I originally published this article in Playthings Magazine. A publication that is long gone and sorely missed. I chanced upon it today, and it struck me as being as relevant as it was when I originally wrote it. Some of you were still in middle school when it came out so I thought you would enjoy reading it.
I was about six years old when I first saw the television ad that promised a square inch of land in Alaska “Absolutely Free!!!” Wow!!! The commercial was fantastic. It was in black and white, and it showed people panning for gold and doing other cool Alaska things. I guess somewhere in a crevice of my brain lurked the entrepreneur I was to become as I thought about farming my square inch. Corn, I thought. I’ll grow corn!! All I had to do was send in the coupon that came in the box of Quaker Oats to the “Klondike Big Inch Land Co.” I would become a landowner.
The problem was, and this was a big problem, my mother. She was a dangerous combination of indulgent and begrudging – all at the same time. I mean, she would buy me the cereal knowing full well that I would never eat it. On the other hand, she couldn’t let it go to waste, so she would be gagging the stuff down while we sat together eating breakfast. In between gags, she would remind me repeatedly about what a pain I was because all I really wanted was the prizes and that I never ate the cereal she bought me. She was, unfortunately, correct.
So, once again, I promised that I would eat the cereal, that it wasn’t about the prize; it was that I loved Quaker Oats (have you ever eaten Quaker Oats?). Once again, she bought me the cereal, gullible fool and loving mother that she was. I remember putting it on the table, opening it up, snaking my hand down through the cereal to the bottom of the box, and dragging out the coupon along with various pieces of Quaker Oats stuck to my arm and hand.
I did get my certificate, and being six years old; I immediately lost it. I never, however, lost the memory of farming that square inch of land. It was a brilliant ad campaign as literally millions of unsuspecting kids made their mothers buy Quaker Oats and, just like me, sent in for their square inch.
I bring this up because it was my first run-in with marketing. I had undoubtedly been taken, but I wasn’t disillusioned. I had just learned an important lesson. Don’t fall for everything you see on television; something that has held me in good stead to this day.
Someone will come on television and try to convince me to buy a car, take out a loan, or go on a vacation and I will look at the TV, frown, furrow my brow, and think to myself: “H-m-m-m, is this that square inch of land thing all over again?”
Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about something that happened when I was six years old? Well, I am getting tired of these books coming out that attack the toy industry for marketing to kids. We already had to listen to Eric Clark and his book: The Real Toy Story; Inside the Ruthless Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers. We have Benjamin Barber’s Consumed; How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. He says that marketing is so dominant in our culture that children are reduced to focusing their lives on shopping and brands. In general, he sees consumerism as taking down our democracy and generally destroying the world.
Well Mr. Clark thinks we’re a ruthless bunch, and Mr. Barber believes we are both corrupting and infantilizing. He says we want to swallow everybody. Well, a few folks in the industry may be ruthless, corrupting, and infantilizing. There may even be, God forbid, someone who wants to swallow people whole, but, frankly, I think that by marketing to kids, we are all playing an essential function in every child’s life. We help them learn how to survive in a country that has a free market economy, free speech, and the God-given right for someone to try to get someone else to buy pretty much whatever they have to sell.
So let me just say it: I am blatantly and unapologetically in favor of marketing to kids. Why? Because they will have to spend the rest of their lives listening to every kind of marketing approach, and childhood is where they will learn to cope with it. The stakes are low, and the knowledge is priceless. We do them no favors by sending them into the adult world unprepared.
And let me take a minute to speak up in favor of the consumerist society within which we live. We have our faults, but frankly, in a culture where everyone is trying to hustle their next buck, they are much too busy trying to sell their neighbor than to find the time to kill them. There is no profit in blowing up a potential customer. It’s terrible for business!
So, the next time your kid suckers for a toy that doesn’t work like the commercial said it would, or that broke immediately, or that quickly became obsolete, remember that though they are disappointed, they are learning how to get by in the world not as we wish it to be but as it is. Their learning process is not always pretty to watch, but it’s better than the alternative.
By the way, I just found out those “1 square inch of land” deeds are going for $40 apiece on the collector market. Oh yeah, I lost mine. I guess I’m still learning lessons from childhood. Damn it!