Recently I came across a couple of intriguing books about consumerism, such as Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein and Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, both by Juliet B. Schor.
Of these books, I enjoyed Buy, Buy Baby and The Overspent American the most. They were so riveting and insightful that they were hard to put down and the first thing I did when I woke up was to pick up the books again.
First and foremost, what struck me the most was what the companies do to increase their sales. To me, it definitely borders on being unethical. They capture the psychology of parents and children and leverage on it to make money out of them, without their knowledge. One of the ways is to instill brand loyalty in young children. It may not necessarily be a brand name or logo. It can be a cartoon character, such as Elmo.
Many of us have watched Sesame Street when we were young and therefore, its many characters are familiar to us and we are fine with letting our children watch the show or even actively introduce these characters to them. As we know, young children can remember cartoon characters very well, and soon, they will be able to recognize them in the stores and supermarkets, on stationery, bags and books. Very likely, parents tend to buy products that show these characters because their children request for them. Think of the mother’s delight when her child wants to read a book with Elmo on it. She is probably thinking, “Wow! Elmo is really good at getting my child to read. Shall I buy the whole set?” In this way, sales of otherwise ordinary books increase.
This sounds like a win-win situation where needs of sellers and buyers are met, except that these companies’ primary goal is to make money, not to win literacy awards. Therefore, it is unlikely that the stories have the quality that can engage children with their imagination. When children are frequently exposed to stories with simple, straightforward storylines, they may be at a loss when encountering books that draws on their imagination. They may even dislike these wonderful stories because they require more mental efforts to decipher and don’t provide instant gratification of a satisfactory ending.
In some cases, the parents may even go on to acquire items of the same character for the child, so that everything matches. Bedroom with the theme of a certain character, complete with matching bed sheets, pillowcases, wallpaper, curtains, down to everything in the pencil case and clothing. I have also heard of adults who take pride in acquiring items with Hello Kitty/Precious Moments, from keypad to mats and shower gels. Nowadays it is pretty common for the characters to collaborate with established clothing/bag brands, where they are marketed at higher prices. For example, a tokidoki x Hello Kitty Jeweled Shoulder Bag is priced at $120 on the Tokidoki website. These are obviously marketed to loyal customers who have grown up with the white feline.
Here are some of the comments I came across:
Isn’t that sweet news for any marketer to hear?
Because of the success of this method of building brand loyalty from young, many companies use the formulae of introducing the cute characters (carefully designed, with huge innocent eyes and wide smiles) through cartoon programmes or movies to children. These programmes are sometimes marketed as “Educational” or the characters embodies some valuable characteristic. Once the brand awareness is established, they would license the character to other companies to use the character on their products and food items. That’s where the revenue rolls in.
Looking at the craze of acquiring minions toys from Despicable Me movie, I think the formulae is very successful. Even the adults were collecting them. There were long queues at McDonalds island wide. There were queue-cutting, the police had to be involved to settle disputes. Apparently Malaysians in Sabah broke through the shutters in their rush to enter McDonalds. Before the minion craze was the Hello Kitty craze, where people disregarded their health and braved the haze to queue overnight at McDonalds.
So what happen when these children grow up, they introduce these characters to their own children, thereby unwittingly become the most effective marketers for these companies. There are a number of reasons why this is an undesirable trend:
1) The products sold may not be beneficial to the child, such as the choice of books that was mentioned earlier, food laden with sugar and fats.
2) The products are more expensive. They have to charge a premium to pay for the licensing.
3) Acquiring the products makes us want to spend more money acquiring even more. Collecting the whole set, sounds familiar? It sets the stage for undesirable behaviours as seen in the minions and Hello Kitty craze at McDonalds.
4) It conditions the children to become brand aware very early in life, especially if the adults unknowingly groom their preference for certain brands. We end up with an increasingly materialistic society who judge people by the brands they endorse.
Thinking back, I remember how my parents used to buy soft toys of these characters for me, brought me to Disneyland, Disney on ice, Care Bear movie and bought even more products when we were there. I don’t remember how much they cost, but they certainly did not come cheap. I hate to think that my parents and I were manipulated by marketing tactics into making these purchases. I am definitely going to be a more informed consumer and make decisions based on the quality of the product and be mindful of how marketing tactics influence me.
It’s been quite a long post, so I will share about The Overspent American in my next post. See you soon =)