Sometimes the most revealing conversations about policy issues happen with our loved ones at the breakfast table. Although loyal TLF readers may remember my partner Michael as my “Posterboy for Advertising’s Pro-Consumer Quid Pro Quo,” he doesn’t usually get into the policy issues I cover. But this morning, we fell into a conversation about the bitterly contentious issue of marketing to kids:
Michael: Growing up in South Korea, on a military base, we didn’t have any commercials on television. We had three channels and all they showed was public service announcements.
We moved back to the U.S. when I was nine, and suddenly, during all my favorite cartoons, there were ads for toys. It was exciting—and more than a little bit overwhelming! It wasn’t just that I wanted these toys; it was that felt this incredible sense of urgency: I thought we had to go get the toys right now or they’d be gone!
What did Rousseau call his innocent man, the Noble Savage? That’s what we were: The noble savage, coming into this world of sophisticated toy advertisements.
But it didn’t take long for me to get over this initial bewilderment. My parents explained to me that we didn’t really have to go to the store right away. (They also explained to me that I couldn’t haggle with the staff at Toys ‘R Us the same way I’d haggled with street vendors back in Korea—something that utterly mystified the staff.) After one trip to Toys Toys ‘R Us, I got the toys I wanted most and, over the next few months, realized that they weren’t anywhere near as exciting as I had imagined.
After that, I enjoyed the toy ads on TV, but I lost interest in many of the toys I already had, preferring to create my own toys or play outside.
I explained that advertising of toys to kids has long been the cause celebre of anti-advertising crusaders:
Michael: But kids are acquisitive, too! How are they supposed to know about the latest toys if you can’t advertise to them? And what’s the big deal, anyway? I got used to toy ads and I think most kids would, too. The thing that’s different is incentive programs at stores.
My sister was really into the Limited Too‘s incentive program from the ages of about 7 to 11. She knew all the saleswomen by name at the Limited Too in our mall. It was like our mothers at Bloomingdale’s! She had a huge wardrobe for an elementary school kid. I don’t think it was unhealthy, but it’s not exactly a fair game.
Me: So why did your parents let her do it?
Michael: Because they were indulgent! Her friends didn’t have wardrobes like she did—it was just my mom. My dad just wasn’t around much, so we spent a lot of time shopping. It shouldn’t really have been that way.
Me: Do you think it was bad for your sister?
Michael: No, but it’s a good thing she’s so sensible and practical now, because otherwise her acquisitiveness about clothes might get out of hand. I think she learned that at the Limited Too.
So maybe shopping incentive programs could really teach some kids bad habits and maybe those habits are hard (but certainly not impossible) to kick later on in life. Those are good reasons for parents not to let their kids sign up for such rewards programs! We certainly don’t need a law to fix this problem: We just need parents to exercise their power of the purse and learn to say “No!”—as the parents of Michael’s sister’s friends apparently did. Relying on parental responsibility instead of banning such programs means that parents would have the opportunity to teach their kids to shop responsibly—and still benefit from the discounts such programs offer on clothes they’d buy anyway.
In the meantime, let’s stop pretending kids are helpless drones just waiting to be programmed by evil marketers who get them “hooked on capitalism” by showing them ads for GI Joe, Barbie, digital penguins, Hannah Montanna or whatever it is kids these days care about. Oh, and lest anyone insist that kids don’t really “need” toys or clothes from Limited Too, let me simply point to this brilliant 1959 magazine ad by the ad firm Young & Rubicam:
There is no chestnut more overworked than the critical whinny: “Advertising sells people things they don’t need.”
We, as one agency, plead guilty. Advertising does sell people things they don’t need. Things like television sets, automobiles, catsup, mattresses, cosmetics, ranges, refrigerators, and so on and on.
People don’t really need these things. People don’t really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians. wheels, calendars, philosophy, or, for that matter, critics of advertising, either.
All people really need is a cave, a piece of meat and, possibly, a fire.
The complex thing we call civilization is made up of luxuries. An eminent philosopher of our time has written that great art is superior to lesser art in the degree that it is “life-enhancing.” Perhaps something of the same thing can be claimed for the products that are sold through advertising.
They enhance life, to whatever degree they can.
I’d much rather have parents deciding what their kids “need” than some paternalist bureaucrat!