Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Marketing madness and shopping sprees

One nice thing about living here has been the lack of commercialism assaulting the kids. There are not 20 catalogues a week coming into the house filling them with ideas and new desires.

They don’t watch TV so they don’t see commercials. We almost never go to McDonald’s or Burger King, and when we do, they don’t have all the tie-in product giveaways. We don’t spend our weekends going to Costco, where you go for A but get swept away by B, C and D.

Because of all this, the kids don’t have all these desires ramped up and begging to be fulfilled. We buy a lot less plastic.

It is beyond ironic that we had to move to China to escape the lure of all the China-made merchandise, but there you have it.

I’ve always felt that this marketing onslaught, though constant, peaks around the release of Hollywood blockbuster films. I almost always consider these movies inappropriate for my kids but I felt forced to deal with them because of the onslaught. You go to the grocery store and Hulk is on cereal and Eggos boxes. He’s on every other commercial on TV. He’s at McDonald’s, small replicas handed out in Happy Meals and feeding a raw desire that the kids feel acutely even if they can’t understand it.

So no matter how inappropriate, violent, whatever, young kids are extremely aware of the release of these crapbuster movies. I remember a few years ago when Stars Wars 3 came out and it was rated PG 13 and said to have some really disturbing scenes. I was firm with Jacob and Eli that they weren’t going to see it. That would seem to be no problem since Eli was probably barely 5 and Jacob had no interest, having cast his identity as the kid who doesn’t like Star Wars. But a lot of our friends took their similarly aged children to the movie and Eli really wanted to.

After moving to china, Eli kept asking and asking to see it. I finally buckled and bought it, saying they could only watch it with me. The first half was fine, though I found it, and all the other recent SW movies, universally stupid and annoying. Then thing started getting funky and violent and dark and I grew concerned an started urging them to turn it off, though I wasn’t quite ready to take unilateral action. By the time, Anakin was dismembered and disfigured and lying in a boiling pool of lava, Jacob and Eli were practically in tears and we were in all agreement at turning it off. I had the satisfaction of knowing my instincts were right but he horror and feeling of lameness for having given in and let them watch as much as they did.

Top some extent, I realize that the kids, Jacob particularly, are just unusually sensitive and wimpy about these things, but is that in any way a bad thing? He’s only 9., Eli but 6. I think Jacob’s love of G fare is one of his most endearing traits.

Anyhow, I digress. As you no doubt know, our trip last week coincided with the release of Spider Man 3 and I witnessed the marketing broadside in all its abhorrent glory. April 28-May 3 was Spider Man in New York week and we ended up in the middle of two events.

At the Museum of Natural History they had a special live spiders exhibit and we were there on the day of its opening, featuring an appearance by Spidey himself. In the grand concourse, they were handing out glossies of spider man signed by director Sam Raimi and there huge lines to get into the exhibit, including an alarming number of goofball adults dressed up like Spidey. The museum was packed with field tripping school kids, as young as 5, and I thought the Museum’s pimping itself out to the movie was wrong. Mercifully, our kids were more interested in seeing stuffed African mammals than dealing with that nonsense.

It was more of the same the next day at the Central park zoo, where they were handing out “Spider Man Week” buttons and there was some sort of presentation on the amazing spiders. It all just seemed wrong and invasive to me. I just don’t think you should be marketed to even at these places, which should be sort of sacred ground for families.

Most of our friends seemed to be taking their kids to see spider man with a certain air of inevitability. It’s really amusing for me to see myself casting myself in the role of scold, but this just seems wrong to me. Feel free to tell me I am being an ass, but I am happy that my kids have a few years break from this sort of cradle to grave marketing onslaught.

And to be clear.. they are not the only ones who start feeling the buying fever as soon as they set foot in America. B and I do the same.

It’s really amazing how much of a buying spree we go on when we’re in the U.S. That continues to be the case, even while there are less and less things that I feel we can’t get here fairly easily.

I always bring back 5 or 6 pounds of Peets coffee, which I obviously can’t find in China. We load up on contact lenses and some other medical items. And pick up a few bags of candy and other goodies for the kids. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the buying we engage in.

On this recent trip, we largely controlled ourselves. We didn’t have time to do a trip to Target or Costco, to fill up bags with made-in-china products you can’t actually buy in China. And yet, we made it to the Livingston Mall one afternoon, where we journeyed to sears for a lands end spree for the kids, I popped into the Gap for several pairs of shorts, and we went to Modell’s, where Becky got some workout clothes and we bought a box of baseballs and an aluminum bat for Jacob, as well as a padded bat and ball, several whiffle balls and a pink little mitt for Anna.

Becky later went to the Short Hills mall in search of a dress to wear tot eh WSJ dinner in an epic shopathon that finally united power shoppers Carrie Wells and Kathy Klein under the same mall roof. Joan and Donna Cohen were also along for the ride. Remarkably they all returned alive, and Joan and Becky bore no powder burns. They were gone for hours and when I called Carrie to get some info (that was the only cell number I had), she said, “We better hang up. This call is costing you money and you don’t have any left.” Becky bought a few dresses at Bergdorff and she’s earned them. God knows it’s not my money.

That was just the Jersey shopping. In one blurry morning in New York, Becky and I continued our sprees. We went to Banana Republic together and I got my new spring wardrobe (more khaki shorts and various polo-style shirts – I am very predictable and boring) and Becky got the spring coat she’s been wanting for months as well as some skirts, blouses, who knows what else. You’d be surprised how awesome a BR store feels after living in china. She went into work and I kept shopping, on to the New Balance store for a new pair of offroad running shoes and the hiking boots I’ve been wanting for a year. It is hard to get 11.5 4Es in China, but I was also now firmly in the grip of a frenzy. It continued at Manny’s Music at 48th Street, which I entered to buy some strings and picks and left with a new Fender Telecaster Deluxe. Now that I’m gigging I have guitar fever, which is understandable I suppose.

I was now walking around New York fully loaded down and dragging goods around like some sort of bag man, but I wasn’t done yet. I met up with George Lang, my photographer friend, and went shopping for a new camera, as mine had broken and he had some strong opinions. And I had to replace the portable DVD player which had blown up -- no way we were getting back on the plane without one of those. I got one with a long battery life, and picked up an extra external battery to boot.

The kids of course just kept wanting to go to the little toy store in Maplewood, which they now think of as some sort of nirvana toy heaven. Legos, MegaBlocks, Webkinz, whatever..

After all that, we began our “how the hell are we getting all this stuff back?” dance, the same one we engage in every trip. I think Joan and Ben enjoy watching us wrestle with our growing pile of possessions as much as any other aspect of our visits. We return to china each time with more goods than the average Chinese family probably owns, total.

We have learned a bit, so we don’t leave with our bags stuffed too full , and we throw an empty duffle in. But that still wasn’t enough. So I went up to Joan’s attic and started rummaging around for an extra bag. We took a small one and filled it half way. Because we do this every trip and because we moved here with something like 12-15 bags, we now have a closet filled with a veritable luggage museum. We have sent a few back with shop-happy visitors but it’s still an impressive collection.

And we still weren’t completely done. Realizing that my folks had returned to Pittsburgh with our Gameboy in their bag and fearing getting on the plane without one, we asked our van driver to pull off the belt parkway at the Coney Island toys R Us, where we picked up a new Gameboy and a computer game or two. And then we waddled through security and onto the plane, dragging our possessions like so much dead weight.

2 comments:

T. said...

On the May holiday I spent more in Hong Kong over 5 days than I had in China over the past 45 days or so. You're not alone.

But I think it's also partially attributable to being on vacation. I mean when I'm working, I don't have time to hit every single book/clothing/sporting goods store in a 5 subway stop area - like I did in Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

First of all, it was Neiman Marcus, not Bergdorffs. Second - we only shopped for a few hours and never got to hit Bloomies, Saks, etc. And, lastly, I was pressing Becky to buy two other dresses she looked great in, but she said she had enough. I thought she showed huge restraint.
Carrie