Monday, April 25, 2005

Spontaneous Consumption

When Reader’s Digest publishes an article about something, you can tell it has officially been an issue for a few years. (They published an article on offshoring a few months ago, two years after everyone else had… but I digress.) The article I am referring to is a reprint from Newsweek, called “Just Say No: Why parents must set limits for kids who want it all”, by Peg Tyre, Julie Scelfo and Barbara Kantrowitz. As I was reading it, I was going, “Aw! So I haven’t been imagining this! It’s really happening!” The article, as you probably guessed, is about our kids who want to have everything that’s being advertised, and about the marketing industry aimed directly at our kids.

The authors call our kids (born in the late 80s and 90s) “Generation Excess”, a product of the affluent 90s that are used to instant gratification and having it all. They list the dangers of such upbringing, correctly stating that it would cause problems later in life: “When given too much too soon, they grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with life’s disappointments. They also have a distorted sense of entitlement that gets in the way of success in workplace and in relationships.”

I now consider ourselves lucky in that the “affluent nineties” have, for the most part, passed us by. In Russia, we had a decent income until the kids came and I lost my job. After K9 was born in 1995, we barely had enough to buy food and pay the bills. When we came here in 1997, for the first year, I was the only one with a job, making a whopping 20K a year. Things have gradually improved, but for several years, money was pretty tight. The kids played with hand-me-down toys and wore clothes bought at second-hand stores, pretty much until K9 started school. We’re just not used to excess. We have only jumped on the DVD bandwagon a year ago, and we don’t plan on having a big screen. Our best furniture comes from Value City, and our worst furniture, well you don’t want to know where it came from. Our clothes are decent, but by no means expensive. Same with the cars. We just have no use for “the finest things in life”.

I can understand how it is possible to see a commercial or an ad in the paper and suddenly want this thing really badly. Hey, these marketing guys didn’t go to college for nothing! They know how to do it! I’m telling you, every time I look through a clothing catalog, I end up wanting at least two or three items. This is why I always browse through my catalogs in the bathroom. There’s no way you can call and place your order while sitting on the toilet – for one thing, you don’t have your credit card number handy. (If you do, then please seek help.) And, by the time you’re done in the bathroom, the urge has passed. I mean the urge to buy, of course.

Being allergic to brainwashing helps greatly. I want to buy what I need, when I need it, not because Joe in marketing has told me to go and get this thing, or else I will be uncool forever. In fact, what Joe in marketing doesn’t know is that his attempts at marketing to me infuriate me to no end. I don’t appreciate it when people tell me what to do. I have had my share of that, thank you very much.

I hope our kids are learning from our example. At least, I12 seems to. He doesn’t watch TV, he’s deliberately not cool, and he doesn’t want to own what it takes to break into the “cool” camp. He does have a decent PC with an Internet connection. Sometimes he asks for software. His hobby is programming, so the software he needs is pretty pricey. But, he doesn’t feel that he has to have it, or else. If he gets something, that’s nice. If not, oh well. Last Christmas season, he couldn’t decide what he wanted to get. His own words: “Do I have to get gifts for Christmas?” (All parents out there, eat your heart out!) For his birthday, he asked if he could have $100 instead of a party. A couple summers ago, I sent him to a programming camp. Cost us an arm and a leg (even though he got a small scholarship), but I thought that’s what I had to do. Next year, he said he didn’t want to go anymore because it wasn’t worth it.

K9 is a very different story. He’s always begging for stuff. If he sees it in a commercial, he wants it. If all the cool kids have it, he wants it. I think it’s a combination of wanting to be popular and believing every word that he hears on TV. For his 8th birthday, he got a Gameboy. Pretty good huh? Not for K9! A year later, he was begging for a Nintendo DS. This just blows my mind. Isn’t it essentially the same sh.t? He ended up spending all of his birthday money on the DS (thank God for the old Russian tradition of giving kids cash for their birthday! We had twelve or fourteen guests, half of them gave cash, you do the math). He spent his whole month’s worth of allowance (three dollars a week) on a Tamagotchi, because everyone else at school had it. Fast forward a month, Tamagotchis are not cool anymore so he has no use for his. What a waste.

To sum it up, one of my kids is a marketer’s worst nightmare, while the other one, a marketer’s Heaven. We’re working on the second one. When he watches TV, I have to sit next to him and explain each and every commercial, telling him why the product that they advertise is useless, or overpriced, or exactly the same as the previous model – in other words, where the catch is. Things have gotten better when we switched to TBS and Comedy Central. They don’t advertise anything that a kid would be interested in. It would take a very strange child to be interested in weight-loss pills or “natural male enhancement” (“This is Bob…”). But channels like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network are so full of children-oriented commercials, it scares me.

Sometimes, when it is especially hard to convince K9 that he doesn’t need the latest gadget, I bring in the heavy artillery. That is, his brother comes over and explains why this product is “stupid”. One year, they were in Target picking out their Christmas gifts. (Yes, I’m a horrible mom – I had them pick their own gifts for years. First there was a 25-dollar limit, then I upped it to 50). K9 decided that he wanted some “virtual machine”, which probably consisted of a pair of goggles and a headset, and cost to the tune of $30. He cried, he held on to the box, he refused to put it down. Finally, his brother stepped in.

“Take a look at this box ‘K’. Do you see that it has been opened and then taped back shut?”

“Yeah.” (K9, through tears)

“Do you know why?”

(sniffle) “No. Why?”

“Because somebody already bought it, opened it, saw that it was stupid, and brought it back!”

K9 puts the box back on the shelf. End of discussion.

It generally works, most of the time, anyway. Sometimes, though, the other side takes the war to a new level and starts dropping nukes. This happened last year with K9’s school fundraiser. Now, I need to tell you up front that I am in general very unhappy with K9’s school and try not to give them any of my money, purely out of principle. Last year, the school decided that they really needed a new playground, so they launched a candy fundraiser like they’d never launched before. The first flyer that came home with K9 went into the garbage as usual. Two weeks later, another flyer came. Then another, then another. K9 would get excited each time, all pumped up to sell candy. I’d talk him out of this idea, then, as soon as he forgot all about it, a new flyer would come out and everything would start all over again. I still have one of the flyers and it says: “We are asking every child to sell at least 1 box of candy.” (“See mom? Everybody’s selling it!”) They promised a limo ride to anyone who would sell five boxes (So? A ride in an oversized car with thirty other kids. Big friggin deal! But try explaining it to K9 – we all took turns.)

I finally caved in and bought a box of candy. It took me all I had to convince K9 not to buy all five boxes right away, but to buy one box first and see if it sells. The candy was actually not bad. I bought one candy bar for myself. My family bought a few, my coworkers bought about 60%. K9 bought the rest (with his allowance and his birthday money). Half he ate himself (not a good idea because he’s overweight), and the other half he gave away to his friends.

I talked to a few other parents and we all had the same question: “What the heck was wrong with the old playground that the school was in such a rush to get it replaced?” The old playground looked perfectly good to all of us! The school’s Don Corleone-like marketing ways, however, did not!

You know what K9 wants now? He wants a Sony PSP. Oh well, I like a challenge! Just watch me talk him out of it…

The Goldie has spoken at 9:49 AM

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