Toy marketers target Gen-X parents. By Susan Gregory Thomas for Babble.comSusan Gregory Thomas
Every time I open my Gmail account, a link to the online quiz AreYouASlackerMom.com 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.
From the marketing industry’s point of view, the TV of Gen-X’s childhood changed, well, childhood. According to Penn State historian Gary S. Cross, the 1980s latch-keyism marked the first time in American history that TV advertisers and marketers had their own television shows. By 1987, about sixty percent of all toys sold in the United States were based on licensed characters, a dramatic increase from about ten percent in 1980. Gen-X kids were captive customers. According to a Carnegie Council report, the average American 1980 high-school senior spent more time watching TV than in school or with her parents.
Given such a bleak portrait of their childhoods, one might expect Gen-X women to be numb, emotionally unavailable mothers. In fact, marketers confirm that the opposite is true. It is speculated that as a response to her own early fears of abandonment, the Gen-X mother practices some form of “attachment parenting,” which advocates for a high level of closeness (tell me about it – I still sleep sandwiched between my kids). According to marketers Maria T. Bailey and Bonnie W. Ulman in Trillion-Dollar Moms: Marketing to a New Generation of Mothers, Gen-X mothers would generally rather err on the side of being too close, too involved, too loving than to repeat their own mothers’ sin of neglect. In surveys, Gen-X mothers report their top priority is spending as much time as possible with their kids. Indeed, the 2005 National Study of Employers study showed that small businesses are increasingly offering flexible hours to keep Gen-X mothers. According to the kids marketing firm WonderGroup, eighty-seven percent of Gen-X The ultra-attached Generation X mom worries that her baby will feel abandoned during her absence, no matter how brief.moms said they would prefer to stay at home to raise their children rather than work at an office. But Gen-X mom is no Carol Brady, say marketers: She’s still ironic, pop-culty, etc. She may be tattooed (according to market research, thirty-two percent of Gen-X women are), and her baby may be wearing a Cocoa Puffs cuckoo bird T-shirt. But, unlike her Baby Boomer mom – who marketers say bought their kids junk food and all kinds of merch to assuage their guilt for being gone so much of the time – Gen X mom is not going to buy Cocoa Puffs. And that tee-shirt is made out of organic cotton.
When I was sitting in on such presentations, it was always at this point that I would think, You need a study to tell you that? Just park yourself at the Tea Lounge at 10:30 AM nursing time in my neighborhood, and let the market data flow. But it is one thing to know what marketers have observed about oneself and one’s peers, and another to learn what they do with that information. Marketing to such a nuanced personality, it turns out, requires more than the usual dose of deception; it involves supporting self-deception. Marketers know, for example, that for Gen-Xers with babies, taking a shower – alone – is a high-stakes proposition. The ultra-attached Generation X mom worries that her baby will feel abandoned during her absence, no matter how brief. So, marketers have learned to pitch her absence as a learning opportunity for her young child.
Look at the main photograph featured on the packaging of just about any infant and toddler toy today, from Fisher-Price, LeapFrog or any other. Chances are, it depicts a smiling mother looking on as her baby happily investigates the features of the bouncy seat, exer-saucer, electronic “book” – whatever toy or gizmo is inside said box. Marketers have made this photograph an archetype of baby toy packaging because it capitalizes on the Gen-X paradox. Go ahead – leave the baby alone for a moment, the photograph urges wordlessly: This toy is making learning fun for him, an experience you shouldn’t interfere with. Furthermore, the picture suggests, the reason he looks so happy and secure is because this toy embodies the same hopes and values you have: He can feel you there, even if you’re not right by his side when he plays with it.
But the most enduring parental surrogate for Generation X is still TV, whether in the form of cable, video or DVD. Of course, Gen-X kids were in grade school when they bonded with the electronic sitter, but marketers note that their sense of security with television trumps qualms they might have about letting their babies and toddlers watch it. In spite of the growing evidence suggesting that early TV-watching may be correlated with Attention Deficit Disorder, and even autism, Gen-X parents’ consumer habits have made baby videos and preschool TV big business, with cable and satellite channels now pumping out toddler programming twelve to twenty-four hours a day, and preschool television characters such as Dora the Explorer raking in billions from licensed items ranging from board books to bath bubbles.
Self-deception #2: While Gen-Xers think of themselves as being down-to-earth, and The most enduring parental surrogate for Generation X is still TV.disparaging of commercial come-ons, they are actually shopoholics. Generation X railed against Yuppie materialism, but the average Gen-X adult actually spends nearly twenty percent more on luxury goods than the average Baby Boomer. Indeed, according to marketers, it is a generation that has integrated lifestyle brands into their identities: Volkswagen, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, Gap. And Generation X spends money it may not even have on making the most comfortable, beautiful, high-quality “homey” homes to make up for a lack in childhood (think: the ubiquitous kitchen renovation). Marketing studies also show that Gen-X parents are also determined to transform their relationship with their young children through the shopping experiences that were a source of such conflict but also attention in their own childhoods. In fact, it seems that Gen-X parents often seem to bring attachment parenting to the mall and supermarket.
One such study shows that Gen-X mothers are repelled by the old “nag factor” that worked like such a charm with Boomer mothers. Indeed, to a Gen-X mother, the nag factor embodies the kind of dynamic from her own childhood she is striving to erase as a parent: division and manipulation born of neglect. Gen-X moms want to see themselves as consensus-builders. It means treating their children as people whose voices deserve to be heard, people worthy of respect and dignity. This means that Gen-X mothers will include children as young as two years old – and even younger – in decisions ranging from buying breakfast cereal to a car or home. Generation X’s twin penchants for attachment parenting and shopping have also produced to the past decade’s rise in popularity of mini-me fashions. To Generation X mothers, the cutesy, froufrou baby clothes of the past are not just tacky and foolish-looking; dressing their babies in traditional infant clothes somehow translated to a deeper sense of objectification, neglecting babies’ personhood. The rise of GapBaby, H&M and mini Boden reflect this trend at the mass market level; DKNY Baby, Young Versace, Calypso Enfant and Coach in the luxury market.
But there is a deeper level to the symbiotic identification Generation X parents have with their young children: the desire to return to their own childhood, and fix it. Witness the aggressive return of Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, Star Wars and associated action figures, Transformers, My Little Pony, and so on. Marketers call it “newstalgia,” or “newtro,” and the term is often invoked in discussions of marketing to Generation X. While previous generations’ nostalgia is rooted in World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, or peace and love, Generation X knows now, as itGeneration X’s idea of play is inextricably tied to TV, licensing and buying stuff “all sold separately.” knew growing up, that the late 1970’s and 1980’s was a time of serious crap. But as parents, interestingly, they consume new-stalgia in a completely unironic way. Like parents before them since time in memoriam have done, Generation-X parents yearn to share with their children the playthings of their youth. It is just that Generation X’s idea of play is inextricably tied to TV, licensing and buying stuff “all sold separately.” This group’s image of childhood is not rooted in activities or experiences; it is rooted in buying the brands of its youth. With the spring 2005 release of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Toys “R” Us was stacking Star Wars merchandise from floor to ceiling, with special offerings from Playskool, Hasbro’s toddler brand. There was, for example, the Star Wars Playskool Jedi Force Red Plush Lightsaber: a soft, cloth-like sword, perfect for two-year-old Rebels. And why not? We were so happy then – or so marketers would have us believe.
As for me, I finally took the quiz at AreYouASlackerMom.com. First, it turns out the quiz is a hook for gathering demographic data about mothers – a marketing site. Of course. Second, no matter how lame were the answers I plugged in, the quiz results never pronounced me a slacker mom. That’s because, I realized, there are no Generation X moms who are slackers. They got us again.