Updated on 08.20.11

Review: Buy, Buy Baby

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

Buy, Buy BabyOne of the most powerful books I’ve read since starting The Simple Dollar is Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy. The book discusses the tactics and impact of marketing consumer goods to young children, turning them into buyers at a very young age. I found the book so compelling that I eventually wrote a nineteen part series discussing the book in detail.

Recently, I came across Buy, Buy Baby by Susan Gregory Thomas, which seems to focus on a similar topic. How pervasive is marketing to small children? How much of an impact does it have on them as a budding consumer? What kind of long term effect does it have?

Even more so than Born to Buy, Buy, Buy Baby focuses specifically on marketing targeting infants and toddlers.

Learn Something New Every Day
The book opens by examining the marketing of “learning” toys, such as the products of LeapFrog. Many parents tend to happily buy such products because they believe that they foster children into learning something new every day. However, the evidence that such products actually bring about learning beyond a level that children would get from an ordinary environment is very thin. Many learning toys merely package together things that can be found inexpensively or for free elsewhere, promote them with a heavy dollop of parental guilt and desire for their children to be intelligent, and sell the items at an elevated price.

“There’s a New Mom in Town”
Another tactic that often attracts parents – particularly mothers – to particular products is the promotion of motherhood and other “relatable” mothers as product salespeople. Simply by showing a mother who “has it all” in the product pitch (usually meaning cute children and a happy family with a few relatable minor foibles), the product becomes simultaneously relatable and aspirational, which makes mothers like this powerful salespeople. This is a big reason for the huge connection between “mommy blogs” and marketing promotions. If you read many “mommy blogs,” you’ve probably noticed the huge number of products given away on them. That’s why – “mommy bloggers” make great spokespeople.

“It’s Like Preschool on TV”
The idea that school is a good thing is a deep cultural value in America. Not only does it provide the children with education, it also gives the parents the free time with which to work and create income for the family. Turning that very thing into a product makes great sense for marketers, and the television provides a great medium for this through videos like Baby Einstein and shows like Sesame Street. It gives the parents some time to do household tasks and “educates” the children. The problem with this is that much of the value of preschool comes from interaction with peers and with the teacher, something that’s impossible to do with a video. Even with interactive toys, the “interaction” is scripted and limited. It’s not really preschool on TV, no matter how it’s pitched.

A Vast and Uncontrolled Experiment
Even more disconcerting is the deep connection such programs tend to build with the onscreen characters and children, which is followed by the characters becoming pitchmen for everything from toys to toothbrushes. Children tend to relate with onscreen characters during the learning programs and build a positive relationship with that character, who seems to be heroic and/or loving and/or caring and/or funny. Then, when they interact with that character again, it tends to be in a commercial environment that’s tightly controlled, such as seeing Big Bird toothpaste on the grocery store shelf or Pokemon toys in their fast food restaurant. They want to continue that emotional connection – heroic and/or loving and/or caring and/or funny – but now the emotional connection they desire requires a purchase. Is it any wonder, really, that young children get very upset when their parents say “no” to buying an item depicting their favorite character? Often, it’s not the item they want. They want heroism, love, care, or laughter.

Elmo’s World
Continuing with that train of thought is the idea that a child’s interaction with a particular character (which represents some set of deep emotional connection) is becoming present in more and more forms. It’s not just the show and a toy. There’s clothing. There are ordinary products with the character on it (toothpaste or snacks, for example). There are games. There are books and magazines. There are live shows. The connection is available in many different facets of the child’s life, enabling that emotional connection to continue and, to some degree, deepen. If Elmo represents the fulfillment of some emotional need that your child has, then that same emotional connection (and need for fulfillment) will pop up again and again and again in more and more situations, usually connected to products. It’s not just true for Elmo, either – there are countlesss characters that show up in a diversity of media and consumer products.

The Princess Lifestyle
Such characters are sometimes even tuned to specific “lifestyles” that often have deep connections to product lines from other companies. In this chapter, Thomas focuses on Disney Princesses (which create an impression of a particular type of glamorous lifestyle) and Barbie (another particular flavor of glamorous lifestyle) and how these lines not only connect themselves to many other products that reinforce that lifestyle (princess shampoo!) but also help set the stage for products that the children will want as teenagers (jewelry, makeup, etc.) and even as adults.

Anything to Get Them to Read
Some people advocate using these types of deep emotional connections that the young foster with these characters as a tool to get them to read and to engage in other learning opportunities. If a book about your child’s favorite character convinces them to read, isn’t that a good thing? The problem is that the children often see such books as mere continuations of their relationship with the character, not as a compelling experience on its own. Thomas digs into this phenomenon and shows that such character-specific books often focus little on the literary or educational content and instead focus on protecting and furthering the brand, with hundred-page documents outlining every little detail about the marketed character and almost no attention paid to the plot or values in the book itself.

Developing Character in Preschool
Corporations have even taken this to the point by supplying large amounts of the type of reading and educational material described earlier in the book for free to preschools that are often starved for materials. The packages often include videos, books, and other materials for the kids that do include some degree of educational value but often strive to reinforce or build the connection to a particular character.

A Defense of “Nothing”
So, what can you do? The author’s general recommendations revolve around minimizing or eliminating emotional connections to characters. Minimize television watching – or eliminate it. Buy toys that are open-ended and not based on specific characters. Avoid products that depict such characters. You can’t do these things absolutely without being a hermit, but each choice you make is a step in the right direction.

Is Buy, Buy Baby Worth Reading?
For me, this book really differentiates itself from Born to Buy is that Buy, Buy Baby focuses on an even younger age group than Born to Buy. They’re both very thorough in their research and frightening in their implications and conclusions of how the emotions of young children are tinkered with for the purpose of altering the buying patterns of both them and their parents.

They’re both tremendous books that cover some similar ground. However, I think I’d recommend Born to Buy to parents of children that are already three or four years old (or older), while I’d probably suggest Buy, Buy Baby to the parents of younger children (or parents-to-be). Honestly, I’d probably give either one of them to thoughtful parents as a baby shower gift depending on which one I was able to easily find. They’re both tremendous books that happen to cover a similar topic area.

Check out additional reviews and notes of Buy, Buy Baby on Amazon.com.

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  1. Rockledge says:

    I remember the sadness I felt the first time my eldest asked for brand-name toy. It seemed like such a loss of innocence.

    As for TV, we got rid of cable and reception when my kids were young and use DVDs instead. We can control the content and completely eliminate the relentless advertisements. There were some complaints at first, but they had been fighting over the TV anyway so it was still an improvement. It was such a relief to not have that noxious stream of commercialism coming into the house, we’ve never looked back.

    I grew up without TV, so it was an easy decision for me, however, I know of a few parents in my neighborhood who have done the same thing for the same reason and are happy with the decision. We also talk to our kids about commercials and their effects. Both of my kids are frugal and not impressed by commercialism, so it seems like it worked.

  2. Steven says:

    This books sounds pretty interesting. I might have to check it out even though I don’t have any children.

  3. chuck says:

    when i was a kid i watched a lot of tv. i think every other add was for mcdonalds and i ate a lot of mcdonalds when i was a kid. coincidence? i think not. things that are advertised a lot are consumed a lot. the trick is to get people to consume lots of something that costs very little like soda or cheap plastic trinkits. that way u can spend all your $$ on marketing and still make a lot of $$. kids are great targets for this since they haven’t honed perceived value of things yet.

  4. kristine says:

    I did not have TV for my kids till they were 10. We watched old TV shows, and children’s shows like Little Bear, but sans commercials. Most of their books were non-fiction DK books, or classic fiction. I think my kids were 7 or 8 before they realized most of their friends did not get their viewing from the library.

    Interestingly, at their dad’s house, they watched a lot of TV. Come the holidays. they asked him for a lot of marketed crap, and asked us for very little, and usually stuff that was in line with family activities- more books, art supplies, a telescope, etc. But we did get our son a Buz Lightyear…we caved.

    It was an inadvertent social experiment. The direct connection between the gimmes and TV could not have been more apparent.

    In direct contrast to the McD mentioned…my daughter was raised on, and loved, the British series “The Avengers”. When she finally saw current sitcoms, she asked me (at age 10), Mommy, why are all the women now acting so stupid? My girl’s role model and aspiration was Emma Peel- a black belt and rocket scientist in MI-6, who wore Pierre Cardin. Flash forward 13 years… my girl has a black belt, (and excelled at several sports), and is going to MIT for bio-engineering. And she dresses with great personal style and flair! We just made the mental connection the other day. Wild stuff!

  5. kristine says:

    PS- who lets their kids watch I-Carly? I babysit, and a small child I watched LOVED the show. I was appalled by the rudeness, meanness, snideness, and overall poor values of the characters. I was amazed. Rudeness as humor is the trend on TV these days.

    Nickelodeon is nothing but a big fat commercial, and any quality programing is there purely as a vehicle for ads. But they get parents to auto-OK the station as a “viewing safehouse”, so many do not review the individual programs, some of which are not even benign garbage- they are actually bad. But they sell ads.

  6. Venkat says:

    Recently, I visited one of my friend and his kid was playing with a fancy toy that taught how to write and read. I started observing the kid immersed in playing with the toy, the kid then switched to Ipad and started playing Math Bingo, he quickly found himself in a situation, where he did not have a prompt to recognise the numbers and started losing interest in the Math Bingo. Had his parents sat with him and practised the numbers rather than handing over a E-tutor, he would have had fun in learning/Playing.

  7. Louise says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I’m going to bookmark it to explain to family why I hate branded children’s products and television shows so much. They seem to think I am somehow depriving my nearly 2 year old of important childhood experiences but you’ve given me renewed confidence that what I am doing is right.

  8. amanda says:

    Peer pressure from other parents can be really powerful and quite upsetting. I raised my children, who are adults now, with few purchased toys. I bought sturdy essentials, like good wooden blocks and Legos. I splurged on lots of quality books and music. The kids and I made alot of other toys. For instance, because we did not buy video games, the boys found a way to draw them out on paper, drawing cartoons to respond to the previous players move. I was pretty routinely told by friends, family, and other homeschooling parents that the kids were “deprived” and would not do well in later life because they didn’t have the “advantages” of educational toys and mainatream consumer goods. My kids, who now earn professional salaries, are still frugal and creative about saving money while they build interesting lives. Many of their more privileged friends, on the other hand, grew up to be constant consumers.

  9. joan says:

    A relative of mine has a TV in her baby’s room, it is on the baby channel ALL The Time day and night. A few days ago I saw the child for the first time since Easter. The TV was acquared a few days before Easter. The child is 10 months old. Before the TV, the girl had lots of personality, now she is just lackluster. The mother has a great professional job which includes making TV appearances at times, so she is not about to listen to anyone else about how to raise her daughter.

  10. littlepitcher says:

    I have no child-rearing experience, but can share an acquaintance’s practice of keeping closed captioning on at all times, so his children could learn to read from public TV and other sources. If you leave CC on and mute the commercials (a necessity for that economically marginal family) it helps defeat the sales pitches.
    His oldest has full scholarships, so obviously it works.

  11. Rockledge says:

    By the way, a great way to help immunize your children from commercials is to discuss with them how the advertisers try to manipulate you and to use specific examples. We made a game of it and my kids had great fun selecting some commercials and making jokes about the methods being used.

  12. Mike says:

    Do you have any recommendations for books on discipline?

  13. Julia says:

    I’ve found with my neices and nephews that the trick to countering outside influences you don’t like is to be a greater influence. If you want your kids to read, read with them. If you’re there you can read anything you want because they’ll be there to be with you. Let them watch tv, but watch with them. Again, they’ll be there to be with you.
    My sister told me about watching Ghost Busters and Babylon 5 with her two-year-old. My brother-in-law watches old westerns with her. She loves the time she spends with her parents so much and she doesn’t complain or argue at all when they pop in a Star Wars DVD instead of Tangled or Tinkerbell (and she loves all the Disney characters too).
    If you ignore them, they look for attention elsewhere. And characters like Elmo and Dora seem to talk to their audience, providing that attention that kids want.

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