Meltdown Fallout: Some Parents Rethink
November 29, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) -- In a season that inspires earnest
letters about toys, one notable batch is being sent not
by kids to Santa's workshop but by parents to the
executive suites of real-world toy makers.
The message: Please, in these days of economic angst,
cut back on marketing your products directly to our
The letter-writing initiative was launched by the
Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,
which says roughly 1,400 of its members and supporters
have contacted 24 leading toy companies and retailers to
express concern about ads aimed at kids.
"Unfortunately, I will not be able to purchase many of
the toys that my sons have asked for; we simply don't
have the money," wrote Todd Helmkamp of Hudson, Ind. "By
bombarding them with advertisements ... you are placing
parents like me in the unenviable position of having to
tell our children that we can't afford the toys you
The Toy Industry Association has responded with a firm
defense of current marketing practices, asserting that
children "are a vital part of the gift selection
"If children are not aware of what is new and available,
how will they be able to tell their families what their
preferences are?" an industry statement said. "While
there is certainly greater economic disturbance going on
now, families have always faced different levels of
economic well-being and have managed to tailor their
spending to their means."
In recent conference calls with investors, toy company
executives said they expect to suffer some
holiday-season impact from the economic crisis, yet
suggested their industry would be more resilient than
many other sectors. The toy industry is commonly viewed
as recession-resistant, due largely to the parent-child
"Parents have trouble saying no," said Allison Pugh, a
University of Virginia sociology professor. She says
parents often buy toys to avoid guilt and ensure their
children feel in sync with school classmates.
"Even under circumstances of dire financial straits,
that's the last thing parents give up," said Pugh.
"They'll contain their own buying for themselves before
they'll make their child feel different at school."
Amanda Almodovar says she encounters such families in
her work as an elementary school social worker in
Alamance County, N.C., where homelessness and
unemployment are rising.
"I had one parent who said she'd prostitute herself to
get what her child wants," Almodovar said. "It's
heartbreaking. They feel inadequate as parents.
"I try to tell them, worry about your home, your heating
bill - but they're the ones who have to look into
children's faces, the children saying 'I want this, I
Even in some households not in fiscal crisis, there's a
sense that this holiday season is different.
John Schenkenfelder, a financial adviser and father of
three in Louisville, Ky., wrote a blog entry this month
urging families to scale down their gift-giving and
spend more time playing together.
"This has been bugging me for years, even when times
were great," Schenkenfelder said in a telephone
interview. "Maybe people will get it this year - they're
so unprepared for this debacle. They're shell-shocked."
In Columbus, Ohio, Erin Beth Dower Charron has been
trying to brace her 4-year-old son and 8-year-old
daughter for more subdued gift-getting this year as the
family begins financial belt-tightening.
"My 8-year-old is still holding out hope that Santa will
get her that one special gift, but understanding this
year may be different," Dower Charron said. "My son
doesn't understand. Everything he sees, he wants."
Toy ads on kids' TV shows make the process harder, she
said. "The onslaught seems to be more intense this
Dower Charron was among the hundreds of parents who took
up the suggestion to write to toy companies.
"Help me understand why your toy is the better one for
my child, and why it should be one of the few I can
afford," she wrote. "Don't leave that up to my
The director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free
Childhood, psychologist Susan Linn, said she and her
colleagues don't expect toy companies to stop
advertising - rather, they want the ads directed at
"It's cruel to dangle irresistible ads for toys and
electronics in front of kids - encouraging them to nag
for gifts that their parents can't afford," she said.
"It's just not fair."
The big toy makers aren't likely to redirect their ads
for one fundamental reason, according to Richard
Gottlieb, a New York-based consultant to the industry.
"Toy companies advertise to children because it works,
to be brutally honest," Gottlieb said in an interview.
Gottlieb also contends that it's good for children to
encounter toy ads - even in cases where products later
turn out to be disappointments.
"It teaches, for very low stakes, how to navigate in our
consumer culture," he said.
"They are going to have to spend the rest of their lives
listening to every kind of marketing approach, and
childhood is where they will learn to cope with it."
As for the economic pressure on parents, Gottlieb sounds
a fatalistic note.
"Believe me, there are families with much bigger issues
on their plates right now then worrying about whether
their child will be unhappy because they did not get a
particular toy," Gottlieb wrote in his "Out of the Toy
Box" blog. "Delivering disappointment goes with the job
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