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Thoughts on Marketing to Kids

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Today I have a piece up about marketing food to kids. This issue became VERY personal when I moved in with my boyfriend and his two young kids. In fact, the article opens with a paragraph or two about my boyfriend and his oldest daughter. I wrote about them not to criticize his parenting but to point out how tricky the marketers are, operating in ways that the parents just don't suspect. Even wonderful, loving, involved, intelligent parents like my boyfriend. Every so often, the kids come home with a new toy. When I ask where they got it, my boyfriend will say, "You won't like the answer." That means: It came from a Happy Meal. He does this rarely now, but the McDonald's trips were much more frequent before I came into the picture. At my suggestion, he's at least transitioned over to In N Out Burger when his kids really start begging for fast food.

Things have changed since I've been around. I assume that he let his ex-wife (and the kids themselves) take the lead on a lot of things, perhaps because as a guy, he figured that they knew best what girls wanted. When it comes down to it, my boyfriend is incredibly loving and that's the most important thing any parent can do. And he also notes that he and I set a good example by eating well in front of the kids. But that doesn't give him a free pass on other things - like paying attention to marketing to his own kids.

When we've talked about marketing, my boyfriend noted that his generation was exposed to marketing too and he came out fine. Which is true. Except marketers are so much more sophisticated now that parents who assume that just have NO IDEA what their kids are being exposed to. It's not just the food, but toys too. And while the issues I write about are all food-related, as a step-parent, I can't ignore toys.

I was very grateful that this article forced me to reach out to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, because their work is excellent. I read through several pages of their site and they effectively state what I have observed but often haven't been able to put into words. All of the marketing these days can zap a kid's creativity. Our little one likes to play pretend, but very often that means just recreating scenes from Disney movies, word for word. She's got Cinderella's official dress AND glass slippers. I've been the wicked stepmother (ironic, huh?), the stepsisters, and the prince. She's ALWAYS Cinderella. It's so cute when she does this (although I HATE participating) but there's very little creativity involved because the story and the script are already written for her.

I noticed on my own that a lot of the marketing trains children as consumers from a young age. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Webkinz toys, which our older daughter LOVES. She's got about $600 worth of these stupid stuffed animals, and she logs each one into the Webkinz website and gives it a gender and a name. Then she plays games on the site to win fake money, which she can use to buy stuff for her Webkinz virtual world. The entire goal of the game is the needless accumulation of stuff.

But Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood points out an even MORE disturbing point. Marketing teaches children that you need to always have newer, bigger, better, and more. What you have now is never enough. Buddhism teaches that pain comes from desire, and by ending desire, one can end pain. In other words, be happy with what you have. And certainly sometimes people have legitimate needs, and it's nice to get a new present or treat once in a while. But does one child need 40 stuffed animals or more? (And yes, she wants more.) This mentality creates unhappiness, as there is always something more to buy and what you have is never enough.