Playing With Plastic Is Not So Fantastic: The realities of kids and consumerism


Our society is plagued by consumerism. Nothing confirms this so much as the fact that every second, three Barbies are purchased.  Mattel, the company responsible for the doll, claims that Barbie isn’t just a toy, but a ‘lifestyle brand.’  With her endless array of outfits, cars, houses, and accessories, Barbie embodies a materialistic lifestyle driven by cross-promotion and marketing. Barbie is, as Eric Clark points out in The Real Toy Story, ‘the plastic princess of capitalism.’

During the 19th century, childhood became idealised as a time of purity, innocence and sentimentality. The art from this period depicts cherub-like children frolicking through wild meadows with lambs and puppies. But today’s world of consumerism no longer treats childhood as an innocent phase removed from adult economic spheres. Today’s kids hold massive purchasing power in their tiny hands. Little ones are not only consumers themselves—spending their pocket money on sweets and toys—but also influence household purchases from toothpaste preferences to holiday destinations. Studies have shown that children will watch, on average, 40,000 TV commercials a year—many of which are directly targeted to them rather than their parents.

This is all because of an irresistible factor called ‘pester power’. In the marketing world this term represents sugar and spice and all things nice. Pester power is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘the ability that children have to make their parents buy something…advertisers know how powerful pester power can be.’  Julia Schor, in her eye opening book Born to Buy, notes that in 2004, American children aged four to twelve directly influenced $330 billion of adult purchases. When this study was conducted over a decade ago, this figure was expected to grow at an annual rate of 20 percent. Needless to say, today’s kids are shaping parents’ buying habits in an unprecedented way.

With billions of dollars up for grabs, advertisers and marketers are ruthless in the rat race to be the first to capture the attention and allegiance of suckling babes. Clark states, ‘Marketers now grab babies as soon as they are born. Children can be locked into brands early—if you don’t capture them fast, someone else surely will.’  It is estimated that as early as six months old a child is forming mental images of logos; by two, he or she is asking for products by a brand’s name, and by ten that child has memorised up to 400 brands.  No wonder Schor observes that contemporary kids and teens are the ‘most brand-orientated, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history.’  Unable to discern the manipulative psychology behind advertising, consuming children are like butterflies fluttering around the garden, unaware that big brands are spending billions of dollars weaving nets to capture them, and consume them into a material world.

Though Disney is a brand built around that classical 19th Century image of childhood innocence, in reality even Disney isn’t chasing wholesome practices. This multinational conglomerate, like Barbie’s Mattel, is chasing the dirty dollar. Disney is all about creating loveable characters: the kind of characters that are so irresistible they can make the company even more money through licensing agreements, which permit character images to be used in an array of merchandise. But in the documentary Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, Charles Kernaghan discovers that Disney character t-shirts, which sell in the US for $12, are produced for 7 cents.  When Kernaghan, the director of the Institute of Global Labour and Human Rights, informed the Disney factory workers how much their products sold for in the US, there were many tears. One mother revealed that her wages are not sufficient enough to meet daily expenses: ‘I am always in debt, on the days I get paid the children still go to bed hungry. I have no money to save.’  Clark in The Real Toy Story outlines a similar situation. He notes that ‘most of the world’s toys are made in China by migrants toiling for a few cents an hour. The monstrous gap between the selling price fuels the process to which toy companies devote themselves—marketing.’ The goal of Disney and other kid’s media companies is to capture the imaginations of kids on screen, so they will be enticed to consume anything and everything with their new favourite hero on it: lunch boxes, bedspreads, theme park rides, video games, and toys. But in 2013, with the phenomenal success of the film Frozen, Disney played it too good at its own marketing game.

With Frozen, Disney crossed the great gender divide. Though Frozen is essentially a princess musical, the film’s promotional posters featured a colour scheme of ‘boy friendly’ blue. Furthermore, the mascot in the advertising campaigns was not a ball gown, but a talking snowman. Frozen appealed to everyone and made over $1 billion at the box office, making it the highest grossing animated film of all time.  But Disney failed to predict the extent of Frozen fever. Disney licensed out the rights to produce Frozen toys to Mattel, but the orders sent to manufacturers were misjudged and therefore insufficient to meet consumer demands. The New York Post notes, ‘It’s official. Frozen fever has swept the world. The only problem is, the merchandise is sold out everywhere.’  Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich questions, ‘What horrible accident in the princess dressmaking factory left the world scarce of Elsa ball gowns?…How long can it really take to manufacture an extra 300,000 princess gowns and ship them? There are a whole bunch of moms now bordering on psychosis to make their kids happy.’  In answer to Ms. Rich’s question, what has happened is this:

Hidden in the princess merchandise factory, the labouring toy workers of China, Mexico, Thailand and Malaysia are toiling day and night on starvation wages, and yet they still cannot keep up with the fever of consumerism, mentioned by Ms. Rich. A global shortage of Frozen merchandise means somewhere in the world young migrant women are working insane hours in horrendous conditions with hazardous chemicals, thinners, adhesives and lead as they paint up to 4,000 Barbie (or Princess Elsa) doll faces per day: conditions such as these are poignantly recorded by Clark in The Real Toy Story.

Additionally, an investigation headed by Charles Kernaghan discovered that at China’s Dawei factory—which produces Disney toys—labourers are paid below the minimum wage and routinely work sixteen-hour shifts. If they arrive late it can mean three day’s wages docked, and during the peak season shifts can continue for 24 hours. Clark relates similar horrors from China’s Bainan Toy Factory, describing a young village girl who was a runner in the factory. Clark writes: ‘She ran sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for two solid months without a day off. She was paid the equivalent of 12 cents an hour. She collapsed one night, bleeding from nose and mouth. She died before the ambulance arrived; she was just nineteen.’  Did you know, Ms. Rich, that the Chinese have a word for this kind of disease, the kind caused by the likes of Frozen fever? The Chinese word for this deadly affliction is ‘guolaosi’: death caused by overwork.  And, overwork, Ms. Rich, is precisely what you are demanding of manufacturers—all so that a gown and a doll can be added to a child’s toy box, only to be forgotten as soon as the next blockbuster comes out.

Disney is king at reminding us of the old-fashioned magic of childhood. Through Disney’s world our imaginations are awakened, our thirst for adventure is rekindled, and we are reminded to cherish family values. All this is admirable. Similarly, in Mattel’s 2013 Annual Report the company informs shareholders that it donated $21 million dollars that year to help those in need around the world. The company states, ‘Giving back to the community is a part of who we are, and it is another powerful example of our commitment to bringing smiles to the lives of children around the world.’  Again, this is worthy of applause. But it’s time for companies like Disney and Mattel to actually practice what they preach, before it’s too late. Because if kids found out how their toys are really made, I don’t think they’d want to buy them anymore.

Words by Amy Manners

Artwork by Sheydin Dew