Toying with us

Two books explore how marketers and toy-makers turned our little darlings into crazed, Barney-craving monsters.

By Albert Mobilio
November 18, 1997 5:16PM (UTC)
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A kid's consumer soul in full cry is an ugly thing, not
only because his repetitive, snot-choked whine can
feel like a rusty, serrated blade sawing back and
forth in your ear, but because we recognize that
bloody howl as our very own. Indeed, one adequate
definition of adulthood might be the ability to
tamp down and dissemble this clamorous need for
shiny, whirring purchasables. Grown-ups can
rationalize: The box-set of Philly Sound CDs will
boost my husband's spirits, or that tasty linen
jacket will come in handy for job interviews.
But, at bottom, truly, toys are us. Tikes know
this and feel no shame. Their trick is to get
their outsized greed in sync with your guilt
about yours. When that happens, it's two more
babes bound for toy land.

Was it always thus? Two new books -- "Kid's Stuff: Toys and
the Changing World of American Childhood" by Gary
Cross and "What Kids Buy and
Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids" by Dan S.
Acuff and Robert H. Reiher -- treat the gimme complex with high
seriousness, providing both historical context and
psychological insight. Cross gives us the
big picture, toy-wise, how, over the past century,
educational theories, child-rearing manuals,
toy makers and modern marketing have shaped young
consumers and what they consume. Acuff and
Reiher are those modern marketers, and they've
written an instruction manual on how to turn your
cherub-faced li'l darling into a foaming, spitting
knot of Barbie-crazed lust.


Back in the good old days, before Ninja
Turtles, even before Pez dispensers, back in the
15th century, toys as such didn't exist. Wealthy
children played with objects -- manger scenes,
Noah's arks, engravings of animals or
battles -- that originated as amusements for adults.
For example, fashion dolls originated in the
Middle Ages as portable mannequins on which the
latest Parisian styles might circulate. After
this practical service they would be passed along
by mothers to daughters. Among the hoi polloi,
rag-and-straw dolls or balls made out of animal
wastes were popular. (They still are if you think
about tossing around the ol' pigskin, originally
a pig bladder.) But overall, considerable
congruence existed between adult and child play
and, as Cross points out, playthings "served
common purposes in introducing the young to the
tools, experiences and even emotional lives of
their parents."

You can only have so much fun with animal
waste. In the late 19th century,
items like roller skates, bicycles, mechanical
banks, sleds, air rifles and jack-in-the boxes
made their mass-produced appearance. About this
time the bacchanal excesses of Christmas were
tidied up for domestic use and rechanneled as gift
giving, especially to the young. Newly erupting
parental anxiety about children's need for
creative outlets dovetailed with this holiday ethos to
launch a juggernaut of tinker toys and teddy bears.
Trailing in its wake would come exhausted Santas and parents wrung free of their last
dime by their child's trembling lip and the words "I wanna."

Over subsequent decades, toys evolved from
reflectors of adult lives -- erector sets,
doll houses, model railroads -- to embodiments of
childhood fantasy. If playing with Civil War
soldiers at least bore some relation to history,
Flash Gordon ray guns bore less, and Power Rangers
bear none at all. All three product lines share
the common denominator of violence, but only the
old-fashioned toy soldiers offer the possibility
of a moral context. "Toymakers," Cross writes,
"seem like pied pipers leading our children away
from us." And even so-called educational toys (toy
manufacturing czar Leo Marx once said they were
purchased only by "spinster aunts and spinster
uncles and hermetically sealed parents who wash
their children 1,000 times a day")
unavoidably promote that consumption-now-or-else
mentality kids seem to inhale from us like air.


But it's not really that grim, is it?
Parents do get a piece of the action, what
Thorstein Veblen called "vicarious
consumption," and from that flows an
undeniable delight. Small windfalls I once spent
on myself I started using to buy German-made,
zoologically accurate dinosaurs for my little boy.
(After close inspection of cheaper reptile
replicas, I determined there was no comparison
with the imported models.) Satisfying my own
consumer itch with an arguably "educational" toy
that lit the boy up like he'd mainlined a couple
of Milky Way bars seemed to be a good deal. But
soon after beginning to bring home these
occasional treats, I found myself being greeted at
the door by my 3-year-old's avid inquiry, "Whatchu
got for me?" And, if that wasn't heart-sinking
enough, the demand soon turned imperious. I was
being shaken down for Mesozoic miniatures.
Delight turned sour as it turned to obligation, and
I realized my toddler had come of consumer age.
He and I were entering the threshold of mature
relations -- we could now bargain and bicker over

As defensive prep for these brutal
negotiations you could do no better than read
Acuff and Reiher's "What Kids Buy." The book's flap
copy reads, "If you're in the business of
marketing or developing products and programs for
kids, [this book] belongs in your office." The
authors trumpet their 20 years of consulting
for Nike, Tyco, Disney, Pepsi, Mattel, Hasbro,
Sega and Kellogg's. So if you want to know why
your child's soul is on fire for some soda, snack
or gadget, these guys can tell you. They muster up
scads of scientific data to put their finger on
the "moral sense," "humor," "neurology" and
"needs" of kids at every age. Did you know that
for 3-to-7-year-olds, "the right brain, which
specializes in nonlinear, nonlogical abilities,
such as visuospatial acuity and music, is being
emphasized developmentally"? Toy packagers are
then advised to make use of "a character or
glittery heart symbol ... to grab and hold this
child's attention."

"Visuospatial acuity" sounds to me like an
old Moody Blues tune, but even I know that
"glittery" stuff catches a kindergartner's eye.
Yet the general obviousness of most of the
marketing ploys laid out here doesn't make the
book less scary; the punctiliously assembled
research, complete with involved charts and
diagrams, gives the unmistakable impression of
plans for a military campaign: This book is the
blueprint for D-Day and your children are Paris
and Berlin. When describing kids motivated
to ask their parents to buy something, Acuff and
Reiher refer to "purchase influence" or what is
commonly known in the toy biz as "the nag
factor." The candor is appreciated; they're
out to make your job as a parent just a teensy bit
harder. But, even with their fiendish plot in
your hands, what can you do besides send your kids
to a Tibetan monastery? Since the incubus
consumerus dwells everywhere, one smuggled Gameboy
would shoot the whole place to blink 'n' beep hell.


After a couple of nights of being whined and
wheedled nightly for new dinosaurs, I sat my son
down and patiently explained that we should enjoy
each toy completely before moving on to the next,
that one toy at a time was like having a best
friend to have fun with and care about, that a
gift was a special thing for special times, and
that the best gift Mommy and Daddy could ever get
was a hug and big kiss from our little guy. His
eyes softened and his head inclined
sympathetically toward me as I finished. "Daddy,"
he purred, "whatchu got for me tomorrow?"

Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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