Updated on 04.20.08

Born to Buy: Dissecting the Child Consumer

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Andy says:

    I think participating in these focus groups are much less harmful than the real marketing.

    Another thing to think about is that these marketers will find people for their studies and will market their products effectively, whether you are part of the study or not. Because I think the studies aren’t really harmful, making a few dollars before they put out that next product you have to have is not so bad.

  2. I don’t think I would feel comfortable with that. There are other ways to empower kids and give them the feeling that they are being listened to and respected.

  3. palm says:

    No, I wouldn’t. I would have a tough time explaining to my kid how it was empowering for him for me to make money by exposing him to people who want to sell him things he doesn’t need and that probably will make him worse off (financially or otherwise). No matter how it might feel to him at the time, he’d have to be pretty stupid not to feel like I was selling him, even if I gave him the money/put it in his college savings account/whatever.

  4. SAB says:

    I actually participated in one of those focus groups when I was 9-11 (I don’t remember exactly). It was for the cereal French Toast Crunch. My mom asked if I wanted to, I did, and I kept the money. It was fun, and I made a little cash. It did make me think about how marketing is done and how products end up on the shelf, every time I saw that cereal at the store.

    Funny, I’m not sure if I would let my own daughter do the same thing, even though it was harmless. I wouldn’t have her do it for the sake of feeling empowered/respected, Vered, just to make some money and learn how the world works.

  5. I wouldn’t let my child participate. I do not think that more or better marketing to kids is a good thing.

  6. Saving Freak says:

    By having earned income at that young of an age you could allow your child to start their Roth IRA. Think of the benefit that would be to them in retirement. I think allowing children to work a little teaches them the value of money.

  7. Sandy says:

    No, I don’t think I would. It’s kind of sad that most kids would need market research to feel empowered and listened. Just goes to show how much is lacking in the home and at school. There are other ways to teach kids the value of money – hard work, anyone? It’s easy to give someone your opinion. This is such a good example of instant gratification that’s expected with the youngest generation now – these market researchers are indulging them.

  8. NP says:

    I probably would let my kids participate in market research. It would be an educational experience and a chance for the kids to earn money. Participating in market research is work after all. I don’t agree that market research pros necessarily give kids the feeling that they are the only ones listening to the child.

    Although I agree with most things in this book, it still paints a dark picture of the marketing world. It’s good to have one’s conciousness raised, but no need to get paranoid about it.

  9. George says:

    I probably would not agree but then it probably depends on how intrusive the marketing panel was and how much they were offering. If they asked which toys my kids preferred, then why not. But most of these marketing panels are probably more intrusive because they may have hidden cameras to see how kids interact and to see which toys or products they prefer. Overall, I would lean toward not participating.

  10. ashia says:

    I think it may lead down a slippery slope- telling strangers your feelings about things, maybe taking those pop-up polls on the internet, guiding a stranger into my bathroom to talk about what exactly happens at bathtime…without my supervision. that is scary to me.

  11. My 17-year-old daughter has participated in KidzEyes for the past few years. Kids take age-targeted surveys to earn points, and can cash the points in for money.

    We were deconstructing advertising and other messages long before she started doing the surveys, but we’ve talked about what the researchers are looking for and what they might do with the information all along. Because she’s been homeschooled for the past 8 years, we have more time to spend on this kind of thing than most families, and have integrated it into her education about communication, business, and the like.

    I liked the fact that one of her favorite magazines, Teen Voices, deconstructs an ad in every issue. I think New Moon did that a few times, but it’s been years since she was in the right age range for that publication (both are non-commercial and produced by girls).

  12. Tim says:

    I definitely would. No matter how you look at it, our kids are bombarded by advertising for products from every direction. Maybe you don’t let your kids watch much or any TV. Other parents do, and their kids buy/receive products that are advertised, and wear/take them to school, where your children see them, and thus your children are still being advertised to, just second hand.
    They will still end up coming home and asking for a $100+ pair of the latest cool Nike sneakers, or for an iPod, or a Sony PSP. At the very least, allowing my child to participate in a focus group, either one-on-one or in a group, means that these products will be better suited to how he will actually use them, meaning that if he’s going to want or recieve one anyways, at least it won’t be a complete waste of money.
    And I totally, 100%, agree with @SavingFreak. Allowing my child to start earning income at a young age, and allowing him to start contributing to a Roth IRA now (he’s 2) would definitely leave him well sorted in retirement.

  13. New York Travel Beat says:

    I’ve participated in focus groups myself, but it was solely for the extra income. I don’t think I’d want to expose a child to it, at least not in the home. I think if it’s done in a controlled setting, it might even help a child realize what marketing and advertising is really about and give them some exposure to media literacy.

    I agree with Tim and SavingFreak too. My husband and I are planning to start a family soon. We’d like to invest in mutual funds, an IRA type account for his/her college. If there’s anything at all left when they graduate college, we’d like to roll that into a retirement for them. Perhaps even continue contributing a very small amount once they’re an adult. If they don’t want to go to college and want to start a business, then we’d like to be able to help with what we’ve set aside.

  14. DivaJean says:

    I would definately let my child(ren) participate in the less intrusive surveys and programs- but definately NOT the bathtime one. That was scary to me as an adult! Why would anyone let a stranger into this most intimate setting- seeing a naked child? Wrong on so many levels!

    I feel the participation in the marketing lends itself more to discussion of tricks marketers play on kids on how they *need* things- moreso than just theoretical discussion dissecting ads. A kid fresh from someone trying to niche them into some type of marketing can have an appreciation of how desparate companies really are for their dollars- and be a more empowered consumer.

  15. Mia says:

    There’s a marketing research company in our area where people of all ages can get free stuff and make a little money (anywhere from $10 to $50) for participating in marketing studies. The ones for children mainly have to do with toys and junk food (like fruit roll-ups and other snacks). My kids have participated in a few toy studies.

    I do talk about marketing with my girls – mainly the commercials we see – and how companies can make their toys seem so fun on TV, only to find when you get them home they’re not as exciting as they seemed to be on the commercial. They’ve even found this to be true in their short 10 and 7 years.

    I must admit, I did feel a little unomfortable during the last toy study we did when they had my then 6 y/o girl watch several commercials, asking her questions about each one. She did get a great toy and $20 for about 45 minutes of our time.

    Again, we talk about these things, especially when we see a new commercial or one of their friends gets something. We don’t generally watch a lot of television – mostly PBS after school. They don’t act all bratty and beg and scream for toys when we go to the store. Hopefully, we are raising them to not be so…”consumeristic” (I don’t know if that’s a real word).

    I draw the line at coming into my home, though. I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting some stranger in, especially to spend time alone with my child. Although, when you think about it, when our kids watch commercial-driven television or even get on the computer (think Webkinz, Build-A-Bear) you are letting them into your home, in a sense.

  16. Michelle says:

    I would let my child participate. I dont see anything wrong with it, this is a good learning experience and a unique opportunity for them. I dont have any problems with marketers doing research in order to make products that better fit our needs. we are not obligated to buy anything, but I would much rather have more options of what to buy, with some of them being exactly how I would want them.

    Trent bought the car-shaped shampoo because it doubled as a shampoo and a toy for his child. Obviously this is one family that actually benefitted from the marketing research that was conducted, yes the company benefits too, but so do the people that end up liking the product. Why cant it be a win-win situation?

  17. Mary says:

    I think you nailed it in your conclusion, Trent. It’s the parent’s responsibility to inform/educate kids and to protect them from these marketers. Kid’s are told that they need these toys, bath products, clothes, etc. There is too much of a focus on consumerism and keeping up with peers. My parents would let me earn money from doing extra chores, and I could use that money to buy anything I wanted. There was no instant gratification. It really taught me something. But I think that the researchers target ‘poor’ families and ‘alpha’ kids who are supposedly the coolest, most influential kids. In reality, these kids, like bullies, have lower self esteems and stand behind their “cool” image to make them feel important. The researchers just feed their ego’s.

  18. rebecca says:

    My son did a survey on video games a few years ago. It was funny, because he doesn’t really play many video games. (mostly educational things and those not very often) He earned 10 bucks for telling them whether he recognized various game system logos and answers such questions as whether that game system “was for kids like me” “for older kids” etc.
    I was with him the whole time. I don’t think I would let a young child do a survey or focus group without a parent present.

  19. Alison says:

    Interesting question. I could see myself allowing my child to participate in a marketing panel or forum, but, as Trent said, I would use the opportunity to talk to my child about how marketing works. My son recognized his first corporate symbol at age 2, and now, at age 5, he is constantly asking for new toys and video games. We are at the point where I have taken away the video games for an unspecified amount of time because of his ‘obsession’ with them.

    On another note, I found the idea of turning the soap bottle into a recognizable toy interesting from a developmental perspective. I am an undergrad, and just recently wrote a paper on the connection between executive functions and ADHD. Executive functioning is the ‘management system’ of our minds. It coordinates different cognitive functions and is responsible for things like self-regulation and impulse control. One of my key points was that children’s play has changed dramatically in the last 50+ years in that children depend much more on realistic props in imaginative play. One of the innovations I cited was the Tools of the Mind Program (Bodrova & Leong, 2001), which works with children to develop their ability to sustain dramatic play and to utilize simple props in many different contexts. The teachers in the program assisted the children to go from realistic props, such as plastic food, to imaginative props, such as a wooden block, in an effort to develop the children’s executive functioning, and thus their abilities to get along in social groups by being able to put other peoples needs or wants before their own, for example.
    My question is, what is better for our children’s minds, to imagine that soap bottle as a car (or maybe a rocket ship, or maybe a baby), or for them to be locked into that soap bottle as a car?

  20. Alison says:

    oops! I forgot the link to the Tools of the Mind article:

  21. NP says:

    I doubt I’d let marketing professionals come into my home either. I was thinking more on the lines of a panel of subjects being observed through a one-way window as they sampled products and made comments. This kind of market research, I think, is not particularly harmful.

  22. KoryO says:

    DivaJean, maybe I’m missing something, but I didn’t see anything about the marketer being with a naked kid. She *did* go into the bathroom with her, but a kid could still play with the stuff in there fully clothed. I even went back to the book to the page cited by Trent, and there’s nothing there about the kid not wearing clothes.

    Can’t say I’d let my kid participate, mainly because I think the last thing I wanna do is help a marketer make their stuff more irresistible to impressionable children. Maybe for some educational toy or something like that, but it’s still probably a no.

  23. Darren says:

    I would definitely let my child participate.

    Letting your child get involved in this primary level of marketing research, and understanding how marketing research works, is a good way to let the child figure out how marketing works, and will work in the future, make the child more aware of marketing, and as a result, become less succespable to it.

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