Born to Buy: Dissecting the Child Consumer

This is the ninth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the the first part of the sixth chapter, “Dissecting the Child Consumer,” starting on page 99 and ending on page 108 at the subheading “Inside the Child Brain.”

born to buyI’m reminded of an experience I had interacting with a marketer in college who was apparently doing some test marketing on those college credit card booths. I was walking by such a booth and was basically eyeing it from a distance away before I walked by. A marketing guy ran up to me and asked why I didn’t stop and I gave him several reasons which he wrote down.

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but later when I reflected, I realized I had basically just told him how to make this credit card offer more juicy for college students – and I felt sort of used and rather idiotic.

This experience floated through my mind when I read through much of this section.

Where Good Ideas Come From
Marketers have gotten very good at harnessing children’s creativity. The chapter opens with a great example of this, on page 99:

Picture the following scene: Caitlin, a five-year-old girl, and Mary Prescott, a thirty-something woman with a video camera, are sitting on the floor of Caitlin’s bedroom. Caitlin’s mother is in the kitchen, because Mary has explained that for this project, she needs private time with Caitlin. They’re talking about baths and what Caitlin does when she takes one. The client, a health and beauty aids company with a bubble bath product, wants to explore Caitlin’s feelings about bath time and learn what she actually does while she’s bathing. After some talk, caitlin leads Prescott and her camera into the bathroom, where Mary spies a shelf full of empty shampoo and bubble bath bottles. She learns that Caitlin plays with them during her bath, which leads to the consumer insight that kids turn soap containers into toys. Prescott explains that had she done the research in a focus group facility or even in the kitchen, she wouldn’t have happened upon the empty containers. And they were the key finding of the study.

Many of you were probably wondering why Mary was even in the home in the first place; it’s because Caitlin’s family was paid an unspecified but apparently sizable amount of money for such intrusive research.

Anyway, to the point: this pretty much uncovers where great marketing ideas come from. My son has a soap container in the bathtub that’s in the shape of a car, and it wasn’t very long ago at all that I was reflecting on how intelligent that idea was. My son plays with it in every bath he takes and has a lot of fun having the car drive off the bath ledge and splash into the water.

But, on another level, I recognize that the shape of the bottle is part of why I chose to buy that particular variant of the soap (the same soap, a brand we always use, comes in “normal” bottles, too). I paid a slight premium for the bottle because it was easy to think of my son having fun in the tub with it – and likely we’ll keep the bottle when it’s empty or else refill it with more soap.

Was this a good choice? You could really argue both ways about it, but we’d all probably agree that the real winner is the soap company. Because they came up with a clever idea for a bottle shape – likely as a direct result of Prescott’s study – they likely made a bit more profit on that bottle than a normal one. Even if they just made another $0.10 because of the bottle, if 500,000 parents make the same choice I do over the next year, that’s $50,000 in the corporate coffers for likely just a few days’ worth of research work.

What’s happening here is effectively survival of the fittest. Companies are continually making products that are more attractive to consumers – and they evolve over time. Quite frankly, the items on our grocery shelf today are far more attractive, interesting, and useful than the items of thirty years ago, and that makes the actual decisions that need to be made while shopping that much more difficult. With research like this, it’s not surprising at all that new ideas are being pumped out all the time – they just go straight to the source of the creative ideas. In this case, they mined Caitlin’s creativity – she likes playing with the bottles in the bathtub, and a few years later, it results in a compelling product that my son’s playing with in the bathtub.

Marketing is a very strong force, indeed.

Why Kids Participate in Marketing Studies
A while back, I talked about the marketing for P-O-X, a game designed and marketed to pre-teen boys in which the “alpha boys” were given the product for free in a marketing effort and participated in a whole lot of focus group testing. When I thought about this, I realized that the draw of free stuff encouraged the kids to participate, but I really couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more to it. I know that when I was a kid, I would not have spent days and days in focus group meetings just to get a free toy. So why would kids participate?

Schor has a great answer on page 108:

But Sharon Fogg, Laura Groppe, and others are adamant that kids participate because they are thrilled to have someone who is actually listening to them and acting on their advice. These marketers portray a world in which parents and teachers are not paying attention or empowering kids.

That makes complete sense. Participating in a focus group or even one-on-one with a marketer can feel really empowering on some level, even for an adult – your comments are being used to guide the decisions of a large corporation. In the eyes of a kid? That feels like an amazing amount of power.

Since it’s obvious why marketers would want input from their target audience and it’s pretty clear why the kids would want to participate, this seems like a very natural marketing technique.

The question is would you encourage or allow your child to participate in a marketing panel? I actually would – and I’d use it to have a lot of follow-up conversation with my child. Why? Such a panel is a perfect time for a kid to comprehend how marketing works.

Would you let your child participate in such a forum? Why or why not? Would you let a marketer in your home for research like what was described above with Mary and Caitlin? I think there’s some interesting personal boundary lines here.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the latter half of the sixth chapter, “Dissecting the Child Consumer,” starting on page 109 “Inside the Child Brain” and ending on page 118.

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