A few years ago, my good friend Karen wrote a little book called Consuming Innocence. If you haven't read it, then you should get your hands on a copy. It's a fascinating, frightening read. She takes you into the world of Big Marketing - deconstructing both the impact of modern mass marketing on our children, and the techniques which a lot of big brands use to increase their market penetration.
One of the big techniques utilised by marketing departments is to try and expose their brand and / or logo to as many children, as young as possible. To get them 'imprinted', if you will, so that certain brands and concepts form a 'natural' part of that child's social world. This, I recall reading somewhere, is the reason that a certain Large-American-Theme-Park,-Movie,-Television-And-Music Company is happy to have their copyrighted characters printed onto the crotch of nappies; toddlers and babies spend an inordinate amount of time lying on their backs with their feet in the air, staring at that particular part of their anatomy and in the process becoming firm friends with whichever cartoon characters happen to be staring back at them.
Karen's book looks at a lot of this kind of stuff, and takes you deeper into both the psychology and the economics involved, and some of the numbers are staggering. I won't say more than that about the book here, but it's something I think all parents should have a read of.
It certainly re-enforced my determination not to allow Toby (as much as was practicably possible) to be willingly inculcated into the sort of consumer culture that we spend our lives moving within. And, for the most part, we've been pretty successful. We don't buy him clothes or merchandise with big brands or characters on them, we avoid having the television on when he's up (though I'll admit to a couple of transgressions here; both shows involving trains. The boy is obsessed with trains and, to be honest, some times it's nice to be able to take ten minutes to get a load of washing done...) We deliberately sent him to a daycare which doesn't have or use television, but which has a whole lot of (un-branded, un-merchandise-y) toys and activities to fill the days.
And yet, despite all our best efforts, Toby uttered three terrifying words tonight*;
"Bob the Builder."
He said it while pointing to a picture of said cartoon builder in a catalogue which came with a 'Bananas in Pyjamas' DVD he'd been given for Christmas. The thing is, he knew who BTB was.
Which was news to Min and I. To the best of our knowledge, Toby has never seen an episode of BTB, nor read a BTB picture book. He doesn't have a BTB lunchbox, or any BTB clothes, or nappies, or wet wipes, or any of the myriad other objects which carry the BTB brand. The closest he's come to BTB is that he has a BTB-branded toy sander, which another friend gave him for Christmas** and which, since the moment it came out of the box, he's been convinced is a hairdryer just like his grandmother's.***
As far as we knew, Toby had never even heard the phrase 'Bob the Builder', let alone become familiar enough with the product to be able to pick it from a catalogue.
It's a triumph of market penetration; Bob the builder is firmly on Toby's radar, despite all our best efforts.
And, for me at least, the scarier aspect of this is the realisation that already, at just two-and-a-bit-years of age, Toby is already living and learning in a world of pop culture, brands, and highly targeted advertising. And at the same time as he's soaking up language, music, movement, numbers and everything else, he's soaking up brand identification, and it would seem that there's little we can do about it.
Except, perhaps, to introduce him tomorrow to 'Bob the Ballerina...'****
*actually, it's been an evening of landmarks. He also climbed out of his cot, fell on his head, and precipitated the sudden and unexpected conversion of said cot into a 'big boy's bed.' He's now tucked up firmly asleep under a sheet, while Min and I wait for the first 'thump' of boy hitting carpet...
**Toby did well out of last Christmas. We needed to borrow an extra suitcase just to get his presents back from Perth
*** A belief we have very wholeheartedly continued to cultivate...
**** Which, if truth be told, I've just spent two hours creating. That's how serious I am about this...