When Jack from year 5 is dealing Blue Spirit lions behind the water fountain, there’s a fight over a missing Latina pasta at the bike racks and kids (and adults alike) are having daily meltdowns in the self-service lane – it can only mean one thing.
Collectables season is here.
The biggest battle between our supermarket giants is being fought by proxy in schoolyards across the country, where Woolworths’ Lion King Ooshies and Coles’ Little Shop 2 collectables are facing off for a share of kids’ hearts and parents’ hip pockets.
Last year, the inaugural Minis campaign coincided with a boost to Coles’ profits of close to half a billion dollars. Any parent of a child under 10 could tell you the reason why; mini collectables are crack for kids not just for the short-term rush that comes from the initial score, but because of their power to cause long-term effects on children’s behaviour patterns, impacting who they are, who they will become and how they will shape the future of our world.
Admittedly, that’s a bold statement, especially from someone who still has at least 80 chip packets worth of Tazos in a shoebox under her house. It’s true that when today’s kids are exposed to more than 3000 advertisements a day, it does seem unlikely that the chariot of the consumerist apocalypse will be drawn by a pop-up cardboard checkout pulled by four tiny rubber Simbas.
But at the same time, it is worth acknowledging that the mechanics used in the new crop of collectable promotions has evolved significantly in the past few years, honed using data and sophisticated multi-channel marketing strategies to maximise their effectiveness in modifying and rewarding kids’ consumer behaviour.
Lion King Ooshies and Little Shop 2 now not only harness children’s natural desire to collect, they artificially enhance it with tens of millions of dollars in advertising spend to immerse children in marketing messages they are too young to understand. This not only weaponises children's pester power to drive short-term sales, but gifts the supermarkets the power to shape the way their still-developing brains are wired, through direct reward and positive social reinforcement in the schoolyard.
As a result of letting kids be the kids marketers want them to be, Australian children are becoming increasingly materialistic.
According to Sharon Beder, honorary professor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong and author of the book This Little Kiddy Went to Market, campaigns like Little Shop 2 and Lion King Ooshies are teaching children to evaluate themselves and each other by the things they possess, rather than by their personal qualities and characteristics.
“Those who have the most are seen to be the winners, the better people," she says.
As collectable fever spreads like wildfire through her year 5 classroom, a Brisbane primary school teacher I know has witnessed this values shift first hand. "Before school this morning, they were talking about collectables," she says, dropping her canvas bag of marking on the table, "and when the bell rang, they were talking about collectables".
Since the campaign launch, she’s noticed her students constantly comparing the size of their collections and attending to their relationships based on who has collectables they need. She’s broken up countless fights over missing figurines and watched her classroom convert into a trading centre at break times, as students from other classes visit to admire and swap collectables, instead of heading out to play.
She also describes how the craze has driven a wedge between the haves and have-nots in her class. "The wealthy kids have dozens (of collectables), the poorer kids maybe only a few. When you have more, you get more attention. It’s an interesting lesson."
Beder points to this inequality as a source for feelings of inadequacy. "Not all kids and their parents can afford all the things that they want, so you get a lot of discontented children who feel they are missing out." This can add extra pressure to struggling families and drive conflict as home, as parents cope with the demands of children to buy more.
But behaviour changes and stress aside, Beder believes one of the more damaging effects of materialism is how it can change the way children actually process happiness. "When children learn to find happiness through possessions and things they can buy, they miss out on learning to find it inherently in things like relationships, their own ambitions and their own experiences," she says.
When these associations and internal reward systems are formed young, they are difficult to wind back. A recent UK study has shown that young people whose "operating system" is weighted towards getting pleasure from accumulating possessions (trainers, houses, jewellery, cars, bags, mobile phones) are less happy than those who prioritise other pursuits.
The study also linked materialistic tendencies to decreased life satisfaction and happiness, and also placed them at higher risk for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Beder says: "It’s a matter of thinking that to being happy is about buying the right thing – be it a material possession or a drug or a service.
"This leads to a world that is money and possession-oriented, where unhappy people work long hours to afford the things they don’t need. They can’t spend the amount of time with their families that would actually make them happier."
As a millennial parent raised on ads for toys disguised as TV shows, Happy Meal toys and Pokémon (Gotta catch ‘em all), Beder's description of a bleak, consumerist future feels a little too close to today’s reality.
Has our own lifetime of consumer conditioning blinded us to the destructive effect of marketing, taught us to see Lion King Ooshies as harmless fun and lead us to encourage the same behaviour in our children? Perhaps that Tazo collection was more damaging than we thought?
With our own childhood experiences in mind, it’s clear that the sort of consumerist grooming perfected in Little Shop 2 and Lion King Ooshies is not new, and is not going away any time soon. But are there any strategies parents could implement to limit its impact? (And can we do it without the checkout tantrums guaranteed to result from answering "no" to the question, “Are you collecting the Ooshies?”)
Fortunately for us, Sharon Beder doesn’t believe that you can lay the blame for our increasing materialism solely at the door of Coles’ Little Shop. “Each individual thing, in isolation, is pretty harmless. It’s the cumulative effect of all this marketing that makes the negative impact.”
She maintains the best protective action parents can take is to actively foster children’s developing critical reasoning skills. "Kids need to be able to learn to decode and decipher messages, to understand persuasion and to be able to value things that are really important in life rather than the things they are told that are important by advertisers and marketers."
The good news is that challenging your kids’ thinking is as easy as asking the right questions.
Do you measure your success on the things you own? Do you try to buy happiness? Do you judge others by their possessions?
I know I do. Just like my kids, I’ve got plenty of consumer behaviours that need questioning this collectable season – and I might start by throwing out that box of Tazos.