Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Generation Logo

Consider this post part 4 in my How Capitalism Keeps on Winning Series. In this series I examine how parenthood has forced me deeper into consumer culture than I have ever felt comfortable being. I'm not concerned with sweet, Lucy-with-a-lemonade-stand, happy-go-lucky free enterprise, here. No, what I'm talkin' about is LUCY-WANTING-A-CHRISTMAS-TREE-THAT'S-PINK-AND-SHINY capitalism and its ever increasing bullying tactics that push us all towards conspicuous consumption despite our better judgment.

The topic on my plate today:

the corporate branding of babies
(awww, isn't he sweet?)

But first an image from simpler times:


In the mid-1990s, when I first heard about the Munchkin baby bottles that sported the Pepsi logo, I was decidedly ill at ease. Why, on God's green earth, would anyone ever think it a good idea to market bottles for babies with soft drink logos on them? Then I learned that not only did these bottles sell well but also that infants were four times more likely to drink pop from one of these bottles than from a non-branded baby bottle. Given the price of pop relative to milk, it was hardly surprising that some families turned to soda here and there as a substitute for proper nutrition.

Ah, but those were the good ole 1990s. Public outcry forced the manufacturers to stop making the bottles and, now, you're hard pressed to find even an internet image of the wretched things to plop into a blog post.

Oh halcyon days of innocence, how I mourn your passing.


Special Sauce

Flash forward a decade and we are so bloody immersed in consumer culture that we don't even notice its increasing march towards our children. I offer examples:

Exhibit A: My daughter's toothbrushes
Last Christmas, I put a toothbrush in my daughter's stocking. It was an Oral B, Stage 1 toddler toothbrush in a lovely yellow and pink colour scheme. This was her first toothbrush. She was about to embark on an activity that she will perform daily for the rest of her life. In case you haven't noticed already, I'm really big on object symbolism, so this whole toothbrush-in-the-stocking ritual gave me no end of warm fuzzies.

Two months later when I returned to the toothbrush aisle to replace it, everything had changed. Oral B has signed a deal with Disney and all their toddler toothbrushes are now plastered with product placement: Baby Einstein on the brushes for the under 2's and Winnie the Pooh for the 2-4 yr-old set. Because nowhere else in town stocks any alternative to this product, I suck it up every 2-3 months and buy the bloody things. Each night, now, I have to repeatedly tell my daughter to stick the wretched thing back in her mouth and BRUSH HER TEETH WITH IT. As far as she is concerned, the toothbrush is nothing more than a toy. As far as Disney is concerned, it's nothing more than cheap advertising to its most valued demographic.

Exhibit B: My daughter's diapers
The seed for this post was planted back in November. That's when the diaper brand that I had been using suddenly changed. The diapers used to have Snoopy across the top--a recognizable icon, for sure, but not one that is hip with the toddlers of today. In the switch from old to new market ethics, though, this diaper brand replaced Snoopy with some more sinister "Genius Baby" icons. And as if that wasn't bad enough, in their move towards progress the company also turned the world's most perfect disposable diaper into a crap rag that leaked every two hours AND they discontinued selling the diapers in the mega-box size, a size that minimized price and excess packaging. To sum it up, the diapers became more expensive per unit, far worse at doing their job and more insidious when it came to branding my child. I stopped buying them immediately.

But what then were my options? I had already tried and had a terrible experience with cloth diapers when Miss M was younger. The cloth leaked several times a day making the laundry levels (diapers, her clothes, my clothes) unbearable. Sure I could've bought better cloth diapers but I had already invested $150 on the only (and sadly ineffectual) cloth diapers sold locally. To branch out I would've needed to order online, experimenting with different brands and, frankly, with a then five-month-old, I opted for convenience.

Fast forward a year and a half and there I was in a disposable diaper pickle. The only other options available to me at the grocery store were Huggies and Pampers. Yup, that's more branding than you can shake a stick at. Elmo to the left of me, Grover to the right of me, Pooh up the rear. The result? My daughter now knows the names of all the Sesame Street characters and she has never once seen Sesame Street. It sometimes takes three times as long to change her diaper because she wants to play with Grover first OR she wants to wear Ernie when I've already scooped a Cookie Monster from the top of the pile. When we go to Toys'r'Us she points out all the Elmo products by name and loiters around them in a most unnerving way.

But there is hope on the horizon. It won't be long before potty training begins chez Hat. Today I was out and about and noticed a bunch of size two, girl underwear in a discount bin. Calvin Klein underwear. For two year olds. And you know what? I scooped up as much of it as I could. Why? Because aside from the "CK" discretely written across the waistband, these underwear are plain: blue, pink, red and pretty patterned cherries. You see, I'll be damned if I will let Disney or whatever-the-hell-else company hawk its toys on my daughter's crotch. That's my line in the sand, Dora; that's my line in the sand.

Yes, yes, I hear your gentle scolding voices, oh wise mothers of the blogosphere. I hear the accepting mockery of "I told you so" that I know I am sure to hear next fall when I will no doubt confess to you all that "since starting day care my daughter demands Dora on her heiny" and if my daughter wants it loud enough or persistently enough, I will cave faster than the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man when the streams are crossed.

Exhibit C: My daughter's birthday presents
I recently bought two significant birthday presents for my daughter: a doll house and a table and chairs set. After all my moaning about the Christmas kitchen, I vowed I would stick to wooden toys for her birthday. Phhhft! No one in town carries wooden doll houses (or hardly any other wooden toys whatsoever for that matter). The independent toy store doesn't carry a single doll house. The Toys'r'Us at the mall stocks only two: the Barbie house and the Bratz house. Muttering something about a cold day in hell, I hit the internet and found the perfect (expensive, made with responsible labour practices and constructed of non-toxic materials) wooden doll house online. I ordered it.

I did manage to find one wooden table and chair set in town that wasn't Dora or Thomas branded. When I say one, I mean one. I bought the very last one in the city--and this was a product that wasn't even stocked in the store two weeks earlier. All of which brings me to the cranky conclusion that if I want to walk the straight and narrow as a consumer anxious to protect the environment and keep my child from being branded, I need to order all my products off the internet. In other words, I am forced to sacrifice my equal desire to keep my local economy vibrant.

Rock. [ME] Hard place.

It all makes me so freakin' cranky. Why, oh why, must it be so hard to raise a child without branding her in the process? Why does my desire to do so and to speak about it feel like an act of radicalism when, to me, it just seems like plain, old-fashioned common sense?

The branding of the toys, I can almost live with but marketing toys on diapers and toothbrushes--on the very products she MUST use--should not be legal, IMHO. Given the way things are progressing I can't help but ask, "What's next?" Her food? Will Elmo logos be mini-stickered onto all her fruits and vegetables? Heck why waste money on stickers? Why not just do what the ranchers do and burn or bruise the logo right into the flesh? I realize this sounds ridiculous. It is, but not for the reasons we all think it is. After all, the mega-corps don't really want us eating produce anyway, do they? Nope, they'd rather see us eating refined packaged goods that have a more stable price-point and that mess with our blood sugar levels thus making us always want more, more, more.

The other day a saw a child beat his mother down in the granola bar aisle, insisting on the sugary Tweety Bird granola bars over the cheaper, more nutritional package. And the cereal aisle? It's nothing but a minefield for intrepid toddler-cart pushing parents. So far infant formula and baby food jars are free from Dora's, Elmo's and any Disneyfied Einstein icon but how much longer can this last before there are no more people left who care enough to question it?

And what of our children? Will they grow up to think this kind of branding is nothing but the natural state of things? I want my daughter's first memories of her time on this earth to be of family hugs and story times; of snowmen and imaginative play. I don't want her memories to revolve around which muppet was her preferred piss receptacle.

Please come to mama. Please?

26 comments:

Em said...

Here's a little anecdote. I wanted to buy terry toweling swimming robes for my girls to wear when they get out of the pool/beach (not sure if they are common in Canada). I couldn't find any that were plain so I had to buy Dora for J and Aurora for G. I took them home and unstitched all the logos etc. so now they are very sweet and PLAIN terry towelling robes! People comment on how nice they are and ask where I got them :)

Oh and yes, I agree with you. Every little bit.

mo-wo said...

I asked the grade four class I visit with my son if they noticed anything about the diapers. The immediately identified the characters on the pants and I noted how advertising affected me as a Mom and how I thought it affected my kids.

They barely got it.


.. Anyway I suppose you won't be going to Disneyland then? (me either)

Andrea said...

Oh god yes.

It's amazing the extent to which advertising has come to seem just the way things are, and a reasonable state of living. Do I sound ancient if I say that I remember the days when buses didn't have advertisements on them? When we believed as a society in funding public services well enough that they didn't need to turn to corporations to sponsor them?

I remember a news story I read a while back where parents had sold the naming rights to their newborn baby to a corporation (temporarily). Holy shit. And scarier were the numbers of people who thought this was a reasonable way for parents to defray the costs of raising a baby.

ephelba said...

I'm with you an Em- Hack the stuff you buy if you can't find what you want. A little sandpaper on the toothbrush, a seam ripper to the appliqué- it's all good. Also, I have found that the small local businesses are more than willing to work with you if you need something they don't have.If you have a toy store in your town that isn't ToysRUs, ask them for what you want.
Also, the online elimination communication supply stores will have cute tiny panties that are unbranded, if you're still in the market.

Beck said...

The Baby wears no-name diapers and the pictures on them vary wildly - right now, little innocuous ducks. As much as I hate branded things on my kids, I DID find the fancy underpants a huge toilet training incentive. With my older kids, I find that they very faddishly get into things - Strawberry Shortcake, Spiderman, whatever - and as disconcerting as I find it, I think that it's part of their way of figuring out their own separate and individual identity. So for me, I try to strike a balance between the wooden, handmade, SOULFUL things that I know are better and the things that my kids want.

Mad Hatter said...

ephelba,
I actually did ask my local independent toy store about the doll houses and he directed me elsewhere rather than putting in a special order for me. He said that he used to stock them but that they just didn't sell. Erg.

NotSoSage said...

As usual (I know, I know...yawn) I totally agree with what you. I feel a little guilty because, living in the Big Smoke, I have lots of options available to me in that respect...including my favourite kids store where they sell clothes AND toys which are handmade and fun in that they are not battery-operated but made in such a way as to do fun and interesting things (lots of levers and pulleys).

Making those choices, though, are often expensive and so we have had to make compromises. I respect and agree with your desire to support the local economy (otherwise I'd offer to mail you some). Are there any farmer's or flea markets in your area where you could pick up some of these things?

Mme L has recently been making the distinction between "Mama buy it", and "Mama make it" (her words, not mine). And my heart sinks a little every time she says "Mama buy it", partly because I wish that the ratio of buy: make was a little smaller. I try to comfort myself with the hope that that may be the case in the future, but for now it's heartwrenching.

Oh! And, as Beck pointed out, the Curious George and Winnie the Pooh underpants (that the grandparents bought) have been an incentive so far in the potty training dept. Sigh. Yes capitalism does keep on winning.

Mimi said...

Oh. My. God.

The McDonalds and the Pepsi ads actually made me feel physically ill, actually as if someone was threatening my daughter's well-being: which they are. Food is IMPORTANT. I'm going to guess that these ads are not North American? There is still a cultural line here that can't be crossed. This food business reminds me of nothing more than Dr. Jack Newman's taking the piss out of formula manufacturers for their manipulative advertising and marketing practices. This is appalling.

Diapers. I mostly use a diaper service (cloth) but we're switching to disposables for reasons I plan to blog about soon. We're going with the Sesame Street ones--you're right, you can't buy plain ones, and the SS ones at least donate money to public television through the licensing rather than to, say, Disney.

You're so right that it is hard hard hard to protect your child's imaginative life from the incursions of Brand Storytelling, to control the advertising that hits her impressionable little brain. Tweety Bird sugary junk sure does look more appealing than Zellers-brand granola. And kids are very sensitive to this--I know I was as a kid (but I turned out ok, so I guess there's hope, eh?)

I'm getting cranky right along with you. As I'm writing this comment, I can still see that baby crawling towards the cup of Pepsi and I FEEL SICK. it's just not right, harm is coming to that baby!

Blech.

Mad Hatter said...

Mimi,
I doubt that the ads are real. They are most likely spoofs used for critical commentary. I was kinda in a blur when I was searching them the other night. All I had wanted to find was a pic of the Pepsi baby bottles and I ended up finding all these other images as well.

crazymumma said...

Oh and it gets so much more challenging as they get older as well, because then they just want so much more and more and more.

(You can find some very nice but crazy pricey toys at Mastermind.)

You know the Macdonalds theme song? (I can't believe I know it!) "Bahdabadaba I'm lovin' it"?
My biggirl has changed the ending to "I'm hating it"! But they still want to buy the toys that come with the happy meals.....crazy. And where on earth did the image of the baby and the burger bun come from?

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I know exactly what you mean... I thought I was being rebellious for buying my daughter the Huggies with Lighting McQueen on them (clearly intended to be masculine) rather than the Disney Princesses. How far we have fallen.

That said: You could make a dollhouse out of boxes. I did that when I was about 12. Also, the dentist gave us toothbrushes w/o any characters on them, so you might ask there.

Mad Hatter said...

Jennifer,
It's funny you should mention the boxes bit. I am currently saving EVERY odd sized box that comes into the house so that as soon as my girl is old enough to want to do so, we can make a box city.

I'll ask next time I'm at the dentist about non-branded infant brushes.

De Aufiero said...

Our dentist gives the character toothbrushes. Lorenzo had a plain one, but was totally enamored of Fiona's Belle. Now that he has his own Mickey, he's a lot more willing. Just imagine what it's like to have an older one corrupting the younger....

jen said...

Mad,
you are on such a roll these days...truly.

it is wild to me too, that everything is branded. you are so right, from toothbrushes to diapers to plates to cups.

I have a friend whom I admire greatly who sticks to her "wood only" toys for her child (Mad, she has a WOODEN KITCHEN) oh the joys. And I so admire that and yet haven't been able to stay true to that myself.

Christina said...

Sadly, even fruits and veggies are not off limits now. At our local grocery, there are Disney brand carrots with ranch dip, and apple slices with caramel dip.

And yeah, the diaper branding drives me nuts, especially considering how much we already pay for them. Would it cost that much more to get rid of the character tie-ins?

ewe are here said...

We do have a few branded items, but for the most part, MF hasn't really paid them too much attention. Yet. I figure it's just a matter of time before it becomes a battle on some store aisles. Sigh.

Mimi said...

Oh dear, my mommy rage kicked in before I could make the more sensible conclusion that the 'ads' were spoofs. Honestly. Should not have let that subscription to Adbusters lapse, eh? I see women on the bus quite regularly with children drinking cola out of bottles. I'm willing to believe anything ...

n.b. said...

Excellent post. The level of branding and the age at which product recognition starts is simply mind-boggling. BTW, a good place to get non-branded kid toothbrushes is from the dentist! Ours gives out plain, colored ones, and you can ask for a spare if you get the smiley-faced hygienist. If you get the grim-faced hygienist...no such luck!

nomotherearth said...

Well done, as usual. I was most disgusted by the McDonald's ad, and I truly hope that it was, as you said, manufactured. Yuck.

Dentists do have nonbranded toothbrushes, as does the "First Yyears" line. I actually just bought a tiny Gerber set that only has some pictures of very happy fruit on it. Sadly, my morals get lax when it comes to toothbrushes. I will use the Spongebob toothbrush if it means that the Boy will willingly brush his teeth. But I agree with you entirely that it shouldn't happen.

kittenpie said...

We used cloth from a diaper service for the first 20 months - I found it was the diaper wraps that made the difference in not leaking. Bummis makes fabulous ones with cute (non-branded) prints. We moved to disposable when we started daycare - and the one pack of Pampers we had, I had the same problem with requesting characters and so on (she called them the "funny diapers")and I found they didn't work as well as the Huggies, leaving little crystals on her bum - which freaked me out.

I plead guilty to the licensed undies, though, because they were the impetus for potty training, and I figured one little chunk of money and morals was a small price to pay for that... Though a lot of hers are Fruit-of-the-Loom, at less than half the price of the Doras.

For the rest, yeah, we try to stay away from licensed stuff as much as possible, though she does have a trio of Dora Little People that she uses to make up stories and a host of Thomas trains that she uses on her wooden tracks. I like the classic toys, the building blocks and plastic food, tea sets and train sets. I have talked to Misterpie about building a wooden doll house because I don't like any of the plastic ones.

What I find really alarming here is the bottle branding. It's bad enough that I read a statistic that in the states, something like half of toddlers have pop in their bottles on a regular basis. Seriously. I can't imagine feeding sugar and acid to your child as a part of their diet!

edj said...

Oh I so totally agree! But it's part of a larger problem; how we can't drive down a street in N. America without seeing chain after chain after chain. It's sickening. And sometimes you just afford the alternative, which makes me mad.
Perhaps you'll soon be joining us here in Mauritania? It's a LOT easier to avoid here :)

Crunchy Carpets said...

It depends where you shop too.
My grocery store sells lots unbranded stuff and the kids are fine with it.
We found PLAIN and colourful toothbrushes at the dreaded walmart.

I also think that if you don't make a big deal about it the kids don't either.
My kids love Dora and Diego and so we will buy them stuff with that theme, but we don't freak out about it and don't act like that is a better gift than the nice generic baby doll and the handmade crib.

This way we also avoid a big fuss about happy meal toys...they are cool without it.

I think we have to accept that the branding is hard to avoid but we can help our kids understand what branding and marketing is all about and so they won't be rapid consumers when they grow up.

My kid GET that all the toy stuff on the cartoon channels are just ads and that the stuff really isn't that good. He told me this himself.

We need to give our children credit too.

Mad Hatter said...

Crunchy Carpets: I agree that we need to give our kids some credit. My problem, though, is that this post doesn't even address the issues my furure kid will face. It addresses the issues my BABY has already faced. In a few years I will be able to talk all this through with her and listen to her thoughts on the matter but now? No. She turned two the week I wrote this.

As for your first point, I sincerely wish it applied to me. I live in a small centre in an economically depressed region. My choices as a consumer are extremely limited.

Jeff - OWTK said...

Hey, great post. It is hard, but totally possible to find toothbrushes (check out: http://www.recycline.com/ - they are made from recycled yogurt cups and about the same price as regular brushes - and you can have the conversation about recycling, like we do).
Diapers, we do/did cloth but use 7th Generation (no logo or character) or generics with a bear or ladybug on them).

Learning Express sells a very nice and well-priced dollhouse that is not connected with any show/brand (http://www.learningexpress.com/childrens_toys/partNumber_KDK65017/proj.html)

So yeah, the stuff is out there but you have to really want it and look for it. Birthday gifts are tricky, but we have been honest and upfront since pre-birth with family and close friends. We only once got something we did not allow (disney princess stuff).

We talk to our girl all the time about ads, what they are trying to do (get us to buy stuff we, generally, do not need). For her third birthday she did not ask for anything and last Christmas, just a harmonica, tambourine and a brown baby doll. So, yes - it is possible and incredibely fun, wholesome and a hell of a lot more interesting the parenting-by-numbers and going along with whatever is "hot". Her imagination is unreal too, because it is all original stuff - nothing spawned by a show, character, or anything pre-packaged.

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