The summer before my daughter started kindergarten was filled with firsts. First summer camp, first swimming lessons, first back-to-school shopping. Thanks to a school uniform policy, clothes were the easy part, but finding a backpack turned out to be an adventure -- not only did we visit countless stores in our search, but we learned a lot about which media brands were working overtime to catch my 5-year-old's eye.
With back-to-school shopping raking in more than $30 billion a year for retailers, it's a prime time to target both parents and kids. And advertisers know that the earlier a kid learns about a brand -- whether it be McDonald's or Tinker Bell -- the more likely she'll be to buy it or beg for it later.
Barbie tries to befriend my daughter
Our first stops were the usual big box stores; there we found backpacks swimming in a sea of sparkly pink, where characters from TV shows and movies frolicked joyfully on the racks. The Hannah Montana backpacks glittered, the Barbie backpacks glowed, My Little Pony peeked her pastel head out behind racks of shimmery Tinker Bell bags. My daughter barely knew any of the characters, but she was an eager recruit, repeating "I want this one!" with every turn of her head.
Now, I have no problem with pink (I used to avoid it, but now I realize it's the least of my problems). But I have a real issue with suiting my kids up in logos and brand names, doing the work of advertisers and paying for the privilege. I know my kids will already be exposed to some 25,000 TV ads before the age of 11, and I'm not interested in hurrying along the process. I'm also not interested in cementing their attachments to heavily marketed characters. It's a slippery slope, I fear, where one character on a backpack quickly becomes a pencil case, a T-shirt, and eventually I'm kissing her good night under a character-emblazoned bedspread.
Mommy says no, and then yes
So I stuck to my guns. "No characters" became my mantra, and despite some frustrated whines, my daughter resolved herself to finding a bag without faces or writing. As difficult as our search became, I was buoyed by the idea that I was teaching my daughter to be a critical consumer, one who can distinguish between pretty and pre-packaged.
At the end of the day, I decided to pop into the sporting goods store. And that's where we found it. It's pink, yes, but completely free of TV tie-ins. She won't see its pretty floral pattern reproduced on a movie screen or a fast food advertisement. When she put it on, her face broke into a giant grin, and she didn't even need to say it -- I knew she wanted it. And I did, too.
How to be a critical back-to-school consumer
* Have a game plan. Expect to encounter lots of kid-targeted advertising, and figure out your stance before you get to the store. My backpack mantra was "no characters," but you could also use "no words or logos," "no violent images," or any simple phrase that you won't mind repeating a hundred times but that clearly articulates your limits.
* Seize the teaching moment. Discuss the tools marketers use to influence kids to buy or beg for something. Turn it into a game where kids try to figure out what product an ad is representing or what symbol marketers decided was popular with kids this year (rainbows! skulls! owls!).
* Look for alternatives to big box stores. Online stores, mom and pops, thift stores, Etsy -- any of these choices offers the chance to find something unique, creative, or even personalized.
* Talk to other parents. Ask other parents for tips on where to find certain goods and which stores to avoid. (After an early encounter with Bratz panties, I became a willing dispenser of underwear-shopping advice to parents at my daughter's preschool.)
* Prepare for disappointment (or at least compromise). Some kids may be so focused on a Barbie backpack or a LEGO lunchbox that they're willing to throw the mother of all tantrums to get it. Only you can decide which battles are worth waging. Remember that kids move on quickly -- almost as quickly as they lose backpacks.