Many parents strive to shield their kids from branded merchandise. But doing so ignores its socializing benefits for children.
My four-year-old son Emile rolled into Disney World earlier this month having dressed himself in a Mickey Mouse ball cap, an R2-D2 t-shirt, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle undies and Storm Trooper socks. He’d also strapped a small Mickey stuffie to his belt loop.
Near the end of the day, just before the Main Street Electric Parade and after the Incredibles kiddie rave in Tomorrowland, we went to meet the mouse of the house himself. Mickey noticed E’s Star Wars-themed shirt and, correctly assuming an interest in space, had them both put their hands on their hips and say Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase, “To Infinity and beyond!”
It was a Disney marketer’s wet dream—and it would have been a nightmare for new-parent me a few years back.
In Emile’s early days, we kept him logo-free, not counting a Run-DMC onesie and a tiny Ramones t-shirt with “Hey Ho Let’s Go” printed on the back. We stocked up on wooden toys, too. But my opinion changed as he got older and really into kid culture. My wife and I severely limit Emile’s screen time, so merchandise is the primary way that he interacts with it.
E loves Star Wars, and is always heavy breathing and telling me, Darth Vader style, that he is my father. He knows all the characters, even the ones from the prequels that I’ve never talked about, and turns pretty much any cylindrical object into a lightsabre. But he’s never watched any Lucas film or cartoon, as we feel he’s still too young, given all the shooting. So his connection is through action figures, creative play with his cousin and classmates, and clothing. (I also bought him an amazing Darth Vader hoodie at Fan Expo, where he also got to hug the evil Sith Lord himself).
Maybe I’m okay with it now because a lot of what he likes originated when I was a kid in the mid-’80s after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission deregulated children’s programming. The result was that pretty much all the top kids TV shows were associated with a toy. At the time, parents complained that TV shows like Transformers and My Little Pony were essentially “program-length toy commercials.”
But that’s a very parent-focussed way to look at the situation, completely ignoring the child’s perspective. Parents saw these shows as advertisements because they were being pestered to buy the toys and they never looked past their wallets.
Thing is, kids didn’t just want to own the toys, they wanted to play with them. It was a way of turning the passive pop culture they were consuming into an interactive experience. It was actually a way of getting away from the screen while still participating in the culture.
Psychologist Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, aims to “push back against the wholesale commercialization of childhood.” She argues “marketers take advantage of the powerful emotional attachment children have to their favourite characters, leveraging the stability and continuity and sense of belonging they get from these characters to make money.”
But that attitude completely disregards any possible value of these cultural products themselves, reducing them to the money spent on them and nothing more. It diminishes your children’s interests simply because you don’t share them.
I have strong memories of countless afternoons and evenings spent lying on my bedroom carpet pitting my various action figures against each other—like Optimus Prime and Nikolai Volkoff—and I love watching Emile act out his own scenarios with the same type of toys. (The exact same ones, in some cases, like my old Magneto.)
Yes, licensing cartoon characters can go too far and Linn’s statistic that advertising to children is now a $17 billion dollar industry is worrisome. The presence of Disney and Pixar art on diapers from infant size onward is clearly intended to establish an early connection. (Not that they need to, if you’ve ever seen a kid react to their films.) And studies proving that kids prefer foods with licensed characters on the packaging should result in regulations regarding junk food. But is toothpaste with a Transformer on it worse than one that just says Colgate in giant letters?
I realize it’s a fine line. I’d never put my son in hoodie with Gap splayed across his chest, but as someone with a lifetime’s worth of band shirts in my dresser, I also understand the desire to advertise your cultural interests to form connections with others who feel the same way (and not just among teenagers in Hot Topic tees).
A plurality of kids seem to be wearing superhero garb on any give day, be it Captain America shoes, Spider-Man shirts or Batman capes, which are all worked into their play at recess. And at home, Emile will don his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (he likes Leonardo, though he’s only ever seen one 20-minute episode) or Spidey PJs and display his ninja or crime-fighting skills. (And yes, he dresses up in “generic” knight, dragon, and monkey costumes, too.)
It’s easy to dismiss all this because, as adults, we don’t play with toys or wear costumes. But these “products” provide kids with a screen-free cultural entry point and give their imaginary play some skeletal structure.
Yes, advertising is an overly pervasive part of modern society, and children are not as adept as adults at seeing through it and need to be taught media literacy. That said, we live in an age where commercials can be excised—they’re not on Treehouse or Netflix and can be fast-forwarded with a PVR. When I showed Emile a YouTube video of a 1960s-era Mickey Mouse Club episode, it began with an in-show Coke ad. “Coca… cola,” Emile immediately repeated. (I explained what it was, prompting his indignant reply, “Soda pop is not for kids!”)
But soda pop and pop culture are not the same thing, even if they’re both aggressively marketed. Perhaps it’s due to my career as an arts journalist covering music, TV, and video games, but it feels disrespectful to dismiss pop culture as a form of mental junk food just because it’s intended for a young audience. It can be enjoyed in moderation (kids obviously also need lots of unbranded clothes and toys and spend time in parks, playing games, and making art), a philosophy that applies to pretty much every aspect of parenting.
So as I consider my son sitting beside us at Grand Electric on Sunday afternoon, dressed in a Superman shirt and red cape (my wife’s own handmade one from when she was a kid) while he colours a Wonder Woman picture, I just don’t see kid culture as necessarily synonymous with commercialism, even if a corporation owns the copyright. It just makes their lives feel a little more fantastical.