Dodging Disney In The Delivery Room
Typically, the last thing you'd want to see in the hospital is a mouse. Especially on the maternity ward. But earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Disney has begun sending sales reps into 580 hospitals nationwide. The reps are offering new moms, within hours of giving birth, a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuit for their babies if they sign up for e-mail alerts from DisneyBaby.com. The idea is to encourage mothers to infuse their infants with brand loyalty as if it is mother's milk.
Suddenly the delivery room command to "push" has a whole new meaning.
Disney Baby is modeled on the staggering success among preschoolers of the Disney Princess, launched in 2000 after a Disney executive noticed little girls at an ice show dressed in — horrors! — homemade princess outfits. That massive branding opportunity was soon corrected, and within a decade Disney Princess went from earning $300 million a year to an annual $4 billion. There are currently more than 26,000 Disney Princess products.
Now, Disney has identified another problem: Children are not becoming consumers of its products until preschool, resulting in a good three years of potential revenue loss. Getting an expectant mom thinking about her family's first theme-park visit while her child was in the womb, an exec told the Times, would be like hitting "a home run."
I've spent the past three years looking at the ways the Princess Industrial Complex transformed the culture of little girlhood — the long-term impact of the 24/7, 365-days-a-year royal press of pink and pretty on our daughters' femininity, sexuality and identity. But reading about the attempt to turn fetuses into consumers made me wonder whether it's time to have a larger conversation about the wisdom and ethics of marketing to small children of either sex.
Disney called the apparel giveaway a "beachhead" for its newborn products. Doubtless, once that beachhead is breached, as with the Princesses, every other corporation will come flooding in to stake its claim. The Advertising Educational Foundation already hails infants 1 year and under as — and I quote — "a more informed, inﬂuential and compelling audience than ever before." Children as young as 12 months, the foundation adds, can recognize brands and are "strongly influenced" by advertising and marketing. Like that's a good thing.
The truth is, some studies show that children under 8 years old can't distinguish between ads and entertainment. Until then, they don't fully comprehend that advertising is trying to sell them something. That gives marketers an unfair — not to mention predatory — advantage over our kids. No wonder so many other countries have tight restrictions on marketing to children under age 12.
As for parents — I recall those hours in the hospital room with my baby girl as among my most vulnerable as a mother. I was exhausted. I was exhilarated. I was scared. I was thrilled. Here was this baby, this bundle of endless potential, this open question of a being who suddenly, miraculously existed and was in my care. My hopes and dreams for her were boundless, but I'm pretty sure they did not involve the brands she'd someday buy.
At least for that moment, at least for those few years, can't parents and their children have the magic without the Magic Kingdom?