“The Stormtroopers came first in their white armor and then there was smoke and Darth Vader rose up from underneath the stage holding his light sabor and…” my Aunt recalled to a group of us about the live show she’d seen with her with her grandchildren at Disneyland. And exactly one of us was riveted.
My son Hudson. Three and a half.
Did she just say Dark Vader? Held a…a… light saver?
“Mom! tell her to talk again about the dark guy….”
“Aunt Shari, can you tell Hudson about Darth Vader’s entrance again?”
“Oh sure,” she said. “Actually I shot some of the show on my phone. I’ll show you.”
Ka’ching. Ka’ching. Ka’ching.
I don’t need to take my child to Disneyland or to the movies or to turn on the tv for them to fall prey to the all-powerful marketers that be. Thanks to Steve Jobs genius (that I “enjoy” every day) my kids, like your kids, are easier than ever to find. And me, as someone way out of the key demo, I’m merely a pawn whose job it is to do my kids’ bidding until they can do it themselves. That is, if they can amp up “the nag factor” high enough.
Which they have because it’s their business to make sure kids beg, plead and whine enough to convince their parents that this purchase is the key to their happiness. (I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that teams of psychologists are retained by these enormous corporations so they know just how to manipulate kids to manipulate their parents. Ethical! Fun!)
So while I’m sure thanks to a carefully-honed nag factor, many a light sabor and stormtrooper costume were purchased minutes after the exciting, smoke filled, light sabor beaming show, I never thought that their trip to Disneyland would result in me hitting “confirm order” for a Darth Vader mask on amazon.
Yes! I could have said “no”!
But my son loves himself some dress up. One day he’s a dog. Then a frog. Then Elvis. Dracula. A monkey. A knight. Spiderman. An astronaut. A lovebird. A rabbi. Even a frog dressed as Santa Claus. Some costumes he puts together with what we have around the house and some are bought on Amazon. By me.
When I started the amazon costume-purchasing thing, I didn’t quite realize I was opening a dangerously expensive and addicting door. I kind of felt the slippery slope but I didn’t focus on it.
But then Susan Linn focused me.
The day after Hudson learned who Darth Vader was and his mask was being shipped to our door via UPS, I happened to go hear Susan Linn, author of The Case For Make Believe (2012) and Consuming Kids (2004) at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. Her talk was called (I believe!) Commercializing Childhood: The Corporate Takeover of Kids’ Lives. It’s Susan Linn, the director and founder of the national coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood that we all have to thank for getting Disney to admit that their claims that Baby Einstein made kids smarter were entirely false. That indeed they were running a highly profitable scam. And it was Susan who wouldn’t accept a plea bargain that settled for anything less than Disney offering a full refund. Thank you Susan Linn!
So Susan told us that back in 1983 (the good old days) American companies only spent 100 million dollars on what they call “the kid market.” Today they spend….
17 BILLION DOLLARS.
Because it’s well worth it. They get their profits back in spades.
Advertisers’ goal is nothing short of creating what they so endearingly call “cradle to casket” brand loyalty. Invading kids’ brains as early as possible is the key because you know, before 13 or some say 9, kids can’t contextualize what they’re seeing. They can’t be critical about it. So even if it is unethical to take advantage of their still developing brains, it’s not illegal! Here.
Yes, something so egregious is illegal in many countries. Just not in the United States of Capitalism at Any Cost.
Just fyi, the European Union has some guidelines for its member countries:
Advertising shall not cause moral or physical detriment to minors, and shall therefore comply with the following criteria for their protection:
a. it shall not directly exhort minors to buy a product or a service by exploiting their inexperience or credulity;
b. it shall not directly encourage minors to persuade their parents or others to purchase the goods or services being advertised;
c. it shall not exploit the special trust minors place in parents, teachers or other persons;
d. it shall not unreasonably show minors in dangerous situations
e. Children’s programmes may only be interrupted if the scheduled duration is longer than 30 minutes
f. Product placement is not allowed in children’s programmes.
g. The Member States and the Commission should encourage audiovisual media service providers to develop codes of conduct regarding the advertising of certain foods in children’s programmes.
Here in the U.S. we have no such guidelines. Regulation, schemegulation. Here, it is up to us parents to micromanage everything they see and to just simply say no when they ask for everything under the sun.
“All of my friends have it!!!”
Who are we to go up against the carefully researched “nag factor” combined with 17 billion dollars combined with smartphones and smartwatches and smartheadrests in the car and video billboards that means screens are everywhere our kids look.
No generation of parents, Susan explained, has ever had it so tough.
Are we just totally fucked?
If it was only that our pocketbooks were being raided, that would be one thing. But something far more precious is being taken from our children when they truly believe that if they don’t have a particular toy or a particular character they will NEVER BE HAPPY. When they believe that pleasure comes from things, not from within us. They’re being sold a false promise of happiness.
And not only that!
Their natural desire for make believe play is being taken from them. When children’s play is so deeply influenced by clearly defined characters that follow a specific story line, they’re not working through their own stuff, they are enacting someone else’s.
Susan told us just why make believe play is so damned important for a a child’s emotional, social intelligence and health. She explained that it is through make believe that children
- Problem solve
- Think constructively
- Wrestle with life
- Make meaning of their world
So as I’m sure you can imagine I came home worked up.
And the next day, with my new resolve, I had a different response to Hudson’s “request” that I open my computer and buy him a “light saver.”
I told him I wasn’t going to buy it right now. And then I winced as he dove headfirst into begging, crying, writhing, kicking and screaming.
God help the mother up against the nag factor.
I tried so hard to remind myself that He doesn’t neeeeed it. He can enjoy playing without it. Material objects don’t buy happiness. Relationships, time, attention, imagination do.
More Begging. Pleading. Crying. Rolling around. Kicking.
Fuck, it’s only a lightsaber. It’s not like he’s ever seen the movies, so his play is still his own. Oh God how long is this going to go on? What can I do? What should I do?
And then, I had an idea.
“Would you like to go make a light sabor right now?”
On a dime the writhing stopped.
My heart raced. Was this gonna work?
“Let’s go downstairs and get some foil. We’ll also need some toilet paper holders. And some tape”
Minutes later he was telling me where to cut the foil because lightsabers aren’t as long as I think they are.
And then he was gone.
In the backyard. Happy. Doing stuff with his lightsaber that George Lucas never could have dreamed of.
And really who needs the money more, me, Matel or George?
And yes, I’ll still buy him stuff. But we can make stuff. And he can make stuff. And he can see his joy isn’t dependent on the shape of some plastic that is covering his head.