When it comes to holiday gift purchases, marketers aren’t always looking at the children’s lists or checking them twice. Parents’ life-long, emotional attachment to brands also generates ca-ching!
Giving a recent talk about brand and character loyalty, I called on a young dad who raised his hand. “I grew up with Spiderman. Just let me have my Spiderman and buy Spiderman for my 4-year-old! What’s wrong with that?” While I had several answers prepared about how corporate marketing tactics target children from birth and seek to forge life-long movie-goers and product purchasers—I was taken aback. How could I deny a father his childhood memories?
“Of course you love Spiderman,” I said. “You probably remember hours of fun with your siblings and friends, collecting action figures, and having Spiderman lunchboxes and sleeping bags.” His nod confirmed all of the above.
A quick search of Amazon.com reveals Marvel Spiderman baby feeding bibs, piggy banks, infant t-shirts, car seat covers and sippy cups. Last I checked, babies are not requesting these items. Then why are they being sold? The Toy Industry Association (TIA) will tell you why—because parents’ emotional attachment to brands triggers them to think fondly of the colors, logos and characters from their childhood and ‘pick up’ these items for children long before children understand them. Not only will parents pay more for these items than, say, the blue car seat cover or the polka-dot bib, but they want their children to know and love the characters as they relive their own childhoods.
Did this Dad realize he was introducing his preschooler to a PG-13 movie? Movie and toymakers count on parents, like advertising elves, inundating children with products that encourage watching the movie younger and younger than ratings recommend, preparing them for future releases often containing violent, sexual and stereotyped content.
Toy industry marketers know that millenial parents and their children are the largest consumer group of this decade. Brands like Lego, Hasbro, and Fischer-Price hope to reach the whole family, making parents’ nostalgic brand attachments central to their strategy. All they have to do is revisit hot childhood brands from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, when today’s parents were children, such as Blues Clues, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Bratz dolls, and Lego Bionicles. They also create associations with grandparents who may have bought mom her first Barbie Dream House or an older sibling who introduced dad to Ninja Turtles. Emotional toy buying can defy family budgets, what we know about child development, and what we think is common sense. Not only a specific toy, but a logo or color combination (think Home Depot tool kit orange) can trigger a memory and cause a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle to buy a gift. They often hope to play with the children and to experience life as they had—a simpler, sweeter time. A toy may also have eased pain or trauma in childhood.
In addition to creating new generations of loyal fans, new iterations of character toys, like Ninja Turtles, appear more angry, violent and less kind and empathetic than their earlier versions. Frazzled parents, with added pressure to create magical holiday experiences, give in to pestering and their own emotions. And you’d better believe that toy marketers know it!
Perhaps we could go shopping with an additional list this year, including questions like these:
- Am I buying this item for me or for my child? If the answer is both, is there a non-branded version we could enjoy together just as well?
- Has the marketing of my childhood memory gone over the top? How might it limit my child’s creativity and close out other options for imaginative play?
What would I say to SpiderDad today? Enjoy your memory. But, realize nostalgia is not a reason to purchase toys that promote violent PG-13 movies to young children. In a flash they will be old enough to share your favorite movies. Reduce children’s screen time now and watch how their toy requests change to include variety, substance and their own unique personalities.
We don’t want to tarnish memories. But, we do want parents to beware of the emotional traps marketers set, especially during the holidays.
Jean Rogers is the Screen Time Program Manager at Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. CCFC support parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing. For more information visit www.commercialfreechildhood.org.