Marketing Elmo’s World

As companies further develop methods to perfect brand identification and market to target demographics, some controversy has been stirred in recent years over marketing aimed at children — if one should do it, what age groups can one ethically target, and how. Children don’t usually balance the checkbook, we know, so what can companies do to inspire parents to shower their spawn with corporate gear?

The Littlest Shopper” covers many of the tactics used to market to children, namely brand recognition in the three-and-under set and the dubious tactic of calling everything on the market “educational.” Apparently very little on the market for babies and toddlers is truly educational, in what we generally think of as “education,” and what we ought to be getting for and doing with very young children should generally be “interactive” — what block fits where?, sing a song sing-along, peek-a-boo, and what is this called and what does it do?

Susan Gregory Thomas’s new book, “Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds” covers the issues above, as well as how these toys and so-called educational tools are now another extension of our lifestyle chic, corporate-molded identities. It’s beyond BabyGap and $500 strollers, folks, we’re into territory where companies will have us believe that if Baby doesn’t get her Elmo and her Baby Einstein she isn’t going to get into college.

In the interview, Thomas relates how much of this marketing extravaganza began:

Julie Aigner-Clark, a very canny mother of a toddler, took note of [a study suggesting that college-age kids would score marginally better on intelligence tests if they were played a certain section of a certain sonata by Mozart]. And she put together what we now know as the Baby Einstein empire, and Baby Mozart was the first video she developed. She based a lot of her ideas for stimulating the infant brain on this strange conflation of cultural trends: that babies were active geniuses and you really had to stimulate them adequately before they turned 3, otherwise they would never get into college, and the idea you would sort of be made smarter in math and spatial reasoning if you listened to Mozart.

But you write that there is no evidence that educational videos and the like do anything for infants and toddlers. So how do Baby Einstein and other similar companies convince parents otherwise?

Noam Chomsky said it best when he said the consumer economy takes our concerns, commodifies them and sells them back to us. If you look at the marketing rubric of, for example, Baby Einstein, what they talk about is enhancing a baby’s natural curiosity. But what’s so fascinating about it is that there is absolutely no research that undergirds those statements. There just isn’t any. It’s all marketing.

Thomas further explains how publishers of genuine educational materials partner with companies that produce children’s entertainment, like Disney, which is how one can find entire sets of reading and math curriculum centered around a character like Harry Potter or Aladdin. Further, since these materials have sealed approval from a group of educational experts, as corporate as they may be, parents are more likely to go along with the branding of their children because of the educational benefits.

When my son Ethan was but a babe, I had a few rules for buying toys and recommending toys as gifts:

1) Buy nothing that requires batteries. For one thing, batteries are expensive and I’m not rolling in cash. Secondly, this usually means the toy played a three line ditty that would worm its way into my head for a few weeks until the toy was conveniently “lost” by my conniving hand. Finally, these are the toys that suddenly start playing in the middle of the night without a sticky little hand there to push a button or turn a knob, and this is responsible for my miniscule belief in ghosts.

2) If Mozart can improve a child’s math and reasoning skills, so can The Clash. I don’t claim pretensions of appreciating high over low art, and furthermore, if some study out there says rhythmic music is good for baby’s math and reasoning skills, than we can expand beyond classical. Don’t get me wrong, I was a classically trained pianist in my own youth. A good portion of my interaction with Ethan when he was a toddler was musical in nature, and we did it with LPs and mp3s, Dave Brubeck and David Bowie. (Today Ethan also plays piano — and competes!).

3) I will not buy it just because a cartoon character’s face is slapped on the side. Mostly I found this annoying, and if there was a non-trademarked option, I went for the generic toy over the heavily branded. But more important to my values was to plant a seed in Ethan’s mind that there are forces out there that rule one’s shopping habits beyond your need for a thing, and are centered around your belief in your need for the thing, which makes you more likely to shell out money for the thing.

Thomas addresses my third rule here:

It’s complicated for an infant or toddler to process television. When they are put in front of the television, the only thing they seem to be getting out of it in a verifiable way is character recognition. That’s why you see babies and toddlers so thrilled when they’re at the supermarket and they recognize Elmo. But still, it wears what the marketing industry calls an “educational patina.”

What is so awful about character recognition?

The problem is that the great social values that Elmo and the characters on “Sesame Street” teach are lost on children under the age of 3. They get solely a flat, one-dimensional character recognition. And the only other times that children are going to encounter the character are when a company is trying to sell the kid something. You don’t see Elmo running around your park. You see Elmo when he’s in diapers, when he’s on juice boxes, when he’s on Band-Aids and when he’s on toothbrushes.

I think terms like “educational patina” should be entered into the Orwellian Dictionary Of Doublespeak. In any case, this is why one’s toddler will know and love Cookie Monster even without ever watching Sesame Street.* And why mac and cheese sells better in the shape of Spongebob Squarepants.

Practicing this kind of consumer value was a battle when Ethan was two, but I got two things out of it in the end — Ethan learned that sometimes mom says no and means it, and now that he’s older, he is suspicious of commercials and print advertising aimed at his age group. In my brief career as a teacher, media literacy was a huge portion of my written curriculum and it’s something I believe will become more important as corporate giants continue to break our interests and identities down into marketing values. That these entities intend to paint an “educational patina” on infants only cements my belief that parents need to find more ways to temper the effects of corporate forces that mold our children.

Yet, I also believe it is important to recognize that Thomas is addressing the value of marketing to, literally, toddlers and babies. There are various educational benefits to all kinds of toys that may be debated, whether corporate or hand-crafted, and furthermore, I think it’s important not to fault parents for trying to spend their dollars in a way that benefits their children. What is more important to me is recognizing how a corporate entity aims to mold my child into a certain kind of consumer, to change my parenting into a nervous, reactionary compulsion, and to take my money too, if everything else isn’t nefarious enough.

But hell, even I have been convinced by certain people that playing certain video games has measurable educational and rhetorical benefits, thus we have video game consoles in the house that might have fallen off a couple of delivery trucks *cough cough* and we play regularly together.

Which brings me to my last rule.

4) No more than thirty minutes of screen time a day. Because I’m mean. And it’s nice outside. Go play.

Originally published at Feministe on 5.30.2007.

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