Billion dollar baby

Billion dollar babies
Billion dollar babies 

Marketing to toddlers has become big business and it has attracted plenty of criticism. Baby Robbie has just turned one. From the time he was a few weeks old, his mother, Maggi Tipton, was using Glenn Doman products such as laminated flash cards to hone his mathematics skills.

Now he's older, he regularly enjoys Baby Einstein DVDs and books - he has the boxed set - which expose his fast-developing neurons to Mozart, Bach and Van Gogh.

Tipton, of Bilgola, admits there's a certain amount of pressure on parents to "get it all in" before children start school, though she says her primary motivation for buying these products is their entertainment value. "I'd love him to find life easy," she says.

The niche market of newborns to three-year-olds is booming, with toys and educational materials developed for this sector now a $20 billion global industry.

In New York, mothers are buying outfits from Baby Prada and baby powder from Chanel. Educational videos such as Baby Einstein - launched in the US in the late 90s by a stay-at-home mother with $US18,000 of her savings before Disney bought the company five years later for $US25 million - have become an essential element of many toddlers' daily routines.

What parent doesn't feel the pressure?

We now spend an average of $1,000 a year on toys and nursery products for the up-to-three-year-olds, according to market research company GFK Oztoys. The Australian market topped $1 billion this year - a 10% growth in the past 10 months alone.

Young Media Australia has watched the "deliberate and aggressive" marketing to young children take off in this country in the past five years and believes it is inherently wrong because the youngsters don't have the cognitive ability to grasp it.

But with everyone else shelling out on the latest and best brands and with toddlers demanding an ever more expensive array of toys, what parent doesn't feel the pressure?

In her book Buy Buy Baby, US investigative journalist Susan Gregory Thomas exposes the lengths to which marketers are going to exploit the newborn-to-three market. By 18 months, she says, toddlers can discern brands and by the age of two they ask for products by name.

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Much of this brand recognition is derived from children's TV, she says. There's good research indicating that children of this age don't have the cognitive ability to learn from television programs, to discern their underlying moral message or even to follow the plot. At the end of the day, the only thing young children take away from television is the recognition of a character - or a brand.

"The only other environment where they will encounter this character is a commercial one - all of their favourite characters are brands. Elmo is the Nike swoosh to little children," she says.

The health implications of young children watching too much TV are well documented - Gregory Thomas quotes experts linking television consumption to rising rates of autism and ADHD, with one hypothesis that the brains of small children enter a state of low-level seizure when they're watching television. There also has been debate in Australia about using popular children's characters to market junk food.

But what parents do not fully understand is the more insidious consequences of marketing to young children in this way.

Gregory Thomas expresses concern that the continuous thrust of advertising means children are unable to develop an inner voice to distinguish right from wrong.

"The fear is they lose the ability to listen to their own conscience and they become so attached to a marketing voice that it almost becomes indistinguishable," she says.

Writer and social commentator Patricia Edgar, an architect of children's programming and standards in Australia, says the merchandising potential of children's programs has become paramount in their development, to the extent that content and quality are now secondary considerations.

The commercial successes of animated features such as Disney's Little Mermaid and The Lion King, she says, saw film and television makers worldwide trawling through children's literature to find characters they could exploit in this way.

Australia was not immune. According to Edgar, "There was no rationale for Bananas in Pyjamas except the merchandise. They took the song out of Play School and created the characters. The brief was to develop a suite of merchandise around those bananas and the program became secondary."

The claim is hotly disputed by Tim Brooke-Hunt, executive head of children's television for ABC TV: "We genuinely don't make decisions about what programs are put on air based on their marketing potential and I think it's very demeaning to the Bananas in Pyjamas to suggest otherwise."

He concedes marketing is a necessary aspect of most successful shows so that producers can recoup some of the investment broadcasters make in them.

Still, most of the shows that toddlers love, from Teletubbies to Fireman Sam to Postman Pat to The Wiggles, have spawned a massive range of merchandise, to the extent that it's hard to find toys that aren't branded with one of these characters.

The toy industry maintains good television shows will generate good toys; Gregory Thomas counters that the pressure to produce merchandise has resulted in a dumbing down of products.

Take the Disney Princesses (Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and the like), who since they began to be marketed as a group have seen worldwide sales triple in just three years to more than $US3 billion in 2005.

What's important to little girls everywhere is no longer the moral stories of the popular fairy tales - it's to be a princess.

As well as the Disney Princess underwear, dolls, dress-ups and toys, a large growth area is in books - one that many toy manufacturers are entering so they can appear to be concerned with children's literacy.

In her book, Gregory Thomas interviews one of the authors, a freelance writer who churns out each book in 15 hours while looking after her own young family. For each project, she is sent a script and information about the brand, setting out the parameters in which she can tell the story. "The writing, and even the pictures, are, unfortunately, not that important," she says.

Does it matter? Research in the 80s promoted "bathing" children in literature, that is, reading to them no matter what the content.

Professor Frank Oberklaid, director of the Centre for Community Child Health at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, agrees that up to 18 months what's important is that babies are sitting on their parents' laps being read to. But above that age there's a science behind which books are appropriate for which age, he says.

His worry is that very young children don't have the cognitive capacity to make decisions for themselves. "I would have major concerns about the whole thrust of advertisers creating a fantasy world," he says.

Originally designed for preschoolers, brands such as the Disney princesses, Sesame Street and others are now seen as babyish by the four-year-olds, while they're being lapped up by young toddlers. This phenomenon of "kids getting older younger" opens massive inroads into the newborn-to-three market, Gregory Thomas says.

It's not just the babies that are a soft target for the burgeoning industry. Unlike the Baby Boomers, generation X women want to be seen as 'good' rather than 'super' mums; they want to be happy and involved with their families; they are looking for enrichment. They also have a high level of their own brand consciousness, which makes them a fertile market.

Gregory Thomas describes the "acceptability halo" surrounding toys that are marketed as "educational" - electronics, software and videos that are designed to help babies to learn. However, there is no research to show these products actually work, she says.

Brand futurist Martin Lindstrom predicts this category will continue to grow as software becomes more intuitive and user-friendly for babies, playing on parents' desire to give their children a leg-up before they start preschool.

Marketers are delving into other ways of capturing the baby market so that they can own consumers for life. Lindstrom says one trend is to infuse toys and baby clothes with the scent of baby powder or vanilla, which is reminiscent of baby milk. Not only does this attract babies to the product but in 30 years, when they're buying for their own children, a whiff of the same scent will provoke an emotional reaction in them that will again draw them to the brand.

He says such marketing methods set up kids to want the latest of everything so they can keep up with their peers.

"It's setting a foundation for kids which means they are used to having luxury goods around them. It's part of their life. Their appreciation of finally being able to afford something in life isn't there."

What experts agree on is that we live in a brand-conscious world. Even if you threw out the television and the computer along with the Teletubbies toys and Wiggles cutlery, there is no such thing as an ad-free space for children in 21st-century Australia.

Nicola Yelland, professor of education at Victoria University, says the most important thing parents can do is ensure their children have a range of sources from which to learn.

There's nothing inherently wrong with electronic toys, software or brands that range across different categories, she says, but parents have to provide the scaffolding for learning by engaging in their children's play and asking them questions.

Since she wrote the book, Gregory Thomas says, she has spent more time trying to explain the intent of advertising to her own children. She's also learnt to say "no" more often - it's important that parents are the gatekeepers when the children are too young to distinguish truth from advertising themselves.

Remember one thing, Oberklaid says: "You're not a better parent if you buy your child a $50 electronic toy than if you sit on the floor with them emptying plastic bottle tops from one container to another.

Buy Buy Baby by Susan Gregory Thomas, Harper Collins, priced $32.99.