon), and some decry the speculation involved in trading the cards, selfconsciously referring to the other monetary frenzy, Wall Street (see Healy, 1999, p. 27).
In this context of monetary pursuit, kid-on-kid bamboozlement, and outright violence
and theft, the press asked if Pokemon was “evil” (Deacon & McClelland, 1999, p. 74;
Jones, 1999, p. 72), and answered itself with a resounding “no,” so long as parents exercise
controls. In the shadow of the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, and given
the hint of the occult in the iconography of the monsters—some referring to the craze as
“monster madness” (Takahashi, 1999, p. 10)—and Time asking “Should Children Play with
Monsters?” (McLaughlin, 1999, p. 84), the call for parents to be vigilant in the monitoring
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of their child’s play was more than typical parental browbeating by the media. A minister
literalized the “evil” in Pokemon by holding a church service for 85 children where he took
a blowtorch to the cards (Emery, 1999, p. A-01). It comes as no surprise that lawsuits were
Ž led against Nintendo of America, Wizards of the Coast, and 4Kids Entertainment in 1999
claiming that Pokemon, like sports cards, constitute a gambling lottery (Yang, 1999, p. 44).
Many have defended Pokemon and the children caught up in it by either blaming
parents or offering ways to see and use the card game as an instructional moment. One
self- agellating mother used her self-blame for her child’s involvement in the craze to criticize the attorneys who Ž led suit against Nintendo for promoting another kind of gambling,
litigious gambling (Estrich, 1999). Most however used “instruction” as a morally defensible pretext for consumption and the inculcation of consumer values. Many praised the
cooperative aspects of the game, in opposition to the “isolation” of computer games. Some
card shop owners, such as David Esser in Southern California, set up tables and made times
for Pokemon trades, often with parents present, with the idea of “teaching” children “sociability” as they trade and play. Monitored trading even offered a feeling of “community”
(Manzano, 1999).
One writer, whose authority is enhanced by his doctorate in experimental psychology,
listed math skills (computing game points), language and reading skills (memorization of
the characters), and economics and negotiation skills (the trading aspect) as the positive
results (Jankovic, 1999). On the latter he states:
Children must master the skills necessary to negotiate their card trades. Economics
and game theory also come into play as the kids discuss how to assign trading values
to each card. Is the prized Venusaur card worth one, two or three of the others?
There are even informal rules about fairness. (p. 9)
These are life lessons in predatory capitalism better learned earlier than later. Al Neuharth,
USA Today founder and no stranger to economic competition, understands and accepts
the competitive nature of Pokemon and of life in general. In an editorial in his national
newspaper, he boasts of his daughter’s ability to “outwit” boys in trading Pokemon, hoping
that the lesson extends to “real life” (Neuharth, 1999, p. 19A). Reminiscent of Adam Smith,
Neuharth explains his daughter’s new-found generosity by virtue of her self-interested
behavior: “Because she usually feels like a happy winner, she also has become more sharing.
Even used her own allowance money to buy Pokemon cards for her little sister Karina, 3.
A real sibling rarity!”(Neuharth, 1999).
Discussion
Chase cards and Beanie Babies represent a new moment in the commodiŽ cation of children’s
leisure. A series of moral panics overlapped and had something of a cumulative effect as the
world of childhood in the late 1990s was seen to be thoroughly engulfed in a kind of fever.
Consistent with other panics, these have subsided nearly as quickly as they arose—adding
to the general feeling that the whole experience is out of any one person’s or group’s control.
Exchange value, standing at the center of these activities, serves not merely as a means
to engage in collecting and trading for their own sake, but rather as their goal. Lawsuits
and public outcry condemned offending companies or greedy adults, cordoning off children
themselves either as victims of, or unfortunate witnesses to, the by-products of the proŽ t
motive. Parents and educators worried that the lessons learned would be those of self interest,
chicanery, and the elevation of the monetary over the personal or social. The only defense
offered was in the context of the younger, Pokemon-playing children who were said to learn
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various “skills” from their involvement—thereby reframing the pastime as “play” rather
than as the “serious” concern voiced by critics.
Neither of these “lessons,” of course, has been used as a way to critique capitalism or
the free market ethos. Indeed, the pattern is to demonize one or more of the participants—
adults and companies, mainly—and not the structures and arrangements which make Ž erce
competition appear natural and indeed beneŽ cial once one reaches adulthood. A larger,
deeper ambivalence hovers over the debates of these seemingly innocuous activities and
cutesy toys.
Sheltering children from participating in or observing harsh, economic competition,
and decision-making based on raw, monetary calculation is, at the same time, sheltering
children from the kinds of behavior encouraged by market ideology. Yet market ideology
and market behavior, particularly in the form of stock market speculation, are given credit for
unprecedented prosperity. Corporate takeovers and leveraged buyouts are part of the regular
media landscape for North Americans. Dramatized in Ž lms like Wall Street, and on television
shows such as The Street, these narratives are part of market lore. On top of these, legal
gambling has become mainstream and illegal gambling has become increasingly visible
and accessible on the internet. Las Vegas positions itself as offering “family entertainment”
(Gottdiener, Collins, & Dickens, 1999) and slot machines are sold as children’s toys. Yet,
lawsuits and public approbation has accompanied virtually the same behavior/attitude when
expressed in the cases discussed above.
The ambivalence is about capitalism itself—what it has wrought, what it teaches, the
posture toward self and other it favors. The middle class, mostly White suburban kids,
whose parents made such a stink about chase cards and Beanie Baby excess, are on a
cultural trajectory to enter the very same world of speculation and risk upon which their
lifestyles have been built. It is quite likely, given their social station, that many such parents
own and trade public stocks. It hard to hide and shelter one’s children from the realization
that when exchange value is made the exclusive goal of an endeavor, it brings with it an
array of behavior like cheating, theft, bamboozlement, and other forms of subterfuge and
deception (see Eaton, 1997). When these are found not on Wall Street but on Main Street,
not in boardroom s but in basements and on school yards, it is nearly impossible to sustain the
belief that they are aberrations and exceptions. Chase cards and planned scarcity encourage
a form of training, a way of being, that is incompatible with notions of sacred, innocent
children (notions which may be on the wane), but is highly compatible with aggressive,
competitive capitalism. What may be most difŽ cult to look at directly—what is at the core
of the moral concern in these amusements—is that exchange value may be emergent as the
quintessential teacher, the ultimate pedagogue.
Notes
1. Using mainly on-line sources, I examined approximately 350 printed press stories relating
to these three topics, beginning in 1995. Coverage tended to cluster around events such as lawsuits,
criminal activities, and so on, resulting in noticeable levels of repetition of stories in various parts of
the United States and Canada. I left out British coverage in this analysis.
2. Parenting magazine took it seriously enough to publish a guide for parents to help identify
cards and determine their value not for their own use, like similar Beanie Baby guides, but to help
them arbitrate their children’s trades (Eberhart, 1999, p. 253).
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