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Branded Kids and the Diabolical Depot

I’ve been reading a lot about advertising’s effect on kids and the general over-prominence of big corporate brands in our culture lately, as I’ve cruised through Packaging Girlhood and Consuming Kids (Red Pill Parent bibles, by the way: and Packaging Boyhood, by the same authors, was just published in October).  But I had an opportunity to see a disturbing example of this recently that really hit home.  My second-grade daughter’s class did what they called a Community Scrapbook – each student was assigned an artifact to find and include in the scrapbook, such as “An autograph from a police officer or elected official” – that sort of thing.  My daughter brought the book home.  For the assignment to find a “Crayon rubbing of a decoration found on a building” – which you would think might be an architectural feature maybe, a sign, a year built plaque or something – the student did a rubbing of the words “McDonald’s Playplace” and included a hash brown wrapper and a fry box on the scrapbook page.  For “Take out menu from a restaurant in the community” – of which there are not a great many, but plenty of local, independent restaurants: pizza, Asian, sushi at least – the student included a Subway menu.  For “A picture of something that shows an industry in our community” – admittedly, that’s tough, and a lot of people might confuse “business” with “industry” – but we’re rocking the home improvement and landscaping around here, that’s for sure, and there’s plenty of medical and fitness and pet-related places.  The student’s page was a big splash of branding for Home Depot, with a picture of him in a Home Depot hat, holding a power tool of some sort.  So: McDonald’s, Subway, Home Depot.  Ubiquitous brands, ubiquitous companies.  Already firmly entrenched in the minds of suburban Georgia second graders.  Customers from cradle to grave indeed.

But yes, I mentioned home improvement as an industry, so yes, Home Depot counts in that department.  But what does that say about us here, that home improvement is so important?  When I was growing up, it was a rare and wonderful occasion when someone got an addition, had a tree taken down or had their roof redone.  We’d hear the trucks and stand out in the street to watch the spectacle, because it was so rare and fascinating. I don’t recall my parents ever painting or replacing carpet, let alone upgrading to stainless or granite.  And my childhood was just fine – I only later became aware of where my neighborhood might have fit in the hierarchy of Northern Virginia status.  But here: good lord – hardly a day goes by when I’m not hearing roofing hammers, a wood chipper or a power washer, or seeing a contractor’s truck in the neighborhood or a sign in somebody’s yard.  When did our houses become so unacceptable?  When did it become so important to constantly upgrade, and re-do and improve, improve, improve?

Now Red Pill Parents, here’s the point: what is the message that this sends to our kids?  I truly believe that one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is this: to be OK with what they’ve got.  Learning that will save them so much suffering later in life.  Well when we as parents are not OK with what we’ve got, our kids are going to internalize that, no matter what we say.  And taking a house — an ordinary, wonderful, loving home (granite countertops or otherwise) — which is the center of a kid’s universe, and perfect to a kid — and constantly changing it, “improving” it, tells them several things: 1) that this house, this object, is worthy of a lot of time and expense (as opposed to enriching experiences, hobbies, travel, relationships, etc.), 2) that the condition of their house is somehow tied to their worth as a person (if it’s so important to so many people, it must be important to me!) 3) that when Home Depot calls, they should listen, and ultimately they will never be happy with their house the way it is.  They will fret over not having granite.  They will devote an awful lot of time to improving that house, at the expense of other, way more important things.  They may even go into debt, the drive to have a worthy house will become so important.  How many of you reading this are living these consequences?  Do you really want your kids to live them too?

Home Depot has created an industry indeed.  And they’re recruiting customers very young, with their weekend workshops.  Ask the boy in my daughter’s class.  Where do you suppose he got the hat?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anastasia January 10, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas is also a great read on this topic.

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