Remember the Christmas movie, “A Christmas Story” wherein all Ralphie wanted was a Red Ryder BB-gun? Moment to moment he thought of little else, and when he finally unwrapped his prize, all things became possible to him. That BB-gun represented a lot more than just a toy. The film, set in the 1940s, was at the onset of consumerism and demonstrated how even back then, brands were marketing to children. While back in the day, marketing was in its infancy itself; advertising was limited to radio jingles, print ads in newspapers and magazines, and for the household name toy companies like Mattel and Ideal, commercials on that new entertainment vehicle, television.

Today, Mattel, Inc., headquartered in California since it was founded in 1945 repositioned its marketing to reflect changing times and is still going strong. “It’s a joy of a toy it’s Ideal”, founded in 1907, floundered and went out of business in 1997, an early victim of the digital age. With the internet, so much has changed, and yet, so much remains the same. Consumers are wiser now, yet continue to allow less than subtle influences to permeate our lives, and the lives of our children. This article explores how and why we allow advertising and marketing to impact our buying decisions as part of their business cycle. BTW: Just about all of us will or have performed this buying ritual, so prepare to enter the judgement-free zone.

Why Expectation Needs Fulfillment

Yesterday I witnessed firsthand, what happens when expectation is not fulfilled. I have a 20-month old grandniece, Lina. For Lina, this is not the Chinese Year of the Pig. Oh, no, this is the Year of Baby Shark. It was introduced to her at daycare, and what it is is an internet phenomenon. Baby Shark (hereafter ‘BS’) first surfaced on YouTube a while back as an innocuous ditty aimed at entertaining toddlers. Its cartoon characters emulate the nuclear family, the lyrics are repetitive, and the storyline is minimal. Rejoice! There is a happy outcome. Lina’s morning routine begins with being carried downstairs for breakfast, where she summons Alexa (and if your house or apartment does not have a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant, What. Are. You. Waiting for?) to play “Doot! Doot!” (the BS chorus).

The original concept has been openly duplicated across the internet, to the point where there are so many imitators, that one can expect a version of Baby Shark for every holiday. Of course there are unlicensed tee-shirts, toys, and even socks, all featuring that toothsome little predator. In pink or blue that is. Therein began Lina’s near meltdown yesterday when she opened her gift from Nana and Pop Pops: a shark hand puppet in the elasmo branche’s original gray tone. That threw her toddler brain into a tizzy. Even at 20 months, this budding consumer knows that Baby Shark is NOT gray. Happily, great aunt D (moi) rushed in with a tee shirt and socks in the authentic hues. And did you know? On tiny hands, socks make a dandy substitute for a hand puppet! (Take that, Nana and Pop Pops!) The point is, though she be small, this dainty toddler is mighty. And she made her stand clear: she had been indoctrinated to a Baby Shark that was a certain way, and it was that way or the highway! Lina’s reaction may not have been articulate, but it was clear. Not pink or blue, no soap!

Advertisers have been influencing which products parents buy their children for decades. Hanna Barbera licensed its cartoon characters back in the 1960s. Soon children were willingly taking their vitamins- so long as mom and dad had bought them Flintstones, Yogi Bear, or The Jetsons brand! Disney came late to the party, but today not only licenses toys, but also clothing in both children’s and adult sizes as well. Throughout Disney parks (but not in their franchised stores) home decor items are displayed alongside toys so that everyone in the family can bring home a memento of their visit to the Magic, and Magically Marketed Kingdom.

Be Careful What You Wish For

As a delightful aside, in one scene from ‘A Christmas Story’, Ralphie saves box tops from a popular chocolate-flavored beverage then sends them to the manufacturer in exchange for a secret decoder pin from his favorite radio show, ‘Orphan Annie‘. Daily he visits the family mailbox, until one day, one day, his decoder ring arrives. That night, Ralphie listens to the radio broadcast, carefully scribes the code, ‘just for secret agents’, then retreats to the bathroom to decode the secret message in private. What is its message? “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” What Waaaaaah!

Some fine day (and for her parents, not a moment too soon). Lina will tire of Baby Shark. At that point, all things Baby Shark will be discarded in favor of some other item receiving airplay and sweeping the ranks of the playground set. All that is known is that it will be some trend whose collateral is widely available. Whatever it is will make her feel good about herself, or is some other way will fulfill a need, real or emotional. In that way, nothing has changed from 1958, the year I desperately wanted a 3-foot high Shirley Temple doll, but had to settle for an 18-inch version that did not break the family’s household budget. My response was to thank my parents ever so politely, then put dolly dearest on a shelf, never to be played with. Quietly I sulked and eventually moved on to the obtaining another object of desire.

Consumers may be wiser now, but we continue to allow outside influences to permeate our lives, and our children’s. We are not raising future consumers, however: through peer pressure, the internet, and the now standard advertising and marketing influences, they already are. BTW: Walking size or not, I still have my Shirley Temple doll! Still in her original box. Never played with. Might be worth something someday, ya never know!