The series: An introduction

We ponder the family as a marketing bonanza.

Published February 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

You can get married in a field. You can give birth at home. You can acquire a baby, unmarried and alone, on another planet. It really won't matter. As soon as you create a family, as soon as you forge a recognizable bond, you are the fresh prey of ravenous commercial forces.

Not that you can expect to hide. We live in America, for heaven's sake. But there is a threshold that you cross on these momentous occasions, when you lose your status as a free agent, a cynical and knowing consumer of ads that must grovel and flatter for your attention. You become a sitting duck, an insecure, deeply conflicted or just plain vulnerable sitting duck whose demographics reek of moolah.

Days after the nups, long before the honeymoon (literal or figurative) has ended, Fredrick's of Hollywood comes calling with a catalog full of ostrich-feather mules. Vinyl valises, veritable birth-seeking missiles, arrive full of baby wipes, nursing pads and rice cereal before the contractions are five minutes apart. Hundreds of scary, peppy and scolding parenting manuals beckon and taunt, ready at every juncture to confirm worst fears and facilitate the purchase of more parenting manuals.

In every media, mothers and fathers are wooed and badgered and demeaned, the targets of major spending and endless probing aimed at coaxing just a few more bucks from the family unit. Children, meanwhile, are scrutinized by psychologists for psychic weak spots and behavioral habits that might cause them to be good soldiers of consumption by the ripe old age of 3.

And don't forget the wrapping paper and magazine subscriptions, candy, cookies, cookware, makeup, plastics, toys and scrapbooks that this budding sales team (Mom, Dad and Co.) must flog to family, friends and absolute strangers to assuage guilt, pay debts (often those of the school or Brownie troop) or fit in.

We are a stalwart grouping -- nuclear, blended, extended -- in the cultural landscape. We are a cherished crossover category -- a cavalcade of buying profiles -- in the world of marketing. We can be gotten where we live, we can be reached at school. And how could it be wrong to add value to this valuable unit with valued added stuff? If anyone needed easier, faster, smarter, happier, safer, better and more nutritious it is this struggling vessel ripe for improvement.

But for everything that we are -- afraid, ambitious, needy and frequently bored -- we are not stupid. And we are, many of us, fed up. Some have gone to the other side -- downshifted right into voluntary simplicity. Others will defend, to the death, or at least to great debt, the sweet, if fleeting perks of consumption and selling one's wares.

We of Mothers Who Think have our own feelings about these things -- a bit of consumer self-loathing punctuated occasionally by self-righteous, supply-side barking and nattering. Nothing, perhaps, as interesting as that which we have elected to publish in this, our week of "Family for Sale" writings. Our best wishes for a robust dialogue.

And, did you want fries with this?

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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