Disney, Stay Away From Our Newborns

The sales pitch is always opportunistic, yes? And no time in my life was I more susceptible than when the rush of mothering hormones flowed over me in the first few months of my pregnancy and then, again, when I came home from the hospital. Everyone was beloved, and if they were selling something for my baby, they were welcomed into the warmth of my maternity with all the love my wallet could spare. Is pushing into my post-birth recovery room, going too far?

Disney says no. The pre-preschool market is, for the company, three years of lost revenue. Sure: by the time your little girl is four, she'll be asking for a Sleeping Beauty or Tinkerbell™-branded Halloween costume. Your three-year-old little boy will be sleeping in Buzz Lightyear™ sheets; all of your lunchboxes belong to Disney™!

But what to do before then, when you're more about diaper rash and cradle cap than about Belle and Buzz? Savvy marketing company Our365, which sells photography packages and hands out freebies in the maternity wards of 580 U.S. hospitals, is helping Disney go that extra mile and snag your brand loyalty before you're even out of the maternity ward."To get that mom thinking about her family's first park experience before her baby is even born is a home run," Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney told the New York Times. "Apparel is only a beachhead." The ocean, then? It's bath items, strollers, baby food, licensed-character diapers, and someday in the near future, "a loyalty program ... in which pregnant women might receive free theme park tickets in return for signing up for email alerts."

Lest you get shocked and offended, you should know that marketing to mothers in their tender states is nothing new. Whole businesses (Babycenter comes to mind) have sprung up in the past few decades to do nothing but get the marketing messages delivered more regularly and more insistently than ever before. Have you seen the Baby Einstein DVDs? The three networks with television programs targeted at younger and younger kids? Sure, the AAP may suggest that children not watch any screens until they're two, but when the birth class families got together back in 2002 with all of our first babies, we chatted while our boys babbled to the bubbly background of one of our friend's nine-DVD Baby Einstein set.

But has Disney gone far enough into the mind of the married mom? No, no it hasn't. There is far, yet, still to go: a whole channel targeted at preschool viewers (and by preschoolers, I am sure Disney marketers are thinking, "before this child is sullied by characters whose names do not include a TM"), Disney Junior, launched February 14; a "bigger opportunity." Think, Disney Princess big.

Mooney himself took Disney's ragtag bunch of princesses and assorted magical heroines from a $300 million annual doll business to a $4 billion colossus that has sparked all sorts of jealousies (corporate) and anger (mothers), including New York Times writer Peggy Orenstein, who coincidentally just published a book on Disney's Royal seduction of her own daughter.

On NPR, she says, "I recall those hours in the hospital room with my baby girl as among my most vulnerable as a mother. I was exhausted. I was exhilarated. I was scared. I was thrilled. Here was this baby, this bundle of endless potential, this open question of a being who suddenly, miraculously existed and was in my care. My hopes and dreams for her were boundless, but I'm pretty sure they did not involve the brands she'd someday buy."

Not that this is all about princesses; boy babies will be targeted sure as girl babies. Orenstein points to a comment from the Advertising Educational Foundation, which describes babies one year and younger as "a more informed, influential and compelling audience than ever before." (We're so proud of those little brand-informed babes!) My toddlers, too, could read "Comcast" and "Cartoon Network" and "Toy Story" long before they could read. While that didn't compel or influence me much in the way the AEF might like -- I'm definitely not the target market -- it's the sort of fact that makes corporate executives drool like the babies they want to win over.

Already, hospitals in many states and in the U.K. have banned hospital deliveries of freebies from formula brands like Enfamil, whose corporate parent Mead Johnson was accused of colluding with Our365 to deliver free formula samples and coupons to parents who gave the photography company their address. Now at least one advocacy group, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is calling for hospitals to do the same with Disney and other sales pitches.

Shaking a finger at Disney, for being bald-faced and buzzword-dropping about this "exciting opportunity," as Disney CEO Robert A. Iger describes the baby market, is rather beside the point. Babies are already a huge market; a whole wave of savvy direct marketers has been hocking lists of pregnant and new mothers for even longer than Baby Einstein has been around. "Tiger Moms" and other parents eager to give their baby every opportunity -- from the questionable benefits of classical music-playing cartoon characters, to the comfort and stylish superiority of branded bodysuits, to the early childhood theme park vacations they never had -- are as much the problem as the victim here.

If parents weren't so eager to spend so much of their income on premium-branded stuff for baby, Disney executives and other corporate salespeople wouldn't get the dollar signs in their eyes. On any given Sunday, I can ride through my neighborhood finding big boxes of "free" baby things, most of them sporting copyright and trademark tags a-plenty. Babies are only babies for a short time; we'd do well to wait until they could actually talk to align them with one or many corporations. Instead, we all eagerly participate in molding the perfect little brand loyalist before we've even got them home from the hospital; a given image of your new baby might include more intellectual property than the average patent office.

Hospitals shouldn't let salespeople push their way into a new mother's bonding time. But I believe we should go farther, and take the brand names off babies and young children. It's not something that can be legislated or to which we can trust corporations; they're all looking at Disney's successful foray into the scandalous world of homemade princess costumes (the idea!) and licking their profit-taking lips. This is something we have to do ourselves.

Just say no to branded babies. Go ahead, steal that slogan, or make your own. DIY, corporate marketing-free kids, is the way to be. That free bodysuit in the hospital is not the path to savings; staying away from pricey licensed baby stuff is.
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