Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.
One of the most powerful books I’ve read since starting The Simple Dollar is Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy. The book discusses the tactics and impact of marketing consumer goods to young children, turning them into buyers at a very young age. I found the book so compelling that I eventually wrote a nineteen part series discussing the book in detail.
Recently, I came across Buy, Buy Baby by Susan Gregory Thomas, which seems to focus on a similar topic. How pervasive is marketing to small children? How much of an impact does it have on them as a budding consumer? What kind of long term effect does it have?
Learn Something New Every Day
The book opens by examining the marketing of “learning” toys, such as the products of LeapFrog. Many parents tend to happily buy such products because they believe that they foster children into learning something new every day. However, the evidence that such products actually bring about learning beyond a level that children would get from an ordinary environment is very thin. Many learning toys merely package together things that can be found inexpensively or for free elsewhere, promote them with a heavy dollop of parental guilt and desire for their children to be intelligent, and sell the items at an elevated price.
“There’s a New Mom in Town”
Another tactic that often attracts parents – particularly mothers – to particular products is the promotion of motherhood and other “relatable” mothers as product salespeople. Simply by showing a mother who “has it all” in the product pitch (usually meaning cute children and a happy family with a few relatable minor foibles), the product becomes simultaneously relatable and aspirational, which makes mothers like this powerful salespeople. This is a big reason for the huge connection between “mommy blogs” and marketing promotions. If you read many “mommy blogs,” you’ve probably noticed the huge number of products given away on them. That’s why – “mommy bloggers” make great spokespeople.
“It’s Like Preschool on TV”
The idea that school is a good thing is a deep cultural value in America. Not only does it provide the children with education, it also gives the parents the free time with which to work and create income for the family. Turning that very thing into a product makes great sense for marketers, and the television provides a great medium for this through videos like Baby Einstein and shows like Sesame Street. It gives the parents some time to do household tasks and “educates” the children. The problem with this is that much of the value of preschool comes from interaction with peers and with the teacher, something that’s impossible to do with a video. Even with interactive toys, the “interaction” is scripted and limited. It’s not really preschool on TV, no matter how it’s pitched.
A Vast and Uncontrolled Experiment
Even more disconcerting is the deep connection such programs tend to build with the onscreen characters and children, which is followed by the characters becoming pitchmen for everything from toys to toothbrushes. Children tend to relate with onscreen characters during the learning programs and build a positive relationship with that character, who seems to be heroic and/or loving and/or caring and/or funny. Then, when they interact with that character again, it tends to be in a commercial environment that’s tightly controlled, such as seeing Big Bird toothpaste on the grocery store shelf or Pokemon toys in their fast food restaurant. They want to continue that emotional connection – heroic and/or loving and/or caring and/or funny – but now the emotional connection they desire requires a purchase. Is it any wonder, really, that young children get very upset when their parents say “no” to buying an item depicting their favorite character? Often, it’s not the item they want. They want heroism, love, care, or laughter.
Continuing with that train of thought is the idea that a child’s interaction with a particular character (which represents some set of deep emotional connection) is becoming present in more and more forms. It’s not just the show and a toy. There’s clothing. There are ordinary products with the character on it (toothpaste or snacks, for example). There are games. There are books and magazines. There are live shows. The connection is available in many different facets of the child’s life, enabling that emotional connection to continue and, to some degree, deepen. If Elmo represents the fulfillment of some emotional need that your child has, then that same emotional connection (and need for fulfillment) will pop up again and again and again in more and more situations, usually connected to products. It’s not just true for Elmo, either – there are countlesss characters that show up in a diversity of media and consumer products.
The Princess Lifestyle
Such characters are sometimes even tuned to specific “lifestyles” that often have deep connections to product lines from other companies. In this chapter, Thomas focuses on Disney Princesses (which create an impression of a particular type of glamorous lifestyle) and Barbie (another particular flavor of glamorous lifestyle) and how these lines not only connect themselves to many other products that reinforce that lifestyle (princess shampoo!) but also help set the stage for products that the children will want as teenagers (jewelry, makeup, etc.) and even as adults.
Anything to Get Them to Read
Some people advocate using these types of deep emotional connections that the young foster with these characters as a tool to get them to read and to engage in other learning opportunities. If a book about your child’s favorite character convinces them to read, isn’t that a good thing? The problem is that the children often see such books as mere continuations of their relationship with the character, not as a compelling experience on its own. Thomas digs into this phenomenon and shows that such character-specific books often focus little on the literary or educational content and instead focus on protecting and furthering the brand, with hundred-page documents outlining every little detail about the marketed character and almost no attention paid to the plot or values in the book itself.
Developing Character in Preschool
Corporations have even taken this to the point by supplying large amounts of the type of reading and educational material described earlier in the book for free to preschools that are often starved for materials. The packages often include videos, books, and other materials for the kids that do include some degree of educational value but often strive to reinforce or build the connection to a particular character.
A Defense of “Nothing”
So, what can you do? The author’s general recommendations revolve around minimizing or eliminating emotional connections to characters. Minimize television watching – or eliminate it. Buy toys that are open-ended and not based on specific characters. Avoid products that depict such characters. You can’t do these things absolutely without being a hermit, but each choice you make is a step in the right direction.
Is Buy, Buy Baby Worth Reading?
For me, this book really differentiates itself from Born to Buy is that Buy, Buy Baby focuses on an even younger age group than Born to Buy. They’re both very thorough in their research and frightening in their implications and conclusions of how the emotions of young children are tinkered with for the purpose of altering the buying patterns of both them and their parents.
They’re both tremendous books that cover some similar ground. However, I think I’d recommend Born to Buy to parents of children that are already three or four years old (or older), while I’d probably suggest Buy, Buy Baby to the parents of younger children (or parents-to-be). Honestly, I’d probably give either one of them to thoughtful parents as a baby shower gift depending on which one I was able to easily find. They’re both tremendous books that happen to cover a similar topic area.