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.
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?