Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Child and the Brand

The XX blog on Slate has a big article on recent research out of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan which shows:

"Preschoolers recognize brand names and symbols, and they are increasingly willing and able to make judgments about products and people based on associations with those brands..."

The article, by K.J. Dell'Antonia, explicitly avoids the "Oh No, Our Kids!" hand-wringing and instead describes how children use brands to help them categorize the world. Through categories children make sense the world and apply language to it. In using brands to help sort out the world, children are acting like grown-ups. As Dell'Antonia writes: "Adults use branding as a shorthand to narrow choices and locate particular items or qualities they're seeking. In order to keep from being overwhelmed by choice and information on a daily basis, kids need to learn to do the same."

Given that brands are a part of our world, the article suggests that what we need to do is teach our children about them. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnick is quoted saying, "...Kids need to understand brands, and they will. What we owe them isn't protection. Rather, it's brands that promote decent, healthy products, and an education that promotes a healthy understanding of why and how those brands are working so hard to sell us on their stuff."

This strikes me as true but it's not quite everything we need to talk about when it comes to brands, because when we attach qualities to a brand they often include an assumption of betterness, in a moral sense. Brands are a tried and true a way for us to locate ourselves in the world.

This is not news. I think it's almost an old saw to point out that the choice to buy a certain brand (say Robert's Pirate Booty) becomes not only about it being good for you health-wise but better morally and politically than another more identifiably corporate brand (maybe Cheetohs). I mean, can you imagine Sarah Palin putting a resuable snack container of Veggie Booty in Piper's lunch box?

Of course, adding a moral or political valence to a brand is simply another way of categorizing it, of decoding our world. It's inevitable that our children will make assumptions about brands, just like we do. So if we're going to talk about those assumptions, we're going to need to talk about all of them, and not just the ones about good health and the corporate shill.

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