I promised you some thoughts on branding babies so here’s an extract from my soon to be published book “Who Needs a Proper Job Anyway?”. It challenges creative types about to leave academe to be proactive in co-creating a future that is based on responsibility, compassion, kindness and sustainability for all. It argues against “business as usual”, namely commerce which exploits people and planet, which is based on kicking the US$199 trillion debt can down the street for future generations to sort out, and which promises an unattainable dream in order to accumulate vast wealth for an unscrupulous few.
In researching for the book I wanted to set out some of the practices I was keen for my readers to avoid. Marketing and the power of brands loomed large in this investigation, marketing as in taking advantage of and – at worst – abusing babies and young children. Don’t believe me? Read on.
The word “brand” comes from the Norse “to burn” and, reading some of the eager pronouncements of professional marketeers and brand consultants, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed, that just as cattle are branded with hot irons to establish ownership, so too some large corporations seek to “brand” us with an invisible but equally effective mark of ownership, a form of brain-washing far more potent than the archetypal Soviet model, since it is largely self-inflicted and we are hardly aware of it.
It starts very young. A study in Adweek Magazine stated that by age 3, children in the US can recognise 100 different brands. A telling quote: “Babies don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, so they (companies) think ‘Let’s get them while they’re susceptible’”. Jim McNeal, ex Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University, says: “Kids become brand conscious at about 24 months. Many kids can write the “M” for McDonalds before they can write their name.” Rachel Geller of youth-oriented New York ad agency The Geppetto Group – boldly boasting that they can introduce their clients to The Youth Mindset – says: “There’s lots of evidence that the brands you are emotionally connected to as a child you remain connected to as an adult.”
Other market consultants recognise that brand loyalties and consumer habits that are formed when children are young and vulnerable will be carried through to adulthood. The CEO of Prism Communications noted “…they aren’t children so much as what I like to call ‘evolving consumers’” and Toy’R Us President Mike Searles was quoted as saying: “If you own this child at an early age… you can own this child for years to come.” A Ford executive apparently claimed: “Car branding indirectly happens at every stage of life… Ford’s goal is to be there at every stage of the consumer’s life. The earlier the better.”
Whole conferences are devoted to this stuff: one such held in New York in 2000 and entitled “Play-Time, Snack-Time, Tot-Time: Targeting Pre-Schoolers and their Parents”, aimed to help delegates “…create brand loyalty at an early age that will be remembered for generations” and included workshops on how to market to pre-school children and how to research their wants and needs. According to media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “The fresh neurons of young brains are valuable mental real estate to admen. By seeding their products early, the marketeers can do more than just develop brand recognition; they can literally cultivate a demographic’s sensibilities as they are formed.”
Which I imagine is why companies sell “…nursing linens, mobiles and crib toys decorated with brand logos or images of licensed characters…” so as to teach babies their brand logo before they can even say them. In the 1990s, PepsiCo introduced a range of nipple-topped baby bottles adorned with 7 Up, Dr Peppers and of course Pepsi logos, in the hope that mothers would feed their infants and babies soft drinks and – yes – start their branding education.
So basically it’s open season on young minds, on sensitive and innocent “mental real estate”. Surely this is another form of child abuse?
And while we’re talking about abuse, let’s not forget that it’s not just young minds in the crosshairs – young developing bodies are also targets on the corporate firing range. Through the clever use of branding, food companies can also build taste preferences and brand loyalty early in children, preferences and loyalty for sweet drinks and unhealthy food which can last for the rest of their lives. Tim Lobstein of the World Obesity Federation says in a paper published in the Lancet that “Fat children are an investment in future sales…” and goes on to claim that getting kids to eat badly and more than they need is worth some $20bn a year in the US alone.
Make you worry? Make you angry? It does me.
Next time we’ll talk about money, and the fact that most of it doesn’t really exist, that it’s so much fluff, created by banks to maximise profits. Really clever stuff this!