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Friday, January 19, 2007


Hands off my kid's brain, bozos.

The company that makes Hummer Utility Vehicles wants my toddler to buy their cars. And no. I’m not kidding. My daughter is not even two and a half, and corporations are already focusing on ways to get her attention.

A recent article I read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Ads seek kids' grip on family purses, December 4th 2006) offered up a slap in my consumptive forehead. In fact, the piece scared the dickens out of me. Large Corporations, it seems, are after my two year old daughter’s mind. They want to influence her. They want her loyalty. They want to convince her that their car is the best car, and she can’t even drive, and won’t for nearly 14 years.

Hummerkids.com offers games and coloring pages to teach children about the joys of owning a colossal sport-utility vehicle. Honda is about to launch an advertising campaign on Disney's ABC Kids channel. The Cayman Islands' department of tourism buys ads on Nickelodeon, a children's cable channel, promoting expensive holidays. And Beaches Resorts, a hotel chain, has teamed up with Sesame Street to make its resorts more appealing to children.”

Are these people crazy? Marketing to kids who can’t drive, and won’t for over a decade?

Some might say they aren’t crazy. Instead, they are shrewdly planting seeds of brand loyalty in our children’s brains. Seeds that will hopefully bear fruit decades down the road.

Corporate Advertisers and Marketers are seeping in through Sesame Street like parasites riding on children’s programming host animals to set up shop square in the brains of our children. Marketing to children is everywhere, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

I remember a comment made at the BlogHer Conference in July 2006. Someone stood up and said that Corporations are anti-mother, because mothers stand between them and our children. At the time, the idea seemed a bit over-the-top. But is it really?

How much of this insanity is insidious Corporate Vulcan Mind Control, and how much responsibility do we bear as parents to set a good example and guide them through the messages?

As parents, we have certainly earned the right to have the largest impact our children’s values. For Pete’s sake, I am the one who got up (albeit blearily) with my child in the middle of the night for feedings and diaper changes. I am the one who feeds her, dresses her, reads to her, sings to her, and gets up with her at 2:00 a.m. when she is sick with the croup and frightened by her own barking cough. I put on her hat, coat, and mittens, and buckle her safely into her car-seat. As parents, we do these things because we love our children.

Somehow, I question whether John Doe in Marketing at ACME CORP. has these same feelings of dedication, duty, and love for my child.

If someone in the marketing department for Beaches Resorts wants to contribute to my daughter’s well-being and pitch in to make a healthy meal, or read to my daughter for an hour once a week, I might give them 5 minutes for a quick pitch. But they don’t. So I won’t.

Yet here I am, repeatedly bamboozled into giving “Beaches resorts” their five minutes, because I can’t figure out how to Tivo out their blurb before Sesame Street starts, and my daughter loves Sesame Street so I love to let her watch it, and with it, she gets a dose of Beaches Resorts marketing.

The article implies that parents are partly to blame for the madness:
"The parents have ceded control. Children are making decisions about most household products," said James McNeal, a consultant who has been writing about marketing to children for two decades. He estimated that children under 14 influenced as much as 47 percent of American household spending in 2005, amounting to more than $700 billion. That is made up of $40 billion of children's own spending power, $340 billion in direct influence ("I want a Dell") and $340 billion in indirect influence ("I know little Timmy would prefer us to buy the Lexus").”

Who in the Sam hill let’s their child pick out the family big-screen?

On second thought, kids today are pretty technologically savvy, and might have a good and well-informed recommendation.

Here is where the water begins to muddy a bit, and this is precisely why our kids are a $340 billion dollar industry. They are hungry to learn, and their minds absorb quickly. Because we are old and tired and often confused by technology, we consider their opinions when making decisions. This is exactly why our kids are so valuable to marketers. Scary.

People tend to develop coping mechanisms for this kind of thing. Generation X seems to have developed its own bullshit detector in regards to advertising. Being bombarded with ads for several decades has made us skeptical and suspicious of anyone hawking wares. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The marketing our kids will deal with in their lives will dwarf what we have been exposed to.

On the other hand, a good hard look in the mirror never hurts now, does it? We Gen X ers have turned INCONSPICUOUS consumption into an art form. We might roll our eyes at the guy driving the Hummer, and joke about what he is most likely “compensating” for. But then how many of us covet status symbols like new iMacs, designer handbags, granite counter-tops, hundred and thirty dollar jeans and stainless steel appliances?

We love to think that our level of taste is superior, and the quality of the things we possess is superior to that of the Joneses. We’re not as smart as we think we are, after all. We haven’t escaped the claws of marketing Vulcan mind control. We just forced them come up with subtler, wittier, and more intellectual ad campaigns in order to get us to want their stuff.

But back to my point. How do we shield our kids from this madness?

Like so many things related to child-rearing, there are no simple answers. One could attempt the impossible: remove your child from society altogether. Home school them. Forbid television. Forbid contact with any children outside your carefully constructed Utopia. But there are cracks, even in the best laid plans. What about the billboards you pass on the walk to the park, or the drive to Grandma’s house? What about invitations to Birthday Parties, carefully written out on “Dora the Explorer” themed paper? Do you intercept the invitations and let your child believe they have no friends? All in the name of protecting them from consumerism. That approach just isn’t realistic (or healthy, in my opinion).

Perhaps the key is education. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t mind a special series in elementary school curriculum on advertising, to teach kids how to sort out what’s real and what’s not. A little knowledge never hurt anyone. However if Coca-Cola sponsors the athletic program, that might cut off some funding. See? It’s everywhere.

Or maybe the best course of action is to instill some good old Generation X Skepticism in the minds of our kids. Teach children that advertisers want you to buy their things, and to get you to do that, they will try to make you think that you need (insert product here) to be happier, friendlier, smarter, or more attractive. They need to make you to feel insecure and unfulfilled so that you will give them your money for their product to make yourself feel better. Explain it to them. Think about it yourself the next time you peruse the Baby Einstein DVD’s or eye up that new SUV or handbag.

And I’m not saying I won’t buy the handbag, because I love handbags. In fact, I may buy one tomorrow. However, I know the difference between wanting and needing. I also have a well-defined idea of what I am willing to pay for something that I like, and want to have. I think about my reasons for buying the things I buy. I plan to teach my daughter to do the same with her hard-earned money.

I hope that when my daughter buys her first car, it will be something safe, and something that shows a degree of respect for the environment. Something that doesn’t cast a shadow a mile long and block out the sun. At least I have time on my side. I have almost 14 years to try to talk her out of that Hummer, thank God. In addition, I plan to do what my parents did for me, and make her buy it with her own money. Nothing teaches sound fiscal policy more effectively than a limited budget of minimum wages.

So there it is. My solution will be to make her spend her own babysitting money on the things she wants. Until then, I will tell her that Hummers are for people who have no friends.

I have fourteen years to hammer that into her brain. See? Parents are more powerful than you think. It just take a little planning.


Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Meghan, you make some excellent points in this post! "The joys of owning a COLOSSAL sport-utility vehicle"??? What about the "joys" of spending $75.00 to fill up the gas tank? Will Hummerkids.com (don't even get me STARTED on that name) help my child pay for the gas, insurance and registration costs?

Also, I spent several years in college working for a telemarketing company raising and renewing pledges to public TV and radio. We always emphasized the "no advertising" aspect, except that's not really true, is it? I don't care if Beaches Resorts calls it "sponsoring" Sesame Street, it is still advertising, and it doesn't belong on PBS!

5:41 AM  
Anonymous arse poetica said...

Great post, Meghan! I think about this all the time as it concerns adults, because I detest the coroporate colonization of our minds and what seems like the absolutely mindless way so many folks go about their purchases and salivating over that new gotta have whoziwhatsit. Bigger! Better! Faster! More!

And then of course I think about my godsons, whose parents are in line w/ your thinking, thank goodness, and how hard it is to buy them a present that is not 1) highly gendered crap, and 2) splashed w/ a corporate logo. It's a constant battle, but one of the most important ones, I think.

As for your suggestion that kids take a class in this, right on. And why not start some of this in 3rd grade? Then 6th, then 8th, then 10th, then 12th. Hammer it home.

I had a class in high school (I still can't believe this) in which we did an entire, quite long section on propaganda. I have to credit my amazing teacher for that, but it was invaluable instruction, because you can't talk about propaganda to kids w/o talking about advertising.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous mothergoosemouse said...

Skepticism and education - hells yeah. Turn the BS into a learning experience - an opportunity to ask and answer questions.

We've still got the power, assuming we're not too lazy to exert it. And sadly, I think that's what most advertisers are banking on (and even more sadly, the odds seem to be in their favor).

10:12 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

Aaaargh! Great post, Meghan! I have been thinking about this since I read that article in December - as well as before.

That comment made at BlogHer didn't seem all that over the top to me - especially since I've seen a lot of the children's programming that runs between those ads - parents ARE made out to be idiots in many of the shows. That "parents are idiots" combined with "buy our product" is a hellish one-two punch.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Katy said...

The more I read about media/marketing & kids, the more discouraged I get. For parents who are interested in this topic, I suggest reading "Consuming Kids",by Susan Linn; and/or "Born To Buy", by Juliet Schor. A recent New Yorker article dicussed the marketing that goes into Bratz dolls ( http://tinyurl.com/3dwznn ). And Frontline did a great documentary a few years ago on marketing & teens called The Merchants Of Cool (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/)
The marketing is insidious, and the consumer culture that we have is crazy-making!
For helpful ideas/groups, check out websites for The Center For Media Literacy and The TV Turnoff Network.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Izzy said...

I agree wholeheartedly. But if I make another point related to this...

It's not just advertising that influences children. There are messages, unintentional perhaps, but messages nonetheless, in EVERYTHING your kids watch, see and listen to. They are being shaped and molded by all of it. Just something to think about when we think a particular show or song or whatever is harmless. Look at it more critically and imagine how it might be perceived by someone who doesn't have the life experience and filters that an adult has.

Excellent piece, Meghan. You should seek publication!

7:03 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Really compelling Meagan - as both a mom and an evil ad type, I don't even know where to start.

I suppose that the thing that resonated most strongly with me is your example of Coke sponsoring athletic programs. I'm less concerned about ads that look like ads in ad segments on television, and more concerned with surreptitious marketing tactics that are tougher for less savvy minds to identify. Like sponsorships and product placement. Or Coke machines in the hallways of schools because it's the only way the schools can fund their textbooks.

And I still take issue with that wackadoodle at blogher, as I did then. Trust me, marketers don't hate mothers. They're desperate to connect with them. That is, until a 2 year old has the means and ability to walk into a Hummer dealership by herself.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Lisse said...

One of the funniest sights I have ever seen was a Hummer with a child seat in the back. Excuse me? This is a vehicle originally designed for WAR.

My kids watch TV, but they are also familiar with the words "junk" and "commercial." They know that cereal or just about any other food with cartoons on the box is probably junk. Fast food is a treat for road trips only.

I know it will get harder as kids get older and see more of their peers with the junk.

Sadly, they wouldn't be pushing the junk if people didn't buy it. And I think that's where we have to start pushing back.

9:56 AM  
Blogger kfk said...

Right on, my friend! It is up to us and us alone. I wish more parents resorted to this frame of mind instead of giving in to their children's irrational desires, especially when it is to just keep up with the Jones'. Self control, moderation, even common sense--these things many children will never know and it stems straight from their parents.

We can't possibly shield our children from all the advertising, and frankly I don't think we should. Because if we did, the lesson would be lost. They need to know that they simply can't have something because they just can't have it, period.

11:21 AM  
Blogger bubandpie said...

The funny thing about the quote you included from the article is that it makes it sound like a bad thing for parents to "cede control to the children"! Like, if only we could go back to the good old days when parents only took their own tastes and interests into account! The Hummer is one thing, but choosing a vacation destination based on "indirect influence" (what holiday would the children enjoy/benefit from the most?) - sounds like good parenting to me.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

You're so right about needing to instill good old-fashioned (Gen-X fashioned!) media-bullshit detectors. But how do we do it when they're, um, BABIES? Old enought to recognize and desire the products being advertised; not old enough to recognize advertising for what it is? Sure, there's plenty of time, but sometimes, when Wonderbaby hoots at an Elmo doll that she sees in a store, I get a little creeped out. She wants it because she recognizes it - it's that simple, that pure. It feels like the slope is too slippery. or am I worrying too much?

Great post.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Jackie said...

And on a related subject, here's an article you might like:

"TV's a Drug: Are Your Kids Addicted?"


1:27 PM  
Blogger meanbetweenextremes said...

You have articulated many thoughts that have been in my mind for quite some time. I remember reading something about how many hundreds of commercials kids see every day. It is the brand recognition that companies are after. I can't imagine trying to sensor commericals for a child when I find myself so appaled at some of the commericals that I see.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:11 AM  
Blogger Alisyn said...

This is such a smart and thoughtful post. I love it. With two young girls at home, I have had to become militant about advertising in our home, because my girls do watch T.V. (thank the forces of good for TiVo!), and they are painfully aware of the products in the advertisements that I'm fast-forwarding through. My four year old and I have regular discussions about what commercials are, and how toy makers make the toys look really special in commercials, so kids will ask their parents to buy them - even if they are really lame toys/games/whatever. When we go to Target to buy toilet paper, and are bombarded by media tie-ins like "fruit" snacks, "juice" boxes, and the 4-year-old is whining for them, we talk about how, even though cute characters are on the boxes, the stuff inside is really unhealthy. She gets it, but... it's hard. A constant struggle. But if we want our kids to grow up to be thoughtful, responsible people, these kinds of discussions are necessary, I think. Even if the other shoppers who overhear our conversations about consumerism and thoughtless spending think we're crazy.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous TB said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. It's up to us to decide how much exposure to ad media we are comfortable with for our kids and it's our job to teach them how to respond to advertising by educating them on the nature of the medium and how to be skeptical.

And for god's sake let's not all go out and buy Hummers because our kids say so.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Memphis Evans said...

I have to mention that Vulcans almost never use their telepathic powers to forcibly control someone else's mind. I have to mention that because I am a nerd.

I am also a parent and as such I really liked your article. You may wish to check out Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping at revbilly.com. He has done some fascinating anti-Disney demonstrations.

12:13 PM  

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