ThoBuyb 07-11-116  

Buy Buy Baby

How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds


Susan Gregory Thomas

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007, 230 pp., ISBN 0-618-46351-0



I thought I would buzz through this book, but it turned out to be a research book on marketing and education in regard to babies and toddlers.  The author is a GenX investigative journalist and broadcaster and formerly a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. 


Like many books, this one is "over titled."  It makes no startling fresh claims that children are being turned into zombies.  However, youngsters early learn to recognize and demand the licensed characters they see.  It is clear that videos and toys teach nothing but brand recognition to children under two.  And there are a number of warnings that too much time with stimulating toys and screens can be detrimental to mental development.  The best thing is for parents to play with their children.  Imagine that! 


"The executive tells me that the moment a baby can see clearly, she becomes a consumer." (2) Television is the single most powerful force in targeting toddlers as a market. (2)  Popping in a baby video or flicking on the TV set is a national reflex.  (3) 


Children can discern brands as early as 18 months and by 24 months can ask for products by name. (5) 


GenX parents are very concerned about getting a good educational jump with their kids.  That's why "Baby Einstein" turned out to be such an ingenious product name.  (6) 


More than a quarter of American children under the age of two have a TV in their room.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two not watch television at all!  (9) 


The fastest growing segment of pre-school toys is marketed as "educational." (9) 


Babies and toddlers reared on TV, videos, and blinking, beeping 'smart' toys may ultimately suffer from problem-solving deficit disorder.   Very young children who appear glazed over and numb may be overstimulated.  They simply cannot integrate the sensory overload and begin to tune out.  Constant distractions impair children's cognitive development in other ways too. (12)


Less involvement in consumer culture leads to healthier kids.  Higher levels lead to increased depression, anxiety, lower elf-esteem and more psychosomatic complaints. (14)


There is no evidence that any learning toys or videos are any more educationally stimulating than shaking a rattle or playing with blocks. (18)


Babies are eager communicators who require no input other than typical mutually enjoyable interchanges of baby and caregiver. (35)


Children who are 'bathed' in language from the start -- spoken to, read to, encouraged to tell their own stories and share their thoughts -- are far more likely to be able to read by school age than those who aren't. (43)


Gen-X is now a desirable marketing demographic.  Two-thirds of mothers with children under 12 are Gen-Xers. (54) 


Star Wars products grossed almost three times as much as the movie, so much so that the whole idea of play was changed.  (56)  Many of their toys were action figures that were not even human. (57) 


Gen-X moms say they are not concerned about how smart their child is, that they don't like toys aggressively marketed as educational -- but they buy them anyway. (65) 


Gen-Xers were left alone a lot.  They want their children to feel they are always there, no matter how briefly they are gone.  Consequently, it helps when the toy or gadget feels like an extension of herself.  (68)  "Marketing infant and toddler products to the Gen-X mom requires playing to her blind spots.  Marketers must deftly disguise her absence not as a chance for a break but as a learning opportunity for her young child." (70)


The Children's Television Workshop never claimed that watching Sesame Street would offer a child a richer experience than direct contact with a loving, interested caregiver.  However, the suggestion that preschool education could be outsourced to a television show was irresistibly compelling to many in academia and politics. (76)  Sesame Street was never designed for babies or toddlers. (85) 


By 1999 so-called educational television and videos were being marketed specifically for infants and toddlers.  (86)  One professor of pediatrics says children under two should not be watching TV and to target them with a show is immoral. (87) 


Like Baby Einstein, Teletubbies, a fixture in American media culture, flattened the barrier that kept infants and toddlers from being deliberately planted in front of television.  (88) 


In a study that scrambled some shows and not others, it was shown that the 6- to 12-month old audience "was not learning anything that the producers of Teletubbies intended them to learn or claimed they could learn from it.  So far as babies were concerned, the show was gibberish, no matter how you sliced it -- literally.  So what were toddlers learning?  Anderson wasn't entirely sure.  But if they were gleaning any meaning from the show, it was strong character recognition." (96)


Every major figure in the history of child development research believes that play is the most important work of childhood and that it is essential for toddlers to have the space to give 'focused attention' to play. (97)  Child-adult interactions are substantially decreased when the TV is on.  Further, even in the background, television breaks the child's focus, her ability to think clearly. (98) 


Toddlers learn new words best when taught by an adult caregiver and learn the least when the new words are presented by television programs with animated characters.  (100)


A late 2003 study indicated that more than a quarter of American children under two had a TV set in their room and on a typical day 59% of children 6 months to 2 years watched TV and 42% watched a video or DVD.  The TV was on in the home about 6 hours a day and 40% of parents with young children reported the TV was on "most" or "all" of the time. (100) 


Infants and toddlers attach themselves to creatures that look like them, cute creatures with big eyes and rounded features.  They are also attracted to bright primary colors such as Elmo- or Clifford-red.  (111) 


Elmo's breakaway popularity confirmed that the character-licensing business in the infant and toddler market was enormous. (113)  "Executives in the kids' entertainment business use the word 'toyetic' to describe television characters that will translate well into toys…." (119) 


Little People and Rescue Heroes are both marketed to babies as young as twelve months old." (121)


"Animarketing refers to the practice of using 'spokescharacters' (usually cartoon characters) to market products or services -- or an overarching brand -- to children." (124)  "A spokescharacter is effective for its brand when there is a relationship between: 1. The character and the child; 2. The character and the brand; 3. The brand and the child." (124)


"It has been estimated that corporations whose marketing campaigns appeal to a toddler can expect to collect as much as $100,000 from her over the course of her lifetime…." (125)


Age compression and Kids Getting Older Younger (KGOY) refer to the phenomenon of today's grade-school children playing and acting in ways that adolescents did 15 to 20 years ago and so on down the age scale.  Power Rangers were originally marketed to boys 6 or 7 in the 1990s but by the 2000s there was a three-year-old fan base.  (137-38)


Cinderella emerged as the brightest star of the Disney Princesses.  A toddler's environment was saturated with images of Princess characters.  She began to ask for them and wanted to look like them.  And she wasn't satisfied with just any fancy Cinderella; it had to be the Disney Cinderella.  Ironically competition for the accoutrements often appeared less like the heroine of modesty and kindness and more like the behavior of the wicked stepsisters!  The point of the story was pretty much lost. 


Infants and toddlers form attachments to characters designed to appeal to them.  "The main thing that infants and toddlers learn from such characters…is the ability to recognize them -- which should not be confused with actually learning anything 'educational.'  Third, infants' and toddlers' attachment to characters deepens the more often they encounter them, no matter what the medium.  Finally, the presence of such characters on a wide variety of merchandise seems to be toddlers' first experience of developing loyalty to an early concept of a brand." (143)


The average Gen-X adult spends 18% more on luxury goods that the average Baby Boomer.  "The primary characteristic that most Generation Xers share is shopping." (146)


These moms want to treat their children as people worthy of respect and dignity.  "They will include children as young as two -- and even younger -- in decisions ranging from buying breakfast cereal to acquiring a car or home." (147)


Parents yearn to share with their children the playthings of their youth."  "These parents' image of childhood is rooted not in activities or experiences but in buying the brands of their youth." (150)


Two-thirds of mothers interviewed reported that their children asked for specific brands before the age of three, while one-third said their kids were aware of brands at age two or earlier.  Those that kids knew best included Cheerios, Disney, McDonald's, Pop-Tarts, Coke, and Barbie." (155)


"Girls who had either grown up with Barbie or been denied them were now eager to relive a piece of their own childhood by buying Barbie for their babies or by giving them a toy they themselves had coveted.  The Barbie brand seemed to have such a strong emotional pull for Gen-X women that they impulsively bought it without heeding the suggested age range."  "…it was as if 'Barbie' and 'happy girlhood' had become synonymous." (1560


Every marketing executive in the toy business knows that the most efficient way to increase toy sales is to launch a television show starring the toy itself. (161)


Thomas the train jump started sales by putting trains in bookstores.  Preschoolers were spending more time there and the interest in the trains was a win-win.  The kids played with the trains so mom could shop.  (162) 


Public librarians have given up trying to interest kids in books that don't feature licensed characters.  That's all they want.  (165) 


"The Clifford the Big Red Dog series is part of a comprehensive brand marketing campaign, including home entertainment, consumer products, publishing extensions, such as television tie-in books, interactive media and consumer promotions, supporting Clifford's position as a leading pre-school brand." (171)


"The only time a child drives a book purchase is when the book features a licensed character."  "Your kid riding in a shopping cart points at it, and wants it, so you buy it."  "…the child has not been attracted to a book; he has been drawn in by branding." (177)


A typical writer for licensed character children's books tries not to spend more than 15 hours on each one.  "These books are not sold on the writing," she says…  "These books are sold on concept and cover design." (178)


By 2003 Clifford was one of the early child celebrities, a full-fledged media brand.  Clifford has been licensed in more than 80 countries.  It was such a hit that Scholastic initiated a brand extension, Clifford's Puppy Days.  Scholastic soon launched a whole range of baby Clifford products.  (182)  Using the "Ten Big Ideas" as its centerpiece, Scholastic assembled a prekindergarten curriculum for sale to daycare centers, private preschools, and pre-K programs.  "The whole package was boxed and marketed as Clifford's Kit for Personal Social Development…."  (183)


"Clifford's entire message is centered on building character: sharing, compassion, responsibility.  [But] Toddlers are not developmentally capable of learning empathy -- that is, imagining how another person might feel -- until they are at least two and a half.  …toddlers could not really learn what the Clifford curriculum was designed to teach.  They would, however, certainly develop a strong bond to Clifford as a character." (184-5) 


"More than half of American children under the age of three spend most of their waking hours in the care of people other than their parents and in places other than their own homes." (185)


"The daycare market is successful…because the younger the target audience, the more open it is to accepting an advertising message as truth." (197)


"In addition to developing its own curricula, Scholastic hires itself out to corporate marketers who wish to target children in daycare or preschool programs and their parents." (201)


"The effect of screened media (particularly television and videos) on very young children is clearly an important health issue…." (215)


Research is beginning to show that "foreground television does not have a positive educational impact on babies and toddlers." (215)


"One Columbia University health professional…told me she feared that the reason babies seemed so riveted by Baby Einstein videos was that they were actually slipping into what could be described as a low-level seizure state.  That is only a hunch, but it is the hunch of a professional whose career has been spent working with children who have sensory-integration problems."  "In 2006, Cornell economists found a high correlation between cases of reported autism and television watching by very young children." (216)


"Licensing itself has become a form of advertising to children under eight and especially to babies and toddlers.  The most obviously damaging form is the marketing of junk food." (218)


Regarding Gen-Xers.  "We didn't get stable homes, we didn't get our parents' attention, but we did get them to buy us stuff.  According to marketers, that's what we are still doing: buying stuff." (222) 


"Studies have shown that two-year-olds can recognize the difference in volume and tone of the commercial voice on television and know it intimately in a way that they don't respond to the editorial voice.  And you internalize that voice, so that marketing no longer seems like an alien external manipulative force; rather, it's just part of your world.  It's part of something that goes on inside you and outside you." (222)


"In the marketing culture to which Generation X seems especially susceptible, the division between image-doctoring and news, sales pitch and fact, is fuzzy." (223)


There is a sense that little kids must be kept busy and entertained at every juncture.  Today it is hard for even the youngest children to enjoy doing Nothing, which used to be one of the staples of early childhood.  If a mother needs to take a shower, she pops in a baby video because she finds it deeply unacceptable that her infant might have to occupy himself for ten minutes and might cry. (225)


"Constant busyness has consequences.  As they get older, these children begin to feel the stress of nonstop motion." (226)


Generation X was raised on a heavy dose of loneliness.  "To reverse that legacy, Gen-Xers overstimulate, overschedule, overshop for, and overobsess about their own children." (226)


"Doing Nothing means that adults and their young children have periods of unstructured time when they can see what just unfolds."  "For a parent, doing Nothing involves watching and listening to see what the young child gravitates to on her own and following her lead, with no agenda or goal in mind.  Doing Nothing lets parents and children play and connect with each other in their own way -- and lets each one discover what that means or does not mean."  "It's just hanging out." (227)


"All the early childhood experts I spoke with said that spending time hanging out together is the best possible thing parents can do for their young children's development…."  (228)



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