BUY, BUY BABY
How Consumer Culture
and Harms Young Minds
By Susan Gregory Thomas
Houghton Mifflin; 276pp; $25
The Good A revealing probe of the marketing blitz aimed at very young children.
The Bad Some of what's covered may seem familiar.
The Bottom Line A must-read for current or soon-to-be parents.
From LeapFrog's (LF) educational software featuring Dora the Explorer to Baby Einstein DVDs offering to "help you and your little one discover the world together," a tidal wave of products claim to turn babies into gifted and well-rounded individuals. Such items are all the more alluring because they allow frazzled parents to take a shower or balance the checkbook even as their child seems to be engaged in a constructive activity.
Plenty of skeptics challenge the worth of these products, however. In April the nonprofit education-policy think tank Education Sector issued a paper that blasted companies for misusing scientific findings on the development of a baby's brain. And now comes Susan Gregory Thomas with Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. The investigative reporter and mother of two argues that consumerism trumps learning as companies try to infiltrate nearly every aspect of a child's life. Some of the territory in this penetrating volume is familiar. But the focus on the highly lucrative and relatively new push into the newborn-to-3 age bracket makes the book a must-read for current or soon-to-be parents.
The baby business is a huge and growing industry, with sales now exceeding $20 billion. (Toys account for more than $3 billion.) The industry's success has hinged on two things, according to Thomas: knowing how parents think and finding new ways to get products in front of babies and toddlers. After all, research shows that children as young as 18 months begin to recognize characters. By age 2, they're able to ask for specific brands.
Buy, Buy Baby is at its best when Thomas lays out why toy and media companies are eager to declare that their wares help children learn. The author asserts that a 1997 White House conference on early-childhood development and ensuing media reports on the long-term importance of brain development among those 3 and under helped spawn a "baby genius virus." Companies are capitalizing on widespread anxiety that children must be stimulated to learn from Day One and the belief, especially among Gen X parents, that TV is a legitimate educational tool for babies.
Toy and media businesses are using psychologists and marketing firms to help create and sell products. But Thomas says there is little proof that these Digital Age offerings do a better job than wooden blocks at making babies smarter. And she says company data aren't always persuasive. For example, a Disney video said to help babies develop coordination was supported by skimpy evidence. One consulting psychologist, hired to evaluate the video, gave her stamp of approval after she observed just a single child moving his fingers.
Equally insightful are the author's accounts of how marketers and corporations are gaining access to day-care centers and preschools. Cash-strapped facilities snatch up advertising-filled educational magazines and free curricula centered on popular television characters.
Even Thomas' coverage of academic research on children's TV viewing, a subject well covered by the media, is worth a read. She shows how scientists' views have changed over the decades by focusing on the career of developmental psychologist Daniel R. Anderson. In the 1970s he expressed skepticism that shows such as Sesame Street could help kids learn. Over time his views changed, and he became an adviser to several children's programs. But Anderson's most recent research has led him once again to question the value of TV.
There are times when the author's arguments seem contradictory. Most notably, she asserts that she found no villains, "no one, at least, who was fully conscious of the damaging effects of his or her work." Yet less than a page later she quotes an appalling remark attributed to Rachel Geller, the chief strategic officer at the kid-centric advertising firm Geppetto Group, whose clients include Scholastic (SCHL), Walt Disney (DIS), and several major consumer-goods companies. "It's good for kids to learn how to manipulate," the executive allegedly said. "That's how you get ahead in the world."
How do parents counter this multimedia marketing blitz? For one thing, they must quash the idea that kids need stimulation at all times. Instead, the author opines, parents should spend time doing "Nothing," allowing "adults and their young children [to] have periods of unstructured time when they can see what just unfolds." That may sound quaint today, but it's probably how Einstein got his start.
By James Mehring