Monday, December 21, 2009

Marketing to kids...

This morning, the kid was playing with Webkinz on the iMac. At one point, I glanced over and realized she was in fact surfing the new products and was watching a video about some sort of deluxe subscription service. My "dad" voice went on and I told her to turn it off or return to playing with the characters. She wondered why, of course, and I started in on an explanation of what was going on — that she was being sold products that she would then want me to buy. I've tackled these issues here before, but today's conversation came on the heels of the biggest lead-up to Christmas yet, or rather the first one where she's putting specific demands out that are coming from commercial influence.

Until recently, I kept a fairly tight cinch on the kinds of TV she could watch — pretty much locking the options down to Boomerang (which does not show commercials and recorded shows where she could skip the ads). And until she moved in with someone recently, her mom didn't have cable at all. At home, she has discovered other channels and begun to watch them when I'm not paying attention. And these channels are jam-packed with ads for all the latest toys every kid needs.

I thought about all this as I approached the Webkinz question this morning — and as I face a Christmas where she will be getting franchise-building things like American Girl and Nintendo DSi. Rather than shutting it all down and eliminating cable (at least not yet), it seemed like a good chance for a teaching moment. We sat in front of the computer, and I asked her why she thought the Webkinz site was showing her all the great products she could get to expand her collection. She said it was so we would go buy them — so far so good.

The next lesson was about need. I asked her why she "needed" the cute koala or yorkie toys, and she said she needed them so the animals she already had would have more friends. I asked her if she really "needed" the toys or just felt like she needed them and really just wanted them. We've discussed the difference between want and need in the past, so she aced this question. I went in for the kill.

The reason they make her "need" them, I explained, was because they know how to make kids want something so badly their parents get it for them. I added that we could get things we wanted when we can afford them, but I wanted her to understand that it really was just a way for the companies to sell more stuff.

Looking back and writing about it now, I wonder how best to keep approaching this lesson without being a thorough killjoy. It's not that I want to isolate her from every venal form of advertising and marketing to kids — I can't — but I do want her to understand when the shiny object they're trying to sell her might not really be all it's cracked up to be.