Kith and Kin

How nature and nurture shape relationships

Parents: An Emotionally Vulnerable Market

Why selling kids stuff to parents can be like shooting fish in a barrel

Way back in the day—before malls and supermarkets, and way before the dawn of advertising, parenting choices must have been so much simpler. Take food for example.

Western supermarkets today offer a bewildering range of food-products—many aimed specifically at children although bought by their parents. Those of you without kids may not realise who is buying all those rice cakes, mini-breadsticks and small plastic-looking bits of cheese. Most families are not hard core healthy-only or fun-but-trash-only food-purchasers. Most of us have some sort of ongoing compromise. Of course the moral dilemma faced choosing snacks and soft drinks pales beside the ethical minefield of formula. Marketing that implies a mother is not feeding her child well-enough is tapping into powerful emotions—and powerful emotions do not lead to rational choices.

All mammalian mothers, from mice to humans, have had to feed their infants until they can fend for themselves. Most mothers get some neurological kick-back for nurturing their young—a burst of the stress-reducing, love-inducing wonder drug oxytocin for example. This helps to make it all worthwhile. Human infants are born especially helpless and remain dependent for many years. During that time, their mother may have more dependent children so that the years of care-taking and nurturing blur together without break. The drive to provide for the relentless tide of dependency must always have been very strong—or we’d have died out long ago. I have certainly felt the neurological kick-back when my fussy child eats a good meal with pleasure.

That deep, primeval urge to provide for your kids has become marketing fairy dust. And even more powerful than the rewarding pleasure of providing—are the dark forces of guilt, shame, worry and fear. Parental guilt at not giving kids enough, whether that’s enough food, attention, stuff, or education is at an all-time high and climbing. Guilt and its darker cousin, shame, are powerful forces that most people would do a lot to avoid or erase. They are the moral emotions that keep us from violating social norms and punish us if we misbehave.

Julie Stanton and Deidre Guion looked at adverts targeting parents and found that guilt was invoked twice as often compared to a similar study on more general advertising. The authors identify parents, especially new parents, as a vulnerable group. As such, there are already guidelines in place for ethical marketing to vulnerable groups. This is why tobacco companies are not supposed to target children. The authors go on to pose this question: ‘At what point does it become society’s concern to be sure that vulnerable parents are supported and provided with meaningful and useful information, rather than aroused into self-doubting, worrisome, guilty states in order to sell a product?’

So are advertisers cheating when they make parents feel guilty in order to sell a product? My only issue with this is to ask why anyone should be emotionally manipulated to sell a product—because surely we are all vulnerable. 

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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