Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When Does Merchandising Go Too Far?

I recently read an article in the New York Times that reported how the Walt Disney company just started a new division called Disney Baby. Big surprise, right? I thought this must already exist given the plethora of baby items with Disney characters on them. It turns out that Disney has just been licensing their characters to other producers of baby items. This new division, however, this is a little different. One of the main thrusts of this new division is to partner with 580 maternity hospitals in the United States to provide new moms and babies with free samples/products while they are still in the hospital. Disney Baby goes so far as to send a representative to the new mom's hospital room to demonstrate the products' features (mostly clothing like onesies) and to encourage them to sign up for emails from the company. Really?

I can't help but think this is over the top. As someone who can still clearly remember those early hours and days in the hospital with my newborn son, I can tell you the last thing I wanted was for another person to enter my room for any reason other than the care of myself and my son. I think a lot of new mothers feel this way. I know that it has been customary for years for hospitals to provide "swag bags" to new moms full of products from companies, especially those who make formula and bottles. I'm not a big fan of that either, but at least that is somewhat subtle. No one comes to your room to promote the formula or bottles they're pushing.

Personally I feel this is a symptom of a larger issue involving the merchandising of children's lives. I have become much more aware of this recently as my son (19 months) is becoming more aware of characters, brands, etc. For example, we let him watch part of Toy Store exactly 2 times for a total of maybe an hour. Since then anytime he sees anything with Buzz or Woody on it, he goes crazy. Lesson learned--characters (especially Disney characters) are "addictive." Since then, we haven't let him watch it anymore. Granted, it's not just Disney that is a pro at this marketing; Thomas the Train, PBS Kids, and any number of children's media do it too. I, for one, am a little concerned about my son wanting to have toys, clothes, food products, etc. all be centered around a mass-marketed character.

I know we live in the United States and this is just part of our consumer society but I resent the underlying assumption that mass marketing to kids at every age (now even birth) is acceptable. Little children have very little power to resist this type of marketing, but we, as parents do. I think it's important to at least be a savvy consumer and really think about these issues before buying the next character-based item for a child. I know I cannot shield my son from all this marketing, but I feel it is my job to help him see (as he grows) the value of "plain" toys and eventually understand how to thoughtfully manage his own consumption of such products and media. Come to think of it, I think that's one of my major goals as a parent in many areas--not to shield him from everything, but teach him how to discern which ideas, media, products, behavior are appropriate for his life and that reinforce the values we hope to instill in him.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Has Disney gone too far with their marketing to new moms?
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