Hey Mom, I saw 30,000 ads

Branding products is a key marketing device. Prior to reaching the consumer, new products are branded by marketers in such a way that the public will recognize them.

Name and product recognition results in higher profits and longer staying power in the fickle marketplace. Although this concept is certainly not new, I was unfamiliar with it until I attended a board meeting for volunteers of a local animal rescue group. The more business savvy amongst us discussed how to brand our group to distinguish it from other rescue organizations.

The idea of branding just did not sit right with me. Thoughts came to mind of women who have been literally and figuratively branded for centuries as a mark of disgrace or notoriety. Holocaust victims likewise were branded with numbers on their forearms; those that survived wear indelible reminders of Hitler’s madness. Branding is not a word that would slip easily from my lips.

After our meeting, I began to think about the myriad of ways children and teenagers are manipulated into purchasing certain brands. From the cradle onward, our culture is bombarded with commercial advertisements. How often do we observe toddlers whining for new toys, special snacks, and sugary cereals? Teenagers harangue parents for the latest brands so they can be the height of fashion. Thousands upon thousands of dollars of hard earned dollars are spent on keeping up with trends.

Steven Manning, reporting on branding to children for The Nation, wrote an article titled, “Building Brand Recognition in the Classroom and The Fine Art of Nagging.” What parent amongst us cannot relate to their child begging and pleading for a particular pair of jeans or sneakers? According to Manning, in the United State approximately 2 billion dollars are spent yearly on advertising to children. Annual conferences are held that guide businesses on marketing to children. The effect of this is that before a child enters the first grade, he or she will have watched 30,000 advertisements. Studies of teenage behavior have found that they spend more time absorbing commercials than in high school.

It is often easier for parents to give in when a child starts whining and begging rather than to listen their incessant cries. Several years ago, I spent Christmas morning with a friend who was going through a horrific divorce. Her two children were being given two Christmas celebrations lest one parent appear to be more beneficent than the other. Every childish whim was catered to and every product that was successfully branded and hawked in glitzy television commercials landed under that tree. Those children tore open packages and threw new presents on the floor, barely looking that what they had discarded. Mountains of wrappings flew everywhere as my heart broke for these children whose parents were vying for their love through trying to one up each other with gifts.

Marketing techniques have not been lost on the consumer. Teenagers themselves have become ultimate branders. One need only go to websites such as Myspace and Facebook social directories to see how teenagers brand themselves, presenting a front for an audience of their peers. Designed as a method of keeping up with old friends in a mobile society, these sites have become vehicles for users to promote themselves with sometimes-disastrous results. Children and teenagers to differentiate themselves from one another now use branding.

Joyce Hulett, a contributing writer for the Columbia, Missouri Daily Tribune, has the right idea. Children should be taught that people matter more than possessions. When parents obsess over material items, they transfer this value on to their children. Time could instead be spent speaking about friends, positive role, models and humane values. This change in attitude would not happen immediately but with persistence a less materialistic child and, ultimately, a happier one would emerge.

At my learning center in New York we had this wonderful poem on the door.

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. ~e.e. cummings, 1955

The Bard knows and we would be well to teach and adhere to his words.