Pink Makes Me See Red!
A leading child development author attacks the marketing firms who target little girls
January 22, 2009
She's six, full of life and potential. And obsessed with pink. Pink bedroom, duvet and furniture. Pink toys and books. Pink clothes. Her parents feel slightly uneasy about paying out for all this pink stuff. Might it affect the way she thinks about herself?
Could it turn her into some sort of 'pink princess' who'll later succumb to other stereotypes? An obsession with body image perhaps, or too early an interest in 'boyz', sexy clothes and make-up?
But there doesn't seem much choice. The stuff in the shops is exclusively pink, and their daughter really loves the colour. All her friends at school are into pink - and no caring parent wants their little girl to feel left out.
Anyway, she's entitled to have a favourite colour, isn't she? Besides, she looks so sweet in that little outfit.
So they cough up for more pink products, and the invasion of childhood by market forces continues on its inexorable path.
Please don't misunderstand me. I've nothing against pink. Some of my best friends wear it - grown women who've made a rational choice about which colour they reckon suits them best.
I've nothing against marketing either - as an adult, I enjoy the creativity and wit with which adverts keep me informed about the goods and services available.
What bothers me about the pink plague infecting three to eight-year-old girls is that they aren't old enough to make rational choices.
Their brains aren't sufficiently developed for the application of reason. So, when marketers turn their big guns on children, they're not so much entertaining and informing as brainwashing them.
Until children reach the middle years of primary school, they operate mainly on emotion - the neural networks underpinning rational thought are still in the process of formation. Deep emotional attachments made in the early years are likely to influence the way they behave for the rest of their lives.
As St Ignatius Loyola once said: 'Give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.'
Big business is all too aware of this. In 1992, marketing guru James McNeal alerted corporate America in his book Kids As Customers to the money-making potential of children.
As he put it: 'Kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers - they have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken.'
This rallying cry coincided with the arrival of children's commercial TV channels and the increasing global reach of technology.
Within a few years, TVs and other electronic equipment began moving into children's bedrooms.
So with increasingly sophisticated TV ads, product placement, webbased 'advergames', internet pop-up adverts and ads on social networking websites, marketers have acquired access to children's minds beyond Loyola's wildest dreams. And well outside most parents' radar.
Multinational corporations use child psychologists and million-pound budgets to play mind games with children. And it's worth the effort. There's 'guilt money' to be gleaned from harassed parents trying to juggle work and child-rearing.
There's 'pester power' to be harnessed, to help sell not just children's products, but food, holidays, even cars.
Six-month-old babies can be trained to respond to corporate logos. The baby sees a chummy little character repeatedly on screen then, perched in a supermarket trolley, points to it on a shelf . . . and the parent buys the product. Most important of all, there's brand loyalty to be nurtured while brains are young and malleable.
The pink plague dominating high streets is a visible symptom of this commercial takeover of early childhood.
Marketing agencies know that by the age of three, children become aware of their gender. At the same time, they become prey to an extremely powerful human impulse - the need to belong to the group.
For countless millennia, anyone who didn't conform to the norms of their tribe could expect a lingering death, social or otherwise. The yearning for inclusion is probably written into our DNA.
Once children reach nursery age, marketers taking account of this 'inclusion gene' aim their messages at boys or girls, with clearly defined gender norms.
In the playground, children cleave with emotional intensity to the symbols of their gender, so peer pressure is dragged in to serve the commercial process.
The forces of consumerism have infiltrated children's culture so successfully it's become extremely difficult for a little girl to resist the lure of pink. Or for a boy to regard it with anything other than disgust.
And politically correct parents who've diligently avoided talking about the gender wars are horrified to find their offspring suddenly devoted to stereotypes.
But gender stereotyping aside, that bonny six-year-old in her pink bolero and tiara raises a host of other questions about the way we're rearing our children. Or rather, about the way we're letting other people rear them.
In the past, the major influences in children's lives were their parents, family and playmates - local children also influenced by the adults in their lives.
No matter what these adults' personal value systems, we can assume the vast majority cared about the long-term well-being of the infants they were rearing.
But in our brave new global village, parents and family are being pushed out of the picture.
According to a new Childwise survey, today's children spend up to six hours a day staring at a screen. So market forces increasingly influence their tastes and habits.
And marketing executives don't have children's welfare at heart - they just want to sell more stuff.
Little girls should be outside in the sunshine, laughing with their friends, playing imaginatively with whatever comes to hand - making dens, dressing up in old clothes and scraps of material, choosing the roles they play for themselves.
They shouldn't be glued to a screen, learning how to pester their parents for the latest must-have toy and being groomed for a lifetime of consumption.
Today's pink plague is a wake-up call. Marketing to children under eight is downright immoral - and we should do our best to stop it.