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Advertising through preschoolers


HOW do you explain marketing to a preschooler? More specifically, how do you explain commercials to a preschooler who isn't regularly exposed to them?

Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, our household does pretty well without cable television.

We have DVDs and can catch current TV shows and movies off our Amazon and Hulu subscriptions straight into our flat-screen. It really is video on


My kids watch their "Blue's Clues" and "Cars" without interruption. They are accustomed to narratives without commercial breaks.

So my wife and I were a bit flummoxed on a recent hotel stay when we turned on the TV and it began promoting the inn's pay-per-view service.

The first thing my 3-year-old son caught was a snippet of a Disney-Pixar "Toy Story" movie, which he had been watching in the car on the drive.

He couldn't understand that it wasn't actually on and that he couldn't just watch it there and then.

Telling him it was "just a commercial" required him to know what a "commercial" was.

Coming up with a pint-sized lesson on advertising proved to be kind of a challenge first thing after an all-night drive, so we just changed the channel and told him he couldn't watch it. Rough start to Thanksgiving Day, that.

Now Christmas is upon us and, somehow, my boy knows what he wants.

How did he figure that out?

Part of it is the old-fashioned way — lingering in the toy section at our local department stores.

And while the voluminous Sears Wish Book with which his daddy wove his yuletide dreams is no longer around, his hometown papers have been stuffed to the gills with circulars from Toys R Us and Target touting their stores of children's merchandise.

I watched our little newspaper reader pore through the pages as he carefully considered what he wanted Santa Claus to leave under the tree.

"I want this," he said, pointing to a picture.

"And this . . . And this. And this. And this. And this. And this." His finger was darting and poking about the page as if he were trying to squash a flea.

He kept this up for page after page until he reached the end. And I think he started back to the beginning.

How did he know about this stuff?

The answer was right under our noses. More like 10 feet away from our noses, where our gaze leads to the TV.

The boy didn't need a commercial to specifically market Octonaut action figures or Thomas the Tank Engine railroad sets; he was watching entire shows selling the undersea exploits of a team of anthropomorphic animal adventurers and life lessons taught by talking trains on a bucolic British island.

He already knew the cast of characters; now all he needed were those characters — and their accessories. Hello, Fisher-Price. We meet again, Mattel.

While I suppose I could fume at the insidiousness of children's shows serving as marketing vehicles for so much merchandise, I think it would be wiser to pick my battles.

If it wasn't a TV series promoting a popular character, it would be a story book or a movie.

Kids like to play. And their imaginations are peopled with the denizens of their favorite stories, be they in print or on an LCD screen.

Still, this marketing is a marvel to behold, maybe in the same way that studying how a great white shark homes in on its prey is fascinating.

What's even more remarkable, though, are the networks devoted to these shows.

Ostensibly, PBS and, to a degree, Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. set the goal of teaching children the rudiments of reading, math and social skills. Laudable missions, to be sure.

Even the Disney Channel's Disney Junior network buries educational nuggets within its entertainments.

But that mouse machine doesn't miss a trick.

My boy can sing Disney Junior's signature jingle. ("Where the magic begins." With that multi-layered line, some copywriter really earned her paycheck.)

And my almost 2-year-old daughter can already recognize Mickey Mouse.

This isn't just selling a few toys. We're talking the seeds of an emotional bond to a brand.

My kids may outgrow Captain Barnacle and The Little Mermaid, but the Disney World Resorts are forever.

Now, that is a lesson in marketing.

Maramba is managing editor of the Daily Mail. His email address is


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