Kris and I are childless by choice. We love our friends’ kids, but we’ve elected not to have any of our own. As a result, we’ve never had to face the financial challenges that come with parenting. One topic our friends often discuss is the marketing barrage children face from infancy onward.

“Even diapers are branded,” one friend told us recently.

Especially diapers,” said her husband.

This is no accident. Marketers know that forging brand identity early can lead to enormous profits in decades to come. Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, and Thomas the Tank Engine may seem innocuous — and on their own they probably are — but as part of a larger marketing engine, they’re perfect tools for teaching kids to become consumers.

Andrea recently sent me an article from The Tyee, a newspaper out of British Columbia. In this piece, Colleen Kimmett writes about the challenges to raising a brand-free kid. Though the article seems to lack focus, Kimmett makes some good points:

Licensed characters are huge moneymakers for companies. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh earned Disney $6.2 billion in retail sales, according to Gregory Thomas, second only to the mouse.

[Mother Angela] Verbrugge believes all of this merchandising is the real problem, not necessarily the characters themselves. “They’re trying to sell kids other products, from clothing to bedding…there always needs to be something else that they’re striving to buy,” she says. “It scares me when I see advertisements that showcase all these different products that show the child being engaged with a toy,” she says.

Parents want their children to be happy. If a Thomas the Tank Engine playset is going to make your son beam, that can be difficult to resist.

Verbrugge says, “I think we’re seen as consumers…how much wallet share do kids have, and how much can they influence our spending.”

[...] Finding the balance between what their kids want, what they need and what’s available is difficult, say these parents. And they are the first to admit they are by no means perfect. “The only thing we can really do is in our home environments, in the environments we choose for our children,” says Verbrugge.

But as is so often the case, it can actually be more expensive for parents to follow their principles than to give in and embrace normalcy. In a way, the branded characters subsidize the products needed to raise children.

Resisting the urge to spend for the sake of convenience or pleasure is difficult for parents as well (especially when toting around a baby or toddler). And, as all the parents pointed out, often the “best” choices — natural wooden blocks or organic hemp clothing — are also the most expensive.

“The most challenging thing about making an effort to not brand your child in what they wear, or play with…is the fact that sometimes there aren’t choices and sometimes the choices are economically out of reach,” says [one mother].

Things become even more complicated once children enter school. There they are exposed to branding and advertising in the most insidious of ways: peer pressure. Older kids, especially, feel the need to identify with particular brands in order to fit in with a particular social group.

Ultimately, Kimmett’s article offers no solutions. What solutions are there? Unless you want to raise your kid in a cave, they’re eventually going to be exposed to marketing and branding. The best a parent can hope to do is raise their children to think independently, and to demonstrate through their own behavior that branded is not always better.

To learn more on this subject, I’ve borrowed Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas from my public library. I hope to review it here soon.

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