Parental Enthusiasm and Childhood Branding

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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