In the “you’ve got to be kidding me” department, certainly the trend to market major brands to infants deserves a place. That’s right: your thumb-sucking, diaper-laden tot now has major manufacturers vying for her business, even before she can walk or talk. According to the Advertising Educational Foundation, infants under a year of age are “a more informed, inﬂuential and compelling audience than ever before.”1 It’s hard to imagine the executive that let that statement fly keeping a straight face when describing drooling infants as “informed,” but so it is. The statement rests on research showing that kids already recognize brand logos by six months of age. As soon as they can speak, apparently, they request particular brands.2 And by the age of three, the typical toddler can recognize 100 brand logos.
Jon Barron has written before about the unconscionable marketing of junk foods to children of pre-school age and older. As he’s noted, the average preschooler aged two to five watched 2.8 television ads for fast food every day in 2009; children (6-11 years) watched 3.5; and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7. Those figures certainly provide enough disturbing data to make one’s hair stand on end. But marketers look at those figures in a different way than concerned parents do. Instead of seeing the questionable ethics in selling edible garbage to young children, they see a tremendous untapped opportunity in the targeted demographic: kids under the age of two. And they also see a potential market for all kinds of products beyond food.
And so it is that companies like Disney, hungry for bucks no matter from where, have launched campaigns to reach babies. In the case of Disney, the creative marketing tactics include sending an army of sales representatives to 580 maternity wards across the US. The reps offer free Disney Onesies (baby bodysuits) to the babies and give the fresh-out-of-the-delivery-room mom a demo of the special virtues of their product while she lies in her hospital bed. They then convince her to sign up for the mailing list. The transaction not only gets the mom hooked on Disney products, but it exposes the newborn to Disney characters and logos imprinted on the clothing, so the babies see Mickey Mouse as soon as their eyes mature enough to focus. The CEO of Disney, Robert A. Iger, says of the campaign: “If ever there was an opportunity for a trusted brand to enter a market and provide a better product and experience, it’s this.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more cynical sentiment, but leave it to Disney. The company has found yet another untapped market…in fetuses. Yes, you read that right. Its current campaign involves such promotions as free theme park tickets to pregnant moms who sign up for email alerts. The Chairman of Disney Consumer Products, Andy Mooney, notes that many kids don’t get introduced to Disney until preschool and says, “To get that mom thinking about her family’s first park experience before her baby is even born is a home run.”
And something sure seems to be working for Disney as they just announced record profits of $4.8 billion last year — up 21% from the year before…in the middle of a major recession.3
Of course, it’s not just Disney waxing enthusiastic about the infant market. For those edgy parents who don’t want their kids to grow up Disney clean-cut, it’s interesting to note that Harley Davidson also has a line of onesies laden with brand images. The baby segment also has become a favorite among high-end brands, with designers like Versace, Fendi, Chanel, and Marc Jacobs all launching baby lines of clothing and Cynthia Rowley offering a line of designer diapers. You might argue that the target market really is the parents of the kids, but the marketing executives themselves admit that they intend to inculcate brand preferences before the kids can reason. For instance, Marty Brochstein of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association says, “People like to dress up their kids and show off their kids. For that luxe brand itself…it’s beginning the relationship with the child.”
But it’s not just the message being sold to kids; it’s also the medium. There’s now a TV network entirely for babies: “BabyFirstTV.” The network offers some free content, but to get extras, the user has to pay. The gist is that babies get hooked and nag their parents into purchasing the paid subscription, perhaps through age-appropriate screaming fits. The smart marketers have come to realize, though, that TV is limited and mobile devices are really where it’s at. They aren’t just for grown-ups or young teens or even children anymore: babies love playing with iPhones and portable video devices, and there’s now a device especially for the diaper-set. The “Vinci” touch screen offers toddlers a cross between an iPhone and an iPad of their very own, loaded with apps and 3-D capability. At $400 to $500, it’s sure an expensive pacifier — but at least no long term contract is required. In any event, 25 percent of parents let their babies under age two play with iPhones, so no doubt the kids will want their own as soon as they’re old enough to carry one around.
The fact is that most of the brand advertising to kids still happens via media, so it’s a double-whammy: kids whine to get their hands on the computer or iPhone, and then they get exposed to marketing targeted right at them via those media. According to the organization “Commercial Free Childhood,”4 by the age of three months, 40 percent of babies watch screen media regularly, as do 90 percent by age two. One in five babies under the age of one has a TV in their room, and again, companies are stepping up campaigns to fill the airwaves with advertising targeting these infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that before age seven, kids have no mechanism to differentiate entertainment from reality, so they can’t defend themselves against advertising. In other words, those babies soak in the commercial message in a more complete way than their parents do.
The Commercial Free Childhood folks make clear that exposure to media and advertising at such a young age harms kids, even when it’s attached to so-called educational shows or games. They say there’s no credible evidence that watching educational media actually educates kids. “What babies do learn from screen media is to recognize and become attached to commercialized media characters,” says their press release. And watching media, says the release, slows cognitive development, disrupts sleep, and retards language development in children under the age of 16 months.
Obviously, the concerns are many, even excluding the question of the actual products that babies are being hooked into wanting. But that question can’t be ignored. Babies are being exposed to commercials for junk food, enticed into wanting devices that emit radiation and that potentially slow cognitive development, and addicted early in life to expensive clothing that has as its chief virtue a company logo. The entertainment they watch, even when educational, rarely is just about the learning. As an article in Time points out, “it’s virtually impossible these days to find entertainment for kids that isn’t selling something else.”5
Perhaps we would be more civilized if we were to return to the Babylonian ethic from 1750 BC, where the Code of Hammurabi put to death anyone caught trying to sell anything to a child. I know there are some people out there who think the Mayan calendar predicts the future (including the end of the world on 21 Dec 2012). But I mean, really, that doesn’t come close to the amount of “vision” Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, had. How did he know that by 2011 the average toddler would be able to identify 100 brands…and have her own iPhone? He tried to warn us!
1 Orenstein, Peggy. “Dodging Disney in the Delivery Room.” 9 February 2011. NPR. 9 November 2011. < http://www.npr.org/2011/02/10/133627064/dodging-disney-in-the-delivery-room>
2 Braiker, Brian. “The Next Great American Consumer.” 26 September 2011. Adweek. 9 November 2011. < http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/next-great-american-consumer-135207?page=1>
3 MARC GRASER. “Magic at Mouse.” 10 Nov 2011. Variety. (Accessed 10 Nov 2011.) <http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118045963>
4 “Baby Scam.” 10 November 2011. < http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/factsheets/babies.pdf>
5 Bissonnette, Zac. “How to Protect Your Kids from Commercial Culture.” 9 September 2011. Time/Moneyland. < http://moneyland.time.com/2011/09/09/how-to-protect-your-kids-from-commercial-culture/>