This past weekend we went to a party to celebrate the First Communion of my niece. It was a big, fun party with family and lots of family friends, and it was especially fun for me and my partner because we got to play pass-the-baby with our littlest one (Wynn), which gave us one toddler (Auden) to manage. There is nothing like adult conversation with great people to lift the spirits!
Auden and I were the first ones to get a tour around the firehouse – lots of big shiny trucks! – and when we came back to the hall, Auden was thirsty. We pulled a Capri Sun from the coolers and sat him down to drink it. His first response? “It’s like Emma’s, Mama!” Brand recognition at age three – wow.
I’ve written about my toddler Auden before (see here and here), in particular about his use of technology. The kid – I suspect many kids his age – is just amazing at operating the computer, the mouse, the trackpad, the touch screen. It’s pretty astounding how those movements are so quickly and naturally a part of his repertoire. I was exposed to computer technology quite young, as we did some basic programming on Apple II computers as part of our math class curriculum in elementary school. That thirsty moment in the firehouse got me thinking about how different Auden’s world is than mine, especially what types of marketing is targeted at him. Since we don’t watch much television, I started wondering what other brands he’s been exposed to, and how. The other example that came immediately to mind was Jeep. Not too surprising because the kid is truck obsessed! He recognizes my car and my partner’s car in other colors – so when he sees my car (even in another color), he might point and say “It’s like Mama’s car”, for example. Still, he doesn’t know the difference between a car and an SUV … or that I drive a Honda. But he knows Jeep, and he recognizes their distinct look on the road, too.
I had the opportunity to read part of Naomi Campbell’s book No Logo when it first came out nearly ten years ago. She described the shift from marketing to branding, and growing pervasiveness of brands into every last little detail of our lives.
… by the eighties, pushed along by that decade’s recession, some of the most powerful manufacturers in the world had begun to falter. A consensus emerged that corporates were bloated, oversized; they owned too much, employed too many people, and were weighed down with too many things. The very process of producing – running one’s own factories, being responsible for tens of thousands of full-time, permanent employees – began to look less like the route to success and more like a clunky liability. …
At around this same time a new kind of corporate began to rival the traditional all-American manufacturers for market share … they were able to have their products made for them by contractors, many of them overseas. What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing. This formula, needless to say, has proved enormously profitable, and its success has companies competing in a race towards weightlessness; whoever owns the least, has the fewest employees on the payroll and produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products, wins the race.
… in ways both insidious and overt, this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space. (pp 45)
In Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser writes about the historical and cultural conditions that gave rise to the fast food industry in the U.S.. Through his work, he provides a great, very specific example of the conditions that lead to such targeted marketing efforts. In one compelling example, he addresses why fast food and soft drinks are so heavily marketed in American schools. The answer is pretty simple – most U.S. schools are grossly underfunded, and companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi provide funding in exchange for access to new consumer markets:
Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Cadbury-Schweppes (the maker of Dr Pepper) control 90.3 percent of the U.S. Market, but have been hurt by declining sales in Asia. Americans already drink soda at an annual rate of about fifty-six gallons per person – that’s nearly six hundred twelve-ounce cans of soda per person. Coca-Cola has set itself the goal of raising consumption of its products in the United States by at least 25 percent per year. The adult market is stagnant; selling more soda to kids has become one of the easiest ways to meet sales projections. (p 53)
In other words, these companies have to establish brand recognition and preference early on to ensure steady growth. Now, as much as it may seem that I’m villanizing marketing and branding, I’m not averse to them as corporate disciplines – I’ve worked for years in support of those functions at SAP. I don’t mind if Auden recognizes Lightning McQueen (the protagonist from the movie Cars) or Lightning’s truck Mack (Auden’s well-loved and well-worn Mack is depicted here) from across the room, and I know Disney is still making a killing on all the merchandise from that movie – thanks in part to our contributions! But I am a little disturbed to think about all the marketing that will assault Auden little senses before he even starts getting an allowance.
My partner and I have tried to create what we think are close-to-ideal conditions for our kids. We moved from Center City Philadelphia to the suburbs, we have our kids in a daycare facility that offers a certain amount of structured learning (keeping in mind that the boys are only three and one!). We largely provide home-cooked meals and a minimum amount of prepared foods and processed sugar, and we try to be cognizant about the amount of toys we buy for them. Our only really big indulgence (besides little toy cars and trucks of all kinds!) is books. In other words, we try to moderate our relationship and our kids’ exposure to consumerism.
It’s pretty clear to me that we’re fighting a losing battle. For the most part we’re keeping our television off to keep the I-wants to a minimum, but billboards and other means of getting at kids abound. So how should we – or can we, even – create a protective buffer against targeted marketing for our children under these conditions? And … all these ideas or ideals about what makes for a safe, healthy, and slightly sheltered childhood … do we need to re-evaluate, or adjust our expectations based on the reality of marketing and branding today? It is certainly worthy of some reflection, and I would welcome your thoughts on the level of brand recognition you see in the young children around you, how much you think it matters (or not), and why.