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Playtime is essential to children but many toys are now branded, leading to a stifling of imagination and making the child a marketing target, writes Joanna Fortune. Andrew Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Column Children are conditioned from birth to develop 'brand loyalty'

Family clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune says toys don’t just let children ‘play’ anymore – they are constantly selling to them…

TO ANYONE WHO has recently had a child, let me ask you this: How do you feel about the idea that your new baby is already being targeted by some of the biggest brands and marketing campaigns in the world? Your baby is already being groomed and conditioned to recognise, align with and ultimate develop “brand loyalty” to these products, before they have even uttered their first words.

I was in a large toy store recently to buy a birthday gift for my six-year-old goddaughter. I was immediately frustrated – and then really angry – at
how many of the ‘toys’ aimed at little girls are image and make-up focused. There is make your own lipstick, nail-polish, and a variety of others not worth mentioning here. Even the dolls were pimped to the maximum. (Don’t get me started on the Bratz doll franchise…)

I eventually settled on a Paint Your Own Puppy set, but it got me thinking about the serious consequences of this brand exposure and conditioning. Our children are being targeted by marketing companies from their infancy, and so I wondered: what is the effect on child development, and what can we do about it?

Play is essential to children’s development. It is how they learn about their world, who they are, who others in their world are. From here they learn to develop relationships and attachments. Play is a natural experience for children, it comes naturally to them and free, creative, imaginative play is of paramount importance in children’s development.

This overt sexualisation and commercialisation of children’s play and toys is preventing them from exploring and experimenting with feelings and choices. It is stopping children from actually playing. The amount of time children are spending at creative or imaginative play is steadily decreasing. I couldn’t help but observe that even the ‘creative’ toys in this same toy store, such as Lego, were now available in kits that were mostly associated with a brand – Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disney. Even these are exposing children to the influence of bigger brands, leading them to brand recognition and limiting the scope for free expression play with the Lego.

Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the influence of gender stereotyping in how children’s toys are marketed – it’s mostly ‘princess’ and hair or make-up options for girls, while boys’ toys are action based with the roles on offer being firefighter, police officer, soldier and so on.

“You are not just buying a book for your child; the branded book automatically directs you towards the DVD, computer game, pencil case…”

A recent study in Adweek Magazine stated that by the age of three, children in the US can recognise 100 different brands. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the US by any means. The article goes on to quote a former marketing consultant to Hasbro, Mattel and Nestlé who said:

Babies don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, so they [companies] think, ‘Let’s get them while they’re susceptible’.

This is compounded by the fact that everything is branded now. You are not just buying a book for your child; the branded book is automatically directing you and your child toward the DVD, computer game, playing cards, pencil case and lunch box that go with it.

By limiting our children’s access to creative and imaginative play we are undermining their creations and projections. We are restricting how they get to work out the world around them and how they feel in it and also how they learn to problem-solve: creative play is essential for children to develop their critical thinking capacity.

The consequences of commercialised play are significant and will have a far-reaching impact in society. The UNICEF report An Overview of Child

Wellbeing in Rich Countries highlighted how the pressure of the working environment and increased focus on materialism combine to damage the wellbeing of our children. We have a society of time-poor parents who are under increasing pressures to work longer hours to maintain a standard of living for families, so compensate for not being there physically for their children by giving them things we think they want, because we’ve all seen the same ad campaigns. But research tells us that material goods do not make children happy – and moreover they would give it all back to have extra time with their parents or carers.

So let’s take some responsibility for what our children are playing with, and at the same time send a message to the marketing companies that our children will not be a part of the increasing commercial culture we all live in. Less of Tattooed Barbie and more sand, Play-Doh or clay, finger painting, baking with parents, sports with parents, outdoor family activities.

We know that what our children want and need most of all is time with their parents or carers – not stuff!

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist and the director of the Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin.

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