My toddler is just as susceptible to advertising as I am. He just doesn't know it.
Ronda Kaysen: One of my son's first words was "Elmo," even though he had never watched "Sesame Street" and not a single Elmo product graced our home. Yet, well before he was 2, he would shriek with joy at the sight of the raggedy red muppet on sippy cups, Band-Aids and toy boxes. He didn't know who Elmo was, but he knew he was someone he should like.
Elmo is not the only commercial critter in my son's world, despite my valiant efforts to keep the loot out of his view. Hundreds of brands are marketed squarely at the preschool set. These tiny consumers represent a $20 billion market, and advertisers are well aware of them. They spend millions trying to catch toddlers' eyes. And they are astonishingly successful.
Children as young as 3 recognize brands and choose products based on popularity and relevance to their lives, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. When researchers showed preschoolers images of the Target logo, they yelled, "Target! Target!" And when they showed them various "drive-thru" signs, they could differentiate which one was for a McDonald's and which one was for a Burger King. Toddlers not only understand advertising and branding, they are as susceptible to its pressures as adults.
As a mom of a young child, I find that this new research comes as no surprise. Stores are a proverbial minefield of consumer products intended to entice my kid. Just pushing the shopping cart down the cereal aisle provides my child with an opportunity for a full-fledged meltdown over every brightly colored, cartoon-adorned box of refined sugar. My son doesn't watch television and I don't buy toys with brand logos, yet he knows and loves them and wants them anyway.
"This study showed us that some preschool children really do understand the differences between brands like Coke and Pepsi -- and at a much earlier age than previously theorized," Anna McAlister, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "As we more fully understand how and when children develop brand knowledge, we will know when they should be shielded from advertising pressures."
Avoiding the mass-market option is no easy feat. I'm hard-pressed to find children's Band-Aids that aren't covered with advertising for some television show. It baffles me that Johnson & Johnson can't make Band-Aids with flowers or balloons or polka-dots for children.
It enrages me that companies happily peddle their wares to children too young to understand the concept of marketing. All my 2 1/2-year-old son knows is that he "needs" the Diego umbrella. He has no idea why.
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, The New York Observer, Babble.com and AM New York. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter.|