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Don't Hawk Your Wares to My Kid

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My toddler is just as susceptible to advertising as I am. He just doesn't know it.

toddler watching TV

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.

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous March 2, 2010, 9:09 PM

I realize that it may be somewhat unethical to market brands to children, but I’m not sure it’s extremely harmful. You (mom and dad) are the buyers in the household, and you don’t have to buy any brands that you don’t want. And when the child is old enough to buy things on their own, they will be old enough to understand what advertising is all about. Do your best to teach them that everything they see on TV isn’t the truth, perhaps limit their viewing of programs with commercials. But I wouldn’t be too worried about the lasting effects. Everyone who grew up in the TV generation has been bombarded with commercials from day one. As long as you have a functioning brain, you can navigate the world of marketing and avoid the messages you don’t like.

Elmer Gantry March 11, 2010, 5:47 PM

“Stores are a proverbial minefield of consumer products”

Oh really? I hadn’t noticed.

Stop dragging your kid to stores, just leave him at home with the nanny, or send the nanny to do the shopping.

Stacie May 13, 2010, 7:35 AM

LOL, Elmer, most people don’t have a nanny. It’s also not a bad thing to bring your child along so that they can select produce and healthy items. They’ll just have to hear ‘no’ in the cereal isle!

I do wonder, though, if us who grew up in the TV generation (I’m thinking of the 80’s specifically) are really all that unscathed. Look at how little money we save, and how much importance we put on the brands of clothes we buy.

It bothers me that a child who has limited exposure (doesn’t watch Sesame Street, doesn’t won an Elmo toy) can be so fascinated with the character. Our culture has lost touch with things that don’t involve the media. :(

M August 24, 2010, 1:27 PM

It’s called great marketing and advertising and it’s legal. If you don’t want your kid marketed to throw away the television and don’t go to stores.

There is nothing unethical about it. If it irks parents this much they need to look at their parenting skills and how much time they leave them in front of the TV or use the mall as entertainment for the day.

There is plenty to do other than watch TV. There are plenty of places to go other than window shopping for a bunch of crap you don’t need with your girlfriends and kids in tow…

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