A seed is planted
As a 4 and 5-year-old, I slept comfortably on an IKEA bed frame. Like many of their products, it was probably called a Flickanflack, Dottbland, or some other uniquely random, proper Swedish name.
I remember a drawer that occupied the bottom of the bed frame — so large that I could fit my little self inside it. When the drawer closed, and the world turned off, I felt protected — even if I was a little afraid of the dark. Nothing could find or get me in my enclosed space.
My parents would go to IKEA and drop me off at Småland. This little taste of the Scandinavian language was the play place for children. Parents could browse through the store — even eat lunch — and then come back to pick up their kids.
Lucky for my parents, I actually liked the place and it afforded them some time alone. They could breathe easy, and I could have fun — a win-win (we thought). Unfortunately, something more nefarious was cemented at this young age, and it directly affects how my room looks today.
Companies market to nostalgia, memory
A couple weeks ago, I read an article about cereal marketing. It turns out that marketers know how to manipulate us to feel nostalgic responses — craving feelings from our past that can trigger consumption.
One food and consumer trend analyst suggests that “nostalgia is an important weapon in a marketer’s arsenal.” This effect was recently envisioned in the return of General Mills’ French Toast Crunch cereal.
For Millennials, this cereal brings back memories of childhood and happiness. And the company wants to recreate those emotions and benefit from increased income.
Like the potty, consumerism takes training
Some companies openly display their child-targeted tactics. For instance, Whole Foods, which has a wealth of natural and organic food options, provides tinier shopping carts for children. Attached to these mini-carts is a flag with a message: “Customer in training.”
Subtly, General Mills, IKEA, and Whole Foods (to name three in a sea of companies) display the power of marketing to children. By reaching young minds, ideas can be implanted for later use. Many of their efforts are initially free or nominal.
Swimming in the ball pit, playing video games, and racing around IKEA’s Småland didn’t exactly feel evil. As a child, I wanted that environment; heck, it was more entertaining than what was at home. I welcomed those moments.
The perfect corporate consumer creation
Companies are playing a long game with children’s minds. This training can suddenly be activated at a company’s discretion — making us adult automatons and primed for consumption. It’s the tinge when we walk down the cereal aisle and feel a pull for Captain Crunch, Reese’s Puffs, and Life. These are marketed moments of nostalgia.
Children become inclined to the shapes and designs of IKEA furniture when it’s in their rooms and they’re visiting the fun, comfortable ball pit. And I was just one of the many affected by these tactics.
In 2011, IKEA opened their first store in Colorado. As a student in Fort Collins (northern part of Colorado), I made the hajj-like journey to the store only days after its opening day. Again, there was a magnetic force pulling me to visit, purchase, and come back again.
Walking through the doors, there were a flood of emotions, but I couldn’t resist smiling. The smell of cinnamon buns and fresh wood tickled my senses and felt familiar. That familiarity led me to buy a desk, bed frame, side tables, a chair, stool, and many other odds and ends.
Hundreds and hundreds of dollars later, I had become the perfect corporate consumer. IKEA’s tactics had worked, and at the time, I couldn’t even seen the connection. I just felt this unknown gravitational pull.
Preventing childhood brand loyalty
Before I go any further, I’m not sure that most people in Western culture can prevent children developing brand loyalty. Billboards, magazines, TV shows, shops, restaurants, and everything in between serve as powerful anchors for future consumers. Children are psychologically changed by these messages — corporations know this and parents should, too.
The consequence of perfect implantation of these advertisements is that people do not want to relinquish the connection. As a frugal person and advocate of minimalism, I can tell you that I still like IKEA. If someone said I couldn’t shop there any more, I’d be upset. The company’s gigantic, warehouse-like stores are too familiar to imagine letting go of. I’m deeply loyal to the brand.
Nonetheless, in this world of marketing, there are a few things parents certainly can do to raise children that evaluate these external messages.
1. Avoid companies that target children
For many parents and families, this is challenging. Most supermarkets and big-box retailers model the stores to affect children. Cereal aisles are, again, the perfect example. Children’s cereal is placed lower to the ground, features colorful packaging, and fun cartoon characters. Parents can decide to avoid shopping with children when possible and protest companies like Whole Foods that actively recruit consumption in children (i.e., “Customer in training” carts).
2. Be skeptical of “free” offers
There are many samples, courtesy gifts, and free offers for parents and their children. When a child is surrounded by certain products, a connection develops. If there is comfort in these items, those children will likely continue the cycle of consumption for that particular brand (whether they know it or not). IKEA’s play place may be free in price, but their corporate goals are to create return shoppers for decades to come.
3. Talk with children about the messages they receive
Advertisers don’t tend to explain themselves to children. It’s not like kids are provided a consent form that tells them what advertisements can do to them. But the young mind is malleable. What makes children incredible sponges for knowledge also makes them susceptible to untoward marketing behaviors. As parents, guardians, teachers, and leaders, we can share some of the truth and help explain how companies aim to affect our emotions negatively (by manipulating us to feel nostalgia and happiness).