Updated on 04.15.08

Born to Buy: The Virus Unleashed

Trent Hamm

This is the seventh 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 whole of chapter four, “The Virus Unleashed.”

born to buyThis chapter basically dissects how exactly a children’s fad is marketed – in this case, a potential fad in the making called POX that was doomed by very bad timing. Thus, I found it worthwhile during this section to think about fads when I was a kid – and I couldn’t help but think about Wacky Wall Walkers for some reason.

For those unaware, Wacky Wall Walkers were a short-lived fad circa 1983. They were simply sticky seven-legged things that looked like an octopus, but if you chucked them at a smooth wall (like glass or some wallpaper), they’d seemingly “walk” down them, meaning they’d slowly fall down the surface to the floor.

The piece of the puzzle I remember was racing down the cereal aisle with my brother, each of us seeking to grab a box of cereal that contained one of these precious toys. They were only in Kellogg’s cereals, and I recall them not being in every box, so we’d dig through the boxes looking for ones that indicated that they contained a Wall Walker.

What I didn’t fully realize then is how ingenious this really was for Kellogg’s. These Wall Walkers couldn’t have cost Kellogg’s more than a nickel wholesale, but adding that nickel’s worth of an item to the cereal and combining it with a great advertisement campaign made the Wall Walker – and thus the cereal – something that I had to have.

Alpha Kids
Schor, starting on page 71, discusses an interesting branch of marketing to children (with my own bolding for emphasis):

The plan called for identifying what are known as alpha kids, or as Matt Schneider, president of Target Productions, the company that coordinated the operations for this campaign, called them, alpha pups. These are the coolest, most socially dominant, trendsettingest kids in the community. In this case, the kids were found through an elaborate, labor-intensive process of interviewing thousands of kids on playgrounds, in arcades, and at other kidspaces, and asking, “Who’s the coolest kid you know?” until they got to the one that said “Me!” […] They had identified 1,527 boys who fit the criterion of ultimate cool and were willing to participate in the program. They boys attended an “indoctrination” where they watched a video about POX, became official “secret agents,” and accepted a secret mission and set of instructions on how to “infect” ten friends. Then they were given a backpack filled with tattoos, shirts, and hats, plus ten POX units, which they had to pass along to a a list of friends whose names would then be provided to the company. In return for their cooperation, each kid received $30.

You can read more about the POX marketing effort here.

In a nutshell, their marketing plan went far beyond simply selling on television – they actually went into the neighborhoods, identified the “cool” kids, and then bribed those kids to play with and talk about POX. They gave the kids each ten free units (to give to all of their friends) and $30 cash – basically, a bribe. It’s pretty easy to see how that kid would then go home and hand out the toys to the people in his inner circle – the “cool kids” – and then they would use their possession of these items as a symbolic badge of something the cool kids have, thus pressuring the other kids to have them, too.

In other words, the marketing here is directly tied into a child’s need for social acceptance. The “cool kids” have these toys, so they’ll want one too – except the cool kids were given the toys and basically paid to play with them.

For me, this takes marketing to a whole new level, one that I can’t really control as a parent. When a child’s interaction with his peers is interfered with by marketing, it becomes really clear to me that it’s important to equip your children with some good consumer skills and social skills – and equip them young – so that they see right through this kind of thing. It’s all about the education.

One of the quotes that has deeply driven me in my life comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

A person’s color, gender, religion, or family background is not the important part about them. Neither are the things that they have. This is true on the playground and in our daily life when we think about trying to keep up with the Joneses.

It’s only the content of the character that really counts, and that’s the one lesson I hope I can teach my kids, more than anything else. If you really get that, then the alpha kid influence really doesn’t mean that much at all – it doesn’t matter what stuff a person has, it matters what kind of character that person has.

Cashing in on Friendship
It goes beyond the “alpha kids,” too. From page 77:

An even more serious consequence is the corruption of friendship itself. Marketers are teaching kids to view their friends as a lucrative resource they can exploit to gain products or money. They even counsel kids to be “slick” with their friends.

A bit of background: this snippet is actually discussing a specific instance of this very marketing technique, called Girls Intelligence Agency. GIA basically gives products to girls, then instructs them to have slumber parties where they distribute the product to the other people there and then solicits reactions from them. In other words, the girls participating in GIA have become paid marketers to their friends, whether they directly realize it or not.

One reaction a person might take from this is a desire to simply withdraw from all of it. I know I feel kind of strange thinking of my daughter going to a friend’s house for a slumber party and then having the host of that party shilling for some random consumer product to my daughter in an environment where she feels safe and relaxed and has probably let her guard down. It’s the “guard down” aspect that worries me. I think Schor says it well on page 78:

But friendship is important precisely because it is insulated from commercial pressures. It is considered one of the last bastions of noninstrumentality, a bulwark against the market values and self-interested behavior that permeate our culture. It’s part of what we cherish most about friendships. And that’s precisely why the marketers are so keenly interested in them.

What’s the solution to all of this nonsense? Point it out to your kids. Educate them. It’s pretty evident that normal interaction with society, even if you keep television out of the picture, will result in marketing efforts targeting both you and your kid. The best way to respond is to be prepared, and the best way to do that is to not isolate your kid. Expose them to the world and teach them to ask critical questions – I know that’s something I’ll strive for as my kids get older. That doesn’t mean you should fire up the ol’ television as soon as the kids get home, but it does mean that a good education in every respect – and that includes consumer education – starts at home.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will be a fun one, covering the fifth chapter, “The Commercialization of Public Schools,” starting on page 85 and ending on page 98.

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  1. Ah, Wacky Wall Walkers. I still remember my dad yelling at us for those things laving oily marks on the walls. In fact I think one of the spots on the ceiling is still there in their house. A great toy indeed.

    That reminded me of the Dr. Fad TV show. He either invented those WWW or used them to look cool – either way he always wore a sweater covered in them. Now I wonder if Kellogg’s had a hand in being the show’s corporate sponsor!

    At least cereal trinkets are a little less invasive than Cool Kid programs. Where are the parents in those schemes? I wonder if more parents were just not paying attention vs those that decided it was a good lesson for Timmy on how to work the angles in life to make extra cash.

  2. samantha says:

    My first thoughts were that these children are basically becoming like adults. We have home parties for friends to sell them items. Tupperware, lia sophia, Mary Kay…. Never eating lunch alone and networking is basically choosing friendships for what you get out of it.

  3. Completely agree that the best way to go about this is to just TALK with our kids. It sometimes amazes me how much they can comprehend, even at a very young age.

    Teaching them about marketers and ads will serve them well throughout their adult lives as well, and it’s never too early to start. Even a preschooler can learn that “people want to sell this to us to make money, so they pretend it’s really good, but it’s not”.

  4. JB says:

    Kids wanted to fit in and have the cool toys I think will always be something that parents have to deal with. Yes, you can talk to your kids – but are they how much are they going to understand? In the end, everyone wants to be liked, and everyone likes to have cool, new things! And as parents, you want to give those things to your child and you want your child to be liked!

  5. Michael says:

    Why exactly did Pox fail?

  6. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for that last comment “the best way to do that is to not isolate your kid”. I’ve found most people I know don’t really think about how they’re raising their kids and/or just don’t realize how important their actions are (wanting to be a “cool” parent, or give the child what they never had . . .). Or, if they do take their parenting seriously, they see all the bad influences and over-protect them. In particular, I know a lot of Christians (and yes, I’m Christian too) who home-school just to avoid the “bad world”. Frankly, it frustrates me – their kids get a shock when they enter the “real world”. And yet, since I’m not a parent, I have to bite my tongue usually. Sorry, not trying to rant – just strongly agreeing with your statement :)

    Also, since I rarely comment, I want to add this: I’m not reading the book, but I’ve been surprised to enjoy the book club posts – I think you’re starting to find a format for them that works.

  7. WACKY WALL WALKERS! I remember those! My cat used to go crazy watching them “walk” they way down the wall. She kept trying to jump out to get it and when she finally got it she would get it in her head and start shaking violently!

    My favorite cereal marketing event was when Cherios put a $1 bill in one out of every 20 boxes. I was only 6 or 7 at the time but I loved going to the grocery store and trying to pick out the one that had the buck!

  8. Brian says:

    Trent, I’m curious – if you needed to get a new box of cereal for your pantry and your son wanted you to buy the one that contained a toy like WWW, would you buy it for him?

  9. Anonymous says:

    I worked at MTV a while back and they do some really interesting research which reminds me of this. It’s pretty invasive – you can read about it here:

  10. Kapil Kaisare says:

    I remember learning about this while watching “The Corporation”. It is an interesting documentary that attempts to expose the ‘pathology’ of commerce. Amongst other facets, it tells the story of how a marketing firm realised that most parents bought things when their children asked them for it – and then went on to exploit this ‘flaw’.

  11. Lurker Carl says:

    Children’s fads are made possible by parents. Children do not have the wherewithal to obtain these items of desire, they must coerce someone into buying it for them. If your parents didn’t buy that specially marked box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, you never would have gotten that Wacky Wall Walker inside.

    The marketing gimmicks employed by Target Products and GIA required cooperation by the children’s parents. After all, they were minors and all contracts with a minor must go through a parent or legal guardian. These companies sold their bill of goods to parents, ensuring their cool kids remained the coolest.

    This type of marketing is the same emotional technique used by Tupperware, Rainbow, Mary Kay and the like. Have a party, invite your friends over, give out little trinkets and play games so you can get them to buy a pile of over-priced crap. The gimmick here is the intense scrutiny of your friends – the purchases during the party are openly discussed and visible to all. Most people are shamed into buying even more when the host chirps about discounts if even higher sales totals are met. Chances are, the stuff offered at these parties are items you wouldn’t look twice at in a store.

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Why exactly did Pox fail?”

    It was timed for release around the same time as the anthrax and SARS scares. Very bad timing.

  13. Todd says:

    Thank you for posting on these marketing tactics. And even though I have to wonder how the marketers were able to gain access to the children (I suppose it happened pre-child-abduction-fears), I am SO OFFENDED by virtually all aspects of the two cases you presented. TV trickery we pretty much expect, but one-on-one indoctrination into abusing friendships just about makes me nauseous. Thanks again.

  14. sara says:

    @jb; you’re right in one sense. Speaking strictly for me: all the wise things that my parents told me about ads & marketing hit home about a decade too late. But then again; as a parent it is your thankless role in life to share wisdom that is not listened to. And you should keep telling them. Coolness & being liked is not the only thing in life; there is such a thing as integrity.

  15. MN Scout says:

    When I was in 10th grade every English class had a two week project where we analyzed different commercials and ads. Trying to figure out what the advertisers where trying to make us think and feel about the product and ourselves. The culminating project was to create a product; then go to an advertising agency(one of the other groups) and work on an advertising plan, then the advertising group would advertise it through a poster, TV commercial etc. to the rest of the class. Pretty involved. It made me scrutinize things closer, and I looking back I thank my school for having us study this topic.

  16. bob says:

    Back when I was in school, the alpha kids were simply the kids with rich parents who could afford to buy them everything trendy, while the “uncool” kids were the kids wearing thrift store clothing, etc.

  17. Mark Krusen says:

    Yeah Bob,us “uncool” kids are still wearing the thrift store clothing aren’t we. I’d rather save my money than spend it.:)

  18. Marie says:

    To comment #6
    Homeschoolers are not shocked by the “real world” However, they are not SOAKED in the culture. Homeschooling is an individual peaceful choice to educate your own children. I am amazed by the passion it brings out in people.

    I agree the parties are no different than mom’s cosmetic parties. That is a big part of our problem. Shopping is entertaining! Girlfriends that don’t shop are very hard to find.

  19. Susan says:

    Wall Walkers! I wanted one of those so badly. I don’t think my brothers and I ever got one, but when I tried out a friend’s, it only worked for a few minutes before sort of just falling off the wal all together.

    I came from an affluent area outside Atlanta. The kids were more interested in getting into trouble, drinking and doing pot than clothes. At least that was my perception. These were kids who drove BMW’s to school on their 16th birthday. I always thought that was kind of gross as opposed to ‘cool’. I would say there’s plenty of kids out there with real sense.


  20. Yup, I totally remember those wacky wall walkers. That was a pretty darn successful campaign! I agree, you have to talk to your kids. While we may moan about how much influence the media and corporations have, we still have more!

  21. Alyson says:

    What a good post. I might have to read this book, especially since I’m newly married and the hubby wants kids (which is not to say that I don’t, it’s more to say that I’m wary) and I’m getting my masters in education, so one way or another, I’ll have to deal with the consumer kids.

    I wanted to mention that some of these consumer kids are all grown up now and exactly the same! Coach purses, Seven Jeans, hell Hermes purses, Jimmy Choos, huge televisions, fancy cars, etc etc etc. Celebrities, who could well afford them, are either given items to wear or paid to wear (support, endorse, be seen in) things and we eat it up! Watch WE or Style network some day and look at Platinum weddings or bridezilla or whose wedding is it anyway just to see some of the over-consumption adults are guilty of.

    It boggles the mind and I’m glad I’m over it. I think the Joneses just went bankrupt anyway.

  22. michael says:

    The POX program was a logical extensions of what happens in the adult world:
    1) Bid Company pays rapper/sports figure/actor to shill for its product.
    2) Sheep-like adults say, “Gee, if Puffy wears Timberlands/Tiger Woods drives a Buick (!)/Paula Abdul drinks Coke, than I should, too!”

    My question is, are these adults displaying childish behavior in their desire to be accepted, or are the children showing adult-like behavior in doing the same? I vote for the both — adults model childish behavior, and kids ape their parents and other adults.

  23. Jon says:

    For an adult version of the POX program check out BzzAgent.com. They send you free products on the condition that you tell your friends about(Bzz) them. So far they have sent me free hot sauce and tequila both of which were quite good so I had no problem recommending these products to friends.

  24. Diane says:

    “Alpha Pups” – interesting concept and it does not just apply to consumer behavior and celebrity marketing of products.

    My 2nd son (now 16) is an alpha pup… it’s been apparent since preschool… and its not about money or clothes, because we’re nowhere near the wealthier end of the spectrum among his friends and schoolmates.

    In his case it’s partly about athletic ability, an easy-going personality and oddly enough – his willingness to be friendly to everyone.

    Keep in mind that quality can be used for good by wise adults – his teachers have always been able to control the behavior of the class by getting him to do what they want – and everyone else will follow along (education majors take note – cool kids can make great allies!)

    In Catholic middle school the coordinator recruited a group of “cool” boys and nick-named them the “God Squad” – their job was to encourage cooperation and set an example of everyone accepting others and getting along – get the cool kids on board and everyone will follow!

    I found it amazing how that worked… never considered the marketing aspect of it all though, as it relates to kids.

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