Childish consumerism

| March 1, 2009
Topic of the Month

As role models, guardians and parents, we can surely do more to stop our kids falling prey to savvy and toxic marketing campaigns.

Do you have a "tween" in your house, or are about to have one? Perhaps you’re now grateful you have a couple of teenagers, or even young adults still living at home. Maybe you’re even relieved to have only boys in the house!

We’ve all been affected by the downside of consumerism, but if you thought you’re precious little ones were safe, particularly your girls, rest assured this "market" has been well and truly discovered. You might be one of the many believers that it’s much easier to raise boys than girls, and regardless of whether this is true, we can probably all agree there are lots to raise an eyebrow at in 2009.

The "tweenager" is generally agreed to be a child between the ages of six and twelve and, in most cases, we are talking about our daughters, goddaughters and nieces as the poor victims of the marketing circus.

What fascinates me is the attitudinal change in young girls. I have watched their behaviour, noted their fashion choices and listened to their very loud conversations about all kinds of advanced subjects with great interest on my way to work on public transport. With every generation comes a new set of ideals, with the one before always shaking their head in memory of the good old days – but with the unquestionable impact of and access to technology and mass media, I wonder if there may be something slightly more worrying about what we are seeing unfolding.  

So long as we are on the topic of the good old days, I fondly remember my young school days as ones full of cabbage patch dolls, complete with handmade outfits from my grandmother, playing make believe games in the backyard and Monopoly when it rained. I’m told now that Barbie is actually the toy of choice for a child of pre-school age, as a six year old wouldn’t be caught dead dressing up a doll that has no eye makeup or bling as an accessory. As for Monopoly – well that’s just plain daggy.

Topic of the MonthAfter studying one of these school girls in question, I wondered to myself when the idea of wearing mascara at the age of twelve became something a girl actually wanted to do? Dancing concerts were about the only times my friends and I wore any makeup at all, and we actually all had a good chat backstage about how annoying the whole application process was. Tinted lip gloss was about as far as we were prepared to go. To purchase and wear your first bra was something of a national secret. There was somewhat embarrassment and awkwardness to admit you now needed to wear one, because this meant you were "maturing" (for some reason, this wasn’t considered such a great thing and something you’d rather hide!).

These are just some examples of changed thinking patterns and there would be many more stories from generations past. We could blame greedy manufacturers, poor role models, advertisers, lazy and careless parenting or all of the above – but what about the role of our law makers?

Governments have spoken out about the sexualisation of youth, supporting the protection of young models from exploitation and so forth. I am wondering what else can be done to protect our children from a free and aggressive marketplace? Surely there is enough time later in life for them to enjoy the ups and downs of being a consumer?

There is nothing cute or funny about seeing a padded bra suitable for a girl under double digits, there are no thoughts of "how sweet" attached to it. It must be very confusing for the child, who in a situation such as this is probably well aware they don’t actually need a bra, but should have one nevertheless. How does one bridge the gap between a lack of physical, emotional and psychological maturity and a social presence that is taking off? Surely we can do more, perhaps using the law but also harnessing our power as role models, guardians and parents to stop our kids falling prey to savvy and toxic marketing campaigns.

You may be wondering by now what the story is with the tween boy?

It would seem that this is still a largely untapped goldmine that requires a lot more hard work from our marketing gurus. Grooming products for men have taken off in popularity in recent times, made fashionable by successful sporting stars like David Beckham, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. They’re now seen as cool and "must have", not daggy and feminine. There have been whispers that such a trend might be replicated for the younger age bracket, when boys tend to become more conscious of skin and hair care, but I will take my hat off to the person who can successfully convince a ten year old to spend his pocket money on facial cleanser as opposed to a new playstation game!

Alison Gordon is Client Services Manager at Global Access Partners (GAP) and Open Forum’s regular blogger on urban affairs, social trends and customs.



  1. sally.rose

    March 2, 2009 at 4:20 am


    One of the most successful examples of tween marketing would have to be the Bratz dolls. When I first heard the furore over them I thought people had their knickers in a knot about nothing.  After all Barbie was pretty "sexy" and she didn't do me any harm?  My original point of view was that it is adults who make a big deal over pouty lips or short skirts and what they may imply. Surely if kids are left to play with their toys using their own imagination and we don't shove gender stereotypes down their young throats there'll be no problem?   But then I watched Saturday morning cartoons for the first time in twenty years and realised the full extent of the problem.  The Bratz product is not just a doll, it is a doll supported by a tv show and movie, with plots in which the Bratz, to whom the young viewers will aspire, bitch and moan and plot against one another and have falling outs over boys. Horrifying stuff. Barbie of my era may have been wearing a pink bikini but in the childish imaginings of role playing she could be a rocket scientist – and let's not forget she was marketed as a doctor, lawyer, vet, cowgirl, not only party princess. What's disturbing about this new marketing to tweens isn't just what the products look like but that they are  just one part of an insidious mareketing strategy that is constantly "on message" , and a pretty crummy message at that, which takes the possibility for childish imagination away.  It's unlikely little girls will imagine their Bratz doll is an famous novelist after they've seen the cartoon and know she just hangs out at the mall.

  2. alison gordon

    March 3, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    bratz are brats!

    Sally, hate to pick on just one part of the market, but I do agree these dolls set a particularly bad example. Aside from their appearance, you do get the impression these "girls" aren't promoting the best message to their owners. I wonder why they are so attractive? As you say, there was something very admirable about Doctor Barbie.

    Unfortunately too, we still view childhood as girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks. If either does a swap, there must be something wrong with them. This mindset probably doesn't help the trends we are seeing. The market is still saturated with babies who do everything from eat, snore and need a nappy change, mini washing machines and microwaves that make a lot of noise, and play kitchens that are almost as big as my first real kitchen in a tiny apartment block! Perhaps the gender stereotype has played a more subtle role in these worrying patterns than we realise.

  3. JEQP

    March 5, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Just can’t help myself…
    I'm trying not to just repeat what other people have said, but I can't help myself. A few years ago we bought a DVD in a special promotional pack of 2. The other one was a Bratz CD, which we'd never heard of but figured it would be good for the young daughter of a friend. We watched it first though, to make sure it was suitable (some times it's hard to tell what is manga and what is hentai). After we watched it we burned it. What a disgusting pile of trash. They're all exactly the same except for the clothes they wear, hairstyle and a hobby. And their lives revolve around shopping. That's the worst part — the crummy marketing message is just "buy things so you are cool". It makes me shudder…

  4. bwendo

    February 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Big Girl Now – Growing Older with Grace

    Grace is my daughter (not her real name) and she is reinventing herself as a Big Girl Now she has been promoted from the infants to the pre school room.
    Our constant refrain and re-direction when she is vulnerable to a tired outburst is "You’re a Big Girl Now, and Big Girls don’t do X" or whatever behaviour it is that we consider inappropriate.
    Is it not acceptable that, as she grows older, Grace has an association between being a Big Girl Now and adopting the behaviour and appearances of others she sees as Big Girls? 
    Even if that Big Girl is some fantasy anime figurine with glitter lipstick or a doe eyed plastic doll?
    I feel responsible for gently nudging her toward this idea of being a Big Girl Now and somehow it just doesn’t sit right.

    How to nuture Grace’s growth whilst managing her exposure to Trashy Consumerism and (heaven forbid) the ubiquitous Dolphin Tattoo above the belt or navel piercing?

    Or what I call Big Girl Now.