So you're going to be a parent? Congratulations! Good for you and your loins. You probably think you know what you're in for, don't you? You've spent the last nine months umming and ahhing over pink muslin squares and blue muslin squares and cream muslin squares, you've picked out those nice little Converse-ish booties that look a bit like yours, and that book you loved when you were little – the one about the caterpillar with the eating disorder. Everything is ready, right?
Wrong. No matter how much preparation you do, when that baby lands in your life, you will not be ready. At all. But, it's okay – not being ready is all part of the experience! There's probably some evolutionary psychological reasoning behind it, it's nature, whatever – just accept this and put your entire life into crash position.
Forget all you know, or think you know. Every facet of the life you'll have foolishly grown accustomed to over the last couple of decades will be thrown into a bizarre parallel dimension, not least of all your familiar path through the branded world.
If you're in the UK, you'll be inducted into your new demographic at your most vulnerable moment. As you sit there with your amazing and unerringly wrinkly creation, in bursts the Bounty representative. In a questionable relationship with the NHS, this group are tasked with harvesting personal details as they hand over child benefit claim forms. Before you know it, this confusing exchange has put you and your brand-untainted offspring into the databases of who knows how many third parties, all wanting a piece of your feeding/cleaning/playing/transporting/protecting/nurturing budget.
(If you think this sounds rather insidious and exploitative, you're not alone. More than 60,000 people have signed a petition to terminate HMRC’s contract with Bounty and find alternative routes for Child Benefit Form distribution - http://www.change.org/bountyhmrc.)
The seal is broken. Every trip out to buy nappies or formula is met with a tempting offer of sample packs and freebies in exchange for precious details, every shop clamouring to get that fresh human into their loyalty system. On top of this, every Google and Facebook mention pushes you further into that target market. The abrupt change in the adverts you see on your daily wander about the web is indicative of how closely the brands are paying attention to your every move. Forget holidays and music and booze – the web really, _really_ wants you to buy that Baby Bjorn carrier.
Everywhere you turn, there are brands you never knew existed selling things you didn't think you needed. Brands that you did know and love are sidelined or repurposed. Accepted truths about what you've come to accept of brands crumble into nothing (writing for Fast Company, John Pavlus bravely admitted the uncomfortable truth that parenthood had made him appreciate the value of Comic Sans - http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665108/how-having-a-baby-made-me-learn-to-love-comic-sans). Your standards of what's acceptable from a brand fall pretty steeply – tastes and preferences give way to pragmatism.
But you're still a target, it's just that brands are now aiming at you as a proxy for your child. Common sense tells you this little flailing, eating, pooping thing probably doesn't care that much for this brand or that, but it doesn't matter. They – and by extension, you – now live among a cavalcade of characters.
This is how the brands attach themselves you you. Logos mean nothing in this world, it's all about the characters. The Gruffalo, Spot, Miffy, that caterpillar. They may each have humble origins in picture books or cartoons, but they sprawl into every corner of childhood.
It happens so quickly. You'll no longer be able to identify musicians or film stars or your partner, but you'll know the cast of In the Night Garden. You can try to resist this commercialisation of youth, but sooner or later you'll find yourself staring into an Iggle Piggle bowl or wiping chunks of somethingorother off a Makka Pakka sleepsuit. And your child doesn't even know who they are, until …
Suddenly they do. These characters' ubiquity in their life has been seemingly innocuous. Then overnight, they recognise them, they love them, they are loyal to them. They embrace the brands and they don't let them go.
The character-based brand economy that you and your bank balance have been primed for really kicks in. Take Peppa Pig for example: as well as the show and the toys (so many toys) and the _stuff_, there's a theme park and a website and numerous cross-platform porcine demands upon every minute of your life.
The Peppa website is rather headache-inducing (if there's one thing children's websites have in common, it's noisiness), but nonetheless diverting and rather fun. Tellingly, amongst the activities, stories and (of course) shop, there's an avatar creation element. As your child enters various preferences, likes and dislikes, you realise they're being primed for a future of handing over personal details.
They get bigger and more social, and brands infiltrate their lives even more. With toy phones and tablets having already prepared them for a life in-hand and on-screen, the barriers between physical play and digital brand engagement online are meaningless now – a child's entry into the world of Lego is likely to be through a mobile game as it is through actual bricks.
In this cross-platform world of brand-play, there be giants. The scope of a super-brand like Disney and it's multitude of properties is impossible to fathom or resist – as well as the traditional animated films and the glut of merchandise that comes with them, they've got Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, Muppets, everything. All throwing websites and apps and games at them, all begging for attention, engagement, loyalty.
And this is before they've even reached school, where tribal peer pressure and unwitting brand advocation comes into play. By then, all your good intentions will have withered, all resistance gone. The branded life of your own will be long gone, nibbled, crayoned, torn, replaced with a baffling fog of pig-men and revolting rhymes and ninky-nonks. You’ll be too busy packing character-branded food into character-branded lunch boxes to even notice.
Anyway … congratulations! You'll do fine.
Written for Monotype