Toy marketers target Gen-X parents. By Susan Gregory Thomas for


Every time I open my Gmail account, a link to the online quiz pops up below the tool bar. I’ve never pursued it, largely because of the dumb name, but I have been curious to know how it got there. Their facile assumptions happen to be accurate – that I’m a mother of Generation X vintage, and that by extension, I don’t want to be thought of as an obsessive helicopter mother. But they obviously didn’t pluck my e-mail account out of thin air; Google had to assess my online activities to see if I matched that profile. So, what was it? My inbox bulging with daily digests of Park Slope Parents listserv? My shameful online shopping transactions involving Calypso Enfant, Petit Bateau and Du Pareil Au Meme? My checking showtimes for Harvey Birdman? How did they know?

Actually, I know how “they” know. “They,” being marketers, have been studying Generation-X mothers for a decade now, and as a reporter-cum-tiger-mama of two under six, I’ve been researching them for the past several years. I’ve attended kids marketing conferences in Orlando with names like KidPower x-Change; interviewed LeapFrog, Disney, Nickelodeon and Fisher-Price marketing executives; and sat in on more how-to seminars as Toy Fairs than my three-year-old can count. They all say the same thing: Generation X (1965-1977, or some research firms even consider to include those born as recently as 1981) may have famously spent its youth reviling commercial culture, but it has now ripened into a desirable demographic as parents. Today, two-thirds of mothers with children under twelve are Gen-Xers. Not only that, but our ascent into motherhood has paralleled the ascent of what might be called the zero-to-three market: the first segment in what is known as “cradle-to-grave” marketing, representing more than $20 billion a year.

From a business standpoint, it makes sense to start early. Marketing studies show that children can discern brands as early as eighteen months; by twenty-four months, they ask for products by brand name. In fact, a study conducted back in 2000 found that brands wield the kind of influence over two-year-olds that used to be reserved for children five and up. Since the 1980s, kids marketers have been refining ways of mining the ‘tween market: children between the ages of six and eleven. This age group has always been brand-conscious, but as one long-time kids marketer put it, “it’s dribbled down” to even younger children – via their Generation-X parents.

But Generation X was supposed to be so media-savvy and ad-wary, so postmodern, snickering and cynical. Again, how did those crafty marketers do it? It turns out that most just use Psychology 101: look to the childhood. As a 2004 study of generational differences concluded, “Generation X went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” Marketing profiles of Gen-X mothers – whether compiled by specialty firms, Disney or Viacom – point out that this generation was the first to be raised in record numbers in daycare. Some estimate that up to half of all Gen-X children’s families split in divorce, usually leaving a single Boomer mother to raise kids while straining to keep up on her career track. Forty percent of Gen-X were latch-key kids – a phenomenon exploited by kids marketers of the day. Outside, there was crack, AIDS, homelessness, racial conflict, Reaganomics. Inside, there was TV.

Tagged as: