Updated on 09.30.14

Parental Enthusiasm and Childhood Branding

Trent Hamm

Recently, I reviewed the book Born to Buy and, almost simultaneously, Get Rich Slowly posted an article about the challenge of unbranded children. Both the book and the article focus on almost the same issue: the challenge of minimizing marketing to very young children.

Many times in the past, I’ve encouraged parents to consider turning off the television, for their wallet’s sake and child’s sake if nothing else, but let’s face it: it’s largely impossible to avoid childhood branding. Even things as innocuous as Sesame Street are heavily branded, causing children to strongly desire things like Tickle Me Elmo, and it gets worse from there, with Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder and on and on and on…

At some point, as a parent of a young child in America, your child is going to be exposed to these brands – repeatedly. A two year old is not psychologically mature enough to make rational consumer choices – in fact, the branding on items like diapers takes great advantage of natural childhood curiosity. We’re at the changing table several times a day, and if the diapers have Sesame Street characters on them, he points at them and asks what they are, effectively turning me into the marketer, as he learns from me about the bright and colorful characters on his diaper.

Why is this dangerous? First, it weights a child in favor of toys that display known characters on them, often at an inflated price. Non-branded dolls and toys consistently cost far less than branded ones. Second, strong attachment to specific characters (like Elmo and Dora, for example) can lead a child to strongly desire those branded toys. Thus, when I’m changing my son’s diaper or putting a Band-Aid on him that has one of these characters, I’m effectively creating a constant reminder for him of the character.

Doesn’t Elmo on a diaper or a Band-Aid bring the comfort of friendly familiarity? Possibly, but as a parent, I should be the one bringing comfort to my child, not a printed picture of Elmo or Dora on the back of a bandage or a diaper.

I’ve only found one real weapon in my repertoire that consistently minimizes the effect of branding: enthusiasm. My personal enthusiasm does a lot to steer the thinking of my son, so I’m often most enthusiastic about open-ended toys with minimal branding: balls of all sizes, unmarked blocks, a dump truck, a wagon, a tricycle, classic children’s literature in board book form, and so on.

Tips for Parents to Reduce the Importance of Brands to Children

1. Show your greatest enthusiasm for non-branded open-ended toys

Look for imaginative toys that aren’t laden with marketed characters. Blocks are great, as are unbranded dolls like teddy bears. Be quite enthusiastic about these toys and your young child will often follow along. This has the benefit of encouraging them to use their imagination as well as not getting them on the “train” of desiring toys and items branded with marketed characters.

2. Answer questions politely, but don’t show strong enthusiasm for heavily-branded items

Sometimes, your child will naturally ask questions about Elmo and Dora and Spider-Man and such. Answer them, but don’t get excited about them. Instead, save the enthusiastic responses for the non-branded and more open-ended items.

3. Don’t purchase branded gifts if at all avoidable

Likely, well-meaning friends and relatives will buy toys that are branded – a Tickle Me Elmo doll is something that is a very nice gift from a relative, for example, and it should be accepted quite happily. However, for the purchases that you control, look very hard for items that are non-branded, especially when they’re very young (before school, where they’ll be inundated with this stuff).

4. As they grow, explain how ads and marketing work

That’s one of the best things my parents did. When I was first old enough to start understanding it, my parents pointed out ads to me specifically and would show me directly how they used every trick in the book to get me to want to buy products. Largely, it worked – I basically don’t care at this point what the brand is as long as the item is quality, is durable, and does what I want it to do well.

Eventually, some branding will be a part of your child’s life – that’s part of consumer culture in America. However, you can do a lot as a parent – the one real hero in a young child’s life – to minimize the influence of brands, especially early on, and encourage your child to find their interests elsewhere.

So far, my two year old’s only real branded interest is Sesame Street, which we have been pretty low-key about. He has a very simple Elmo doll which is just one in what appears to become a hierarchy of stuffed animals. He has a few other branded items around, but the only one he expresses exceptional interest in (in terms of noticing the character and perhaps wanting more things like it) is the Elmo doll. Given the heavy marketing even towards one and two year olds, I really am quite happy with that.

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  1. Dawn says:

    Don’t you think this can be handled by “portion control” just like healthy eating? Everything does not always have to be out of control. We just have to set limits, as we should in most areas of our lives :)

  2. Jared says:

    My wife and I have often found that kids sometimes seem to prefer the more basic, non-branded toys over the complicated, branded toys.

  3. Mrs. Micah says:

    @ Jared, that makes sense. I generally notice that kids prefer less complicated to more complicated ones. And I think a lot of branded toys are the more complicated ones. But even the branded ones already have their own personality–you can’t easily make up a completely new character for it. Non-branded allow for much more imagination. :)

  4. mamacita says:

    You NEVER buy the character Band-Aids — only the most boring, beige ones. You’ll find there are a lot few boo boos that way.

  5. Dee says:

    Honestly, I think this is a bit much. Branded things are not so evil. Sure, you don’t want a child who only wants name brand products, but it’s not so bad if you have a child who enjoys Blues Clues or Elmo or Barbie.

  6. Amanda says:

    I think what Trent was saying, Dee, is that there’s a fine line between a kid who merely enjoys a show and a kid who wants branded everything. Children are the people in our society who are most susceptible to advertising, because their cognitive functions are not fully developed. (Just look at 10 minutes of commercials. 75% of the stuff on TV is marketed – in some way – to children.) The fewer commercials the kids are forced to watch, the less susceptible they are to marketing ploys, and the less likely they are to develop brand addictions.

  7. Karen says:

    Amanda, I couldn’t have said it any better, there is indeed a fine line. Especially given that marketing to children is big business, it’s important to manage your child’s “interaction” with commercials.

    Mrs Micah, giving our children the opportunity to use their imagination is so important, I agree, non-branded allows for that.

    I find the branding on nappies (I believe diaper is the term you use) incredibly annoying, why does my one year old need to have Dory and Nemo, Elmo or Pooh Bear on her nappies, she doesn’t know who they are! But it’s an excellent demonstration of how far the marketing world is reaching into our children’s lives, trying to make them consumers before they can talk!

    Good work, Trent, I think you and your wife are on the right track.

    The Aussie

  8. Jilse says:

    I try to steer clear of branding but it has gotten to be more of a challenge now that my daughter is three. Why does every pair of girl’s shoes have to have Dora or Disney Princesses on them? I just want a pair of sneakers for goodness sakes. Now she loves Dora and she sees the Dora ones and since that is all they sell anymore it’s hard to say No. We compromised and I bought her the light up ones with the flowers on them but really I just wanted a pair of plain white sneakers for her.

    It just seems like it’s everywhere these days. From shoes, to clothes, to underwear. Do you want to wear the Elmo undies today or the Dora ones? I try to shield her from it all, but I feel like I am losing the battle since the deck is stacked against me.

  9. shawn says:

    Dude, your fear of branding is starting to border on freaky. It sounds like you’re afraid your raising a mindless drone. Isn’t more important to teach your children that they can’t and shouldn’t have all that they want? No matter what you and your wife are the most important influence in your son’s life. They will be bombarded with branding their entire lives. IMO, you’re better off to expose them to it early so that you can educate them. My daughter is almost two and loves Elmo. I like to take her to the toy department and look at all the toys with her. I let her pick up and look at whatever she wants but I also let her know she can’t have anything she wants and we never buy anything with her around. I’d rather do that then have to live in fear of her seeing an aisle of toys every time we go to the store.

  10. sunshine says:

    @ shawn,

    This is speculative, but isn’t that like teasing her with stuff? Like, “look at all this pretty stuff that you can’t have!” I would fear that she would grow to want the stuff that she can’t have.

    FWIW, I don’t have kids, so I’m just wondering.

  11. shawn says:

    I wouldn’t call it teasing because I don’t actively hand her things to look at. We just browse the aisles looking at things. Usually we’re just killing time while my wife picks up a few things. If she sees something she’s interested in she’ll pick it up and look at it. Generally after about 30 seconds she loses interest and I ask her to put it on back on the shelf and she does. Once in a while she finds something that she wants to keep, but even then she’ll give it up without a fight it just takes a few more seconds of explaining that she can’t have it. We have not had any total meltdowns as of yet. When I started making really good money I used to go out and buy everything I wanted. I still have impulse control issues once in a while, but now I can go into a store and look at a bunch of stuff that’s mildly attractive and do a much better job of determining what I really want. I never learned that lesson from my parents and I want to impart that onto my daughter. I think a great way to approach branding, and I think Trent mentioned this once, is to take the branded and unbranded version of something and ask the child if the branded version is really better. In the end though if they’re the same price I’m not really going to worry about the branding. All of my daughter’s favorite toys at this point are unbranded (Duplos, wood blocks, puzzles, memory, etc.). Really her favorite thing in the world is her books. Hey I could be all wrong, I’m certainly no expert in child psychology. Right now the way we’re handling things seems to work for our child. I may have a second and everything I’ve just said won’t hold true. It’s just that there are enough things in this world that we really need to protect our kids from, that I’m not going to waste time fearing branding.

  12. janewilk says:

    I’m in agreement with the “everything in moderation” thread. However, as an early childhood educator, it breaks my heart to see 3- and 4-year-olds on the playground re-enacting over and over plot lines they’ve seen on TV, unable to imagine any other characters or stories to act out. It would be a happier world without Power Rangers, Spider-Man, and Star Wars being marketed to the preschool set…
    For the record, my daughter’s school does not allow any commercial characters at all on lunchboxes, backpacks, shoes, clothes, etc. It’s great!

  13. Samantha says:

    I really enjoy your blog but sometimes I feel like I’m being preached to. I have 4 children with 1 on the way so I do have some experience with children. LOL. Why not use the characters as a learning experience? My two boys love spiderman. They see him everywhere and we used the opportunity to talk about WHY they like him. He is a super hero who has difficult decisions to make and sometimes makes the wrongs ones. But his aunt still loves him and he learns from his mistakes. Dora??? My youngest who just turned 3 just counted to 6 in spanish perfectly from listening to a book. Was I teaching her spanish? No, but now I know she is listening and we can learn together.

    I do think society has gone overboard with marketing to children. But 20 years ago when I was that age I had a huge list for christmas too. There is only so much you can fight against the natural habits of humans.

    So please, keep the parenting stories to a minimum, at least until they are teenagers and you have a little more experience under your belt.

  14. frogandpig says:

    I have a friend who is toilet-training her 3 year old. He really wanted big boy undies, but she wanted him to understand that he couldn’t have accidents in them like he could in pullups. The only kind that she could find were spiderman undies, and it ended up working to her advantage. She told him that “you can’t pee on spiderman, that would be disrespectful.” And, strangely enough (or not), that was all it took to get her son to understand the seriousness of potty training. And he hasn’t had a single accident!

    Branding can be bad, but it can also be good. I’m all for spiderman undies now!

  15. Rick says:

    Thanks for the post. I just had my first child last week and so I’m entering unknown territory. The links on your post and your thoughts were interesting and I look forward to converstations I’ll have with my wife about this as we’re both interested in reducing the marketing exposure our child will recieve. It’s interesting to me that my wife has a Marketing Degree too :D

    So keep posting your parenting thoughts, we may not all agree but at least it’s fuel for thought within our own households.

  16. Dan says:

    Err…You need to lay off the self-help and parenting books for awhile.

    Being a good parent is not that hard. Lots of people have been doing a more or less good job of it for thousands of years and while it is easy to say “times are different now” – the good old days were not always good.

    Just take the time and make the effort to be a normal parent to your kids and all of these things which you are so worried about will work out for themselves.

    Regardless of your well-intentioned efforts to shield your kids from the world – the most important thing is what they hear from you and see you doing – Not christmas catalogs, tv characters, day cares, etc. Those things do not matter at all. Don’t waste your precious time worrying about them.

    Find a hobby…Kids like to help with hobbies. As your kids get older make sure you spend time together as a family. Also spend time with them alone.

    And always remember – you are the parent.

  17. Karen says:

    I think the thing that is most concerning Trent (I may be wrong, correct me if I am) is not branding fear but the linkages in commercial toys, tv, movies etc.

    Let me give an example of cross marketing that should frighten the life out of any sensible person. The movie Shrek III was recently in the cinemas (in Australia) and it featured seventeen separate food promotions featuring more than seventy different products, most of which are for energy-dense, low-nutrient foods. (from Campaign For a Commercial Free Childhood website).

    I couldn’t go into my supermarket without being bombarded by Shrek promotions. I really enjoyed the first two shrek movies and would’ve thought them suitable fare for my child, however, I don’t think I would ever let her watch them due to the commercial cross promotion of products.

    I think Trent’s concerns are valid and I share them.

    Might I also add, that I find it incredibly disrespectful of Samantha to suggest that Trent’s parenting tales aren’t valid because his child is so young. It doesn’t matter what age his child is, or how many he has, his stories are as valid as anyones.

    The Aussie

  18. Teaching children moderation and not giving into immediate gratification with “stuff” is the smartest route to follow as a parent.

    What kids need most, isn’t more toys- but time with you- that is the greatest reward and best gift on the planet-

    Parent Coach Susan

  19. Shevy says:

    My complaint with commercial tie-ins is that often movies or TV shows are just an excuse for the toys. That’s very different from Sesame Street, for example, where the show came first and only much later did related products appear. Now, shows are conceived as a giant marketing ploy for the line of toys the people want to sell.

    But I don’t agree with what is rapidly becoming the PC line of thought on the subject. I don’t believe that branding is inherently bad.

    My 4 yo loves Dora and I don’t have any problem with that, or with buying her products with Dora on them *so long as I don’t find them inappropriate for any other reason*. Dora, at least, has a strong educational component. Transformers, for all that my (now grown) sons loved them, don’t.

    For example, my 4 yo has warm fuzzy winter sleepwear with Dora on it. They keep her warm, feel comfy and fit well. But I wouldn’t allow her to buy, say, a Dora bikini because I don’t buy her revealing clothing.

    And I should note that none of this advertising is at all new. My oldest kids are in their late 20’s and were beguiled by the heavily advertised shows/toys of their time: He Man, Transformers, My Little Pony and Jem. In fact, I recently gave my youngest a Jem Tshirt to wear as a nightshirt. It was one I’d saved from when my now 25 yo was young. Her big sister saw it one day and demanded it back because she still loved it so much!

    Another thing to consider is, is it something they truly love and will use over and over, or will it become clutter inside of a week? If it’s an item of clothing, will it wear out or fall apart within a season or can it be used again and again for subsequent kids? If it’s durable and will hold their interest, why not buy the branded item? And, if it’s not going to last, why would you buy it no matter what the inducement?

    Finally, I am *far* more concerned with lead and other safety issues involving toys than with whether the toy is branded.

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