Toy Industry Plays on Parental Anxiety

Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby, questions the value of the "smart toys" aimed at children from early infancy. A toy market estimated at more than $20 billion preys on parents' fears and ambitions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's take a look at the marketing strategy for the youngest consumers. You may have heard the term tweens, which defines kids eight - which is defined as kids age eight to 12. Pre-tween is what the toy business is calling even smaller consumers, kids under eight, all the way down to zero.

Susan Gregory Thomas is a former senior editor at U.S. News and World Report and author of the new book "Buy, Buy, Baby." She says companies market to new parents by creating anxiety.

Ms. SUSAN GREGORY THOMAS (Author, "Buy, Buy, Baby"): The idea that if you did not, sort of, act on stimulating your baby or toddler in the first three years in the appropriate ways that you would somehow deny them of an advantage that would help them later on in life - a lot was made of the appropriate stimulation that babies needed to be stimulated.

Everyday life to a baby and a toddler is stimulating. But somehow, in the hands of the toy industry and the marketing industry we, sort of, got this idea that stimulation meant beeping lights, the smart toys, baby videos. One company even claims that their videos can stimulate either the left side or the right side of the brain. And…

INSKEEP: Oh. So you can pick the side you want to exercise more?

Ms. THOMAS: That's right. Do you want a math genius, or do you want a baby Van Gogh?

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that babies don't need Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart, Baby Da Vinci and all the others?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I wanted to know, what is the real scientific evidence under-girding some of these products? And what was really surprising to discover was that there was very little evidence to even show how infants and toddlers process television and videos and DVDs, anything on a screen.

INSKEEP: So you're writing here that there's not a lot of evidence showing that all these smart toys and fabulous programs and videos necessarily help kids and, in fact, there's some suggestion it may over-stimulate kids. But how's the business doing?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, the business is huge. I mean, the educational toy industry, for instance in toddlers alone, is a $3.2 billion industry and really the only segment of that industry that's growing. And what's interesting to, sort of, note is that it seems that largely, what children understand from so-called educational programming - and again I'm talking about infants and toddlers -the only thing they're really getting from these shows is character recognition.

INSKEEP: Which can be used, I suppose, for marketing later?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, absolutely, because the only other instance these children are likely to encounter a character like Clifford or Elmo or Dora is in an instance in which that character is selling them something.

INSKEEP: Juice box, Happy Meal.

Ms. THOMAS: On a backpack, night gowns. I mean, really, if you can think it up, there is a licensed product. I think all media companies are really beginning to look at the zero to three segment as being the entry point of a cradle-to-grave marketing campaign. And the ideas that you can make couple $100,000 from the same person over his or her lifetime…

INSKEEP: Do you get a customer for life?

Ms. THOMAS: You get a customer for life.

INSKEEP: Well, Susan Gregory Thomas is the author of "Buy, Buy, Baby." Thanks very much.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you so much.

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