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Branding Baby's Brain

If you want to mold a hyperconsumer, you have to start early.

by Constantine von Hoffman

Last year the U.S. toy industry spent more than $840 million to advertise its wares to the nation's children and parents--that's about $3 (or three-quarters of a Buzz Lightyear action figure) for every man, woman, and child in the country. It may be the best-spent money in the history of hucksterism.

The advertising has been done so well that it has insinuated itself into our genes. I say this because my son--The Greg--seems to have been born with a priori knowledge of the Disney Corporation. The first time we took him to a mall where the insidious Mouse resided in retail form--he was maybe a year old--he took one look at the three-circled logo and said, "Mi mou," which, as anyone who has had to translate the words of a consonant-impaired child can tell you, means: Mickey Mouse.

My wife and I promptly conducted an inventory of all the media he had been exposed to and could not find as much as a single contaminating incident. (This was well before he started running with the information infection that is other kids--after a year in preschool he will now chirrup quite happily that Pok‚mon is his favorite TV show, despite never having seen it nor quite knowing what those oddly drawn creatures are.)

Like the respectable, card-carrying environmentalists we are, my wife and I tried to protect The Greg as best we could from corporate influences that might turn him into a hyperconsuming ecological menace--we banned commercial TV, and bought only organic baby foods, unpainted wooden toys, and chemical-free cotton clothing. And, like the time-strapped, media-obsessed members of the public we also are, we have failed miserably. As I write this, he's wearing fur, sucking on a PVC toy, and eating a Whopper while watching Pok‚mon and doing target practice with an arsenal of weapons gaily festooned with the show's impish, cuddly characters (or maybe it just feels that way).

We'd like to think our downfall, like that of Western civilization in general, began with television. We don't have the willpower of our friend who has a child and doesn't have a TV. She just stares at us blankly when we mention things like Arthur or Blues Clues. And we don't just have a TV, we have cable. Before the advent of The Greg, we even used to watch programs on it that did not feature fuzzy, artificially colored creatures. Because there are times when we need a break--maybe a half hour to cook (healthy foods only!) or just to try to remember who we were before we became co-babysitters--we began exposing him to what was once known as "educational television" and is now better described as "television with commercials only between shows." This is why he now has the logos of everything from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to Juicy Juice to Alpha-Bits cereal tattooed on his retinas.

But we were na‹ve in blaming corruption on the tube. An honest look reveals us as happy and willing participants in indoctrinating our child in consumerism. Long before The Greg became an independent operator we--like every other set of parents--thought it would be nice to decorate the nursery or, as we referred to it at the time, the place we used to keep the bikes. While at a store sorting through giant wall decals, we tried to come up with a "theme" for his room. (Having not yet had a child we did not realize that the actual theme would be chaos, but I digress.)

My wife wanted something in a classic Pooh (based on the drawings found in Milne's books and not to be confused with New Pooh, based on the Disney cartoons) and I, trying to be edgy and alternative, wanted the Simpsons. I pooh-poohed my wife's Pooh, saying the rotund, orange one was just a corporate shill. My wife, sensing a hoist and a petard in close proximity, asked me what I thought the rotund, orange Homer Simpson was. D'oh! So we settled on a nice, innocuous, seemingly noncorporate theme of endangered and semi-endangered animals-bears, parrots, giraffes, and so on--all of which had the World Wildlife Fund's panda placed neatly upon them. We felt all warm inside at the thought that our child's first commercial exposure would be to a nice nonprofit logo.

This phenomenon of corporations putting their mark on everything--a practice not unlike what my dog does--is known in the biz world as "branding." As in making people more aware of your company's name, or as in doing to consumers what they do to cattle on a ranch--except it's Ford or McDonald's etched on your psyche instead of a hot iron applied to your butt. In many ways it's not that big a difference.

It's no coincidence that everything used by the very youngest among us--from clothes to diapers to food--either has a large logo on it or, in the case of many toys, is simply the logo itself in plush form. According to the fine folks at Kidscreen, an ad-industry publication about advertising to children (you knew there had to be one): "Agencies are . . . eyeing the zero-to-three [year-old] demographic, a group that poses tremendous challenges and opportunities because research has indicated that children are capable of understanding brands at very young ages."

And the earlier you can get your brand in front of those infant eyes, the more likely you will have their hearts and wallets for life. In other words, if Teletubbies ever has an IPO, buy early and buy big because by the time the current crop of kids shuffles off this mortal coil, they will have been indoctrinated to buy Teletubbies shirts, Teletubbies food, Teletubbies cars, Teletubbies catheters, and Teletubbies caskets. And the image merchants also break down the parents smug enough to think they can resist. A quick tour through any Disney or Warner Brothers mall outlet will show how the whole family gets inculcated, because at least a third of the merchandise is aimed exclusively at adults.


Plus, more and more adult brands are pushing into that kid's market. There's Pert Plus for Kids (shampoo), Charmin Kid Fresh (flushable wipes), Dial for Kids (soap), and Ozarka Spring Water for Kids. Personally, I'm waiting for Fidelity Investment's Allowance Fund and Baby Brooks Brothers. And, as anyone who has sorted between house and name brands can tell you, capital-B branded items are more expensive. You are paying not just for the construction of the item and its packaging and advertising--which, because of logo placement and the like, you are now part of--but for all the research that makes it possible. This research includes (and I paraphrase only slightly from the Web page of Chicago-based Doyle Research Associates, a firm that specializes in marketing to kids):

  • Sitting on the floor with a group of youngsters and getting them so involved in a focus group they don't want to go home.
  • Using telephone and on-line discussions to erase teens' self-consciousness and make them eager to talk.
  • Following kids as they play with toys, hang out with friends, or cruise the mall.

All of which sounds an awful lot like stalking. So we responsible parents are now paying to let corporations do things with our kids that would get an individual adult arrested.

And paying we are.

It is no cheap thing to raise a child here in the Land of the Free. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it will cost a family earning an average of $92,700 a year more than $233,000 to raise Junior or Juniorette from birth to 17. (Alan Greenspan and other inflation watchers take note: That's $22,000 more than 1995's estimated cost.) Consider that almost a third of that total cost--about $70,000--is in the most heavily branded categories: food, clothing, personal care, and entertainment; and you begin to see the high price of all this consumer consciousness. And that's only the direct price. The USDA, reasonably enough, doesn't ever address the cost of the resources used to create all that advertising or the mountain of products they're selling.

It should be noted, too, that the USDA cuts off its calculations at age 17, right before the offspring starts (we hope) to pursue a higher education. That ups the price $20,000 for a state college where they will teach you the same facts and figures that you get for $100,000--plus at places like Stanford, MIT, or Harvard. But then those are brand-name institutions.

It should worry me that, at the current rate at which said educational institutions are inflating their prices, the cost of sending The Greg to college in 14 or so years will likely be a significant chunk of the gross domestic product. Instead, I am concerned the accoutrements he and his ilk possess may have crowded us out of the house well before he reaches his majority. It's no wonder that in the last 50 years American houses have nearly doubled in size, with the average new home expanded to more than 2,000 square feet.

At a time when nanotechnology makes electronic gadgets small enough to be lost when you vacuum, nonelectronic stuff gets bigger by the minute, with lawn mowers transformed into tractors, barbecues cavernous as blast furnaces, ultra-jumbo burgers and gulp-size sodas. And with the trend toward ever-larger sport-utility vehicles, I recommend that you forget the Humvee and go for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle instead. At 21 feet long and 10 feet high, it's big enough for even the most demanding soccer mom. And just think of the size of the logo that will fit on it.

Constantine von Hoffman, a Boston-based author, has written for Harvard Business Review, the Boston Herald, and National Public Radio.

How to STOP child abuse, corporate and legal

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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