The Common Good
January 2009

Buy, Buy Baby

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | January 2009

Helping parents resist the siren song of marketers.

The branding of childhood is almost cliché by now. Who hasn’t heard the statistics? Kids recognize logos by 18 months old. The typical first-grader can name 200 brands. The average American kid watches 40,000 commercials a year. The corporate takeover of childhood is so evident that even Parents, a glossy magazine chockablock with advertisements, can publish—with no trace of irony—an article subtitled “How Corporations Turn Our Kids into Consumers.”

Less examined until recently, however, are the ways parents themselves have become marketing targets. The increase in marketing to children can actually distract parents from seeing how businesses target them directly, writes journalist Pamela Paul, author of Parenting, Inc. Indeed, long before the child in the shopping cart can point to the SpongeBob fruit snacks or beg for the Cinderella bed sheets—in fact, even before he or she is born—parents’ desire to raise safe, healthy, smart, and happy offspring is being rigorously studied and engineered. The “mom market” is estimated to be $1.7 trillion annually, according to Paul, with the toy market aimed at babies between birth and age 2 totaling more than $700 million a year.

If numbers aren’t proof enough that a new era of parenthood consumption has dawned, a visit to a baby or children’s superstore should suffice. There you’ll find videos to make your baby a genius, $150 diaper pails, luxury strollers, and crib mobiles operated by remote control. One baby superstore chain has stores containing more than 20,000 products. Then there are the services that accompany the burgeoning raft of consumer goods: baby sign-language classes, toddler gyms, and baby-name consultants.

Walking through Babies R Us after reading Paul’s book or journalist Susan Gregory Thomas’ Buy, Buy Baby (both of which investigate the rise in marketing to parents), it’s easy to look askance at such overkill. Yet even those who consider themselves critical of consumer culture sometimes find the anxiety of early parenthood destabilizing. There’s a “subtle form of persuasion enforced by not only marketers but also by colleagues and friends,” says Katherine Turpin, assistant professor of religious education at Iliff School of Theology, and a mother of three who has written about branding and faith. Even parents who shelter themselves from commercial media can find it “hard to resist the attractions of consumer culture,” Turpin says, “especially when they are layered over with a middle-class ethos of obtaining ‘what’s best for our kids.’”

But you don’t have to be middle-class to be vulnerable to advertisers’ claims. Thomas says that many electronic toys for young children are marketed to working-class parents—especially parents who speak English as a second language—who may think they aren’t qualified to offer their kids a sufficiently “educational” start in life. “They become convinced that the toy itself becomes the teacher, that there’s value in giving the toy that role,” Thomas says.

CONSIDERING THE EVIDENCE, it is tempting to view marketers as corporate bullies out to hoodwink anxious parents. In an era of Web-based viral marketing, however, that portrayal is not entirely accurate. These days, parents who blog often review products, such as the latest baby sunglasses or personalized onesies, and corporations are only too happy to provide them with free product samples. Then there’s network marketing, which follows in the tradition of Tup­perware parties. Parents—usually mothers—sign up as consultants with companies to sell baby clothing or educational toys to their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Thomas says both phenomena are due to young parents’ tendency to depend on friends rather than family for advice and support. “Gen Xers tend to be very suspicious of authority,” Thomas says. “They take their cues from their peers.”

While the most effective route to a Gen-X parent’s purse is through her friends, Gen Xers are susceptible to parent-targeted marketing via more traditional advertising venues as well. “We were the first generation to grow up under uncensored, unprotected marketing,” Thomas says. “When your inner life is so informed and shaped by the rubric of marketing, it’s almost impossible to disentangle yourself.” In Buy, Buy Baby, Thomas quotes fellow journalist John Sea­brook, who has written about the “marketer within”—the voice of marketers that many Gen Xers internalized during a childhood bathed in television commercials. “Marketing no longer seems like an alien, external, manipulative force,” Seabrook said. “Rather, it’s just part of your world.”

Gen-X parents may be particularly vulnerable to marketers for a more psychological reason as well. “Mark­eters say Generation X shops com­pulsively to stem their childhood fears of abandonment,” Thomas writes in her book, citing her own childhood as a latchkey kid who watched TV in an empty house with her brother every afternoon. “To reverse that legacy, Gen Xers overstimulate, overschedule, overshop for, and over-obsess about their own children.”

Iliff professor Turpin points more to a spiritual explanation for parents’ tendency to overconsume for their kids. Consumer culture is a faith system, she explains, one that forms our sense of meaning, security, and salvation. “Consumer culture says, ‘It’s my vocation as a parent to give my children the best,’” Turpin says. Even books like Parenting, Inc. and Buy, Buy Baby, after their critique of the commercialization of parenthood, tend to cycle back to that question. Their answers—doing “nothing” with your kids, throwing low-key birthday parties, buying classic wooden toys via the Internet—may differ greatly from Disney’s, Turpin says, but the root question remains the same: What is the best for my children?

Christian faith may help us reframe the question, Turpin suggests. “That responsibility is not only to my children but to all children,” she says. “As people of faith, we want all children to have what they need.” This idea might help parents retain a global perspective on what can become a rather insular, privileged problem: shopping for baby. “It’s important to remember that our ability to get cheap toys rests on the labor of other people’s children,” Turpin says. “Getting new toys for our kids is not morally neutral.”

SO HOW CAN parents resist the siren song of marketers? While the public is increasingly disenchanted with the branding of children, and while organizations such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are lobbying for legislation to protect children from an unregulated corporate grasp, parents aren’t the voiceless victims their drooling babies may be. Thus, the ways to resist parenthood marketing may have less to do with legislation and advocacy than with spiritual practices and communal support. Practices such as praying and abstaining from media can help, suggests Turpin. Being mindful of one’s specific areas of vulnerability is another good way to start. Is your Achilles’ heel as a parent-consumer anything billed as “educational”? Or any trip to Target when your kids are along? “Pay attention to where you get hooked,” Turpin suggests. “The first part of resistance is always naming where you get hooked.”

Countering the prevailing cultural vision of “what’s best for kids” also requires community support. “Be­cause it is a communal and social formation into consumer faith, we need communal support to help our conversion away from such practices,” Turpin says. Setting up baby-supply and toy-lending libraries at churches, planning small group discussions, organizing noncommercial celebrations, and cultivating relationships with other parents with similar values are all ways to harness the power of community in responding to the commercialization of parenthood.

It is possible that the current economic recession will help parents disentangle themselves from marketers’ grip. “When times get bad, you can panic,” Thomas says, “but it can also become time to take stock of how you spend your time and money.”

Turpin is less optimistic that the economic slump alone will truly change parents’ habits or desires. “I think parents will start making different decisions not because there’s a shift in what they believe is really valuable for their children but because that’s what they can afford,” she says. But unless there is a deeper conversion away from consumer culture, Turpin says, less commercialized parenting during an economic downturn will mostly be constructed as “cost-cutting” or “settling,” a way for parents to cope while waiting for the wealth to return. Turpin also does not expect marketers to substantially change their messages to parents. “The production of desire will continue,” she says, “no matter people’s capacity to fulfill it.”

Whether or not bleaker economic times significantly alter consumption patterns, parents who value noncommercial living will need to figure out strategies for responding to the commodification of their life stage. Turpin tells the story of the baby shower her church threw for her when she was expecting her first child. After everyone had left, Turpin and her grandmother surveyed the piles of baby supplies, toys, and clothes. Turpin re­members her grandmother commenting quietly, “Wow. When I had a baby, we had a dresser drawer, blankets, and diapers.”

In an era of $800 strollers and prenatal education systems, it is gentle, nonjudgmental voices like these that might help parents resist overconsumption. “These days, whenever I am on the verge of buying something ridiculous for my children, I hear my grandmother’s voice in my mind,” Turpin says. “A dresser drawer. Blankets. Diapers.”

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. For another resource on simple parenting, read Living Simply With Children, by Marie Sherlock (Three Rivers Press, 2003).

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