Hands off my kid's brain, bozos.
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.