The inevitable late summer plague has arrived. No, I’m not talking about mosquitoes, or poison ivy, or humidity. I’m talking about the back-to-school fashion frenzy. The buzz this year is about “interactivity." Shopping is now supposed to be ever so much more than interacting with our wallets. Some stores offer shopping sprees to “haulers,” kids who show off their purchases on YouTube. Others encourage them to play disc jockey on life size MP3 players when they walk in. Even clothes themselves have to be interactive. There’s some brand promoting different shaped stick-on patches so that kids can personalize their garments (“But mom, everyone is personalizing this year. If I don’t personalize, I won’t look like everybody else.”)
And then there’s Ralph Lauren. The designer who blessed us with “preppy” in the 1980s has produced a new online book for kids. And guess what? It’s interactive! Little fashionistas can click on the clothes the characters wear—and buy them. An ad on the front page of NYTimes.com called it “The First Shoppable Children’s Storybook.”
The Wall Street Journal touted the brand’s literary debut, The RL Gang, as a threat to Dr. Seuss. Wow. Here’s the plot: Eight kids, cute as hell, arrive at school sporting way cool clothes. A “well-dressed” man enters the room. It’s their teacher, the only visible part of whom is his torso, clad in . . .Ralph Lauren. They kids count to twenty and land in a magical wood, in totally new outfits. They find a little tree that isn’t thriving. They get sad. A kid named River suggests that they water the tree. They do. It transforms instantly into a full grown apple tree bearing fruit. And the kids wear yet another set of outfits. They pick the apples. They count to twenty. They arrive back at school. The room is empty. Their well-dressed teacher’s torso (and presumably the rest of him) is gone. They don’t care. They each give away their apples, but get to keep their trio of first-day-of-school ensembles—for sale in their on-line closets.
The point isn’t, however, that it’s lousy literature. It would be just as problematic if The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins was an online shopping experience. The point is that The RL Gang is another slide down the slippery slope toward seamlessly integrated marketing in children’s lives. David Lauren, Senior Vice President of Advertising, Marketing and Corporate Communications, calls it "merchantainment." Like advergaming, the goal is to make sales by seducing kids into lingering with a product long enough to associate it with fun, or longing, or excitement.
Here’s the problem. We are getting so used to marketers inserting advertising everywhere in children’s lives—in schools, in books, in songs, in games, in the content of movies, that we forget to care. The RL Gang, by itself, is just one little annoyance that most of us can avoid. It’s the aggregate that’s really troubling—a commercialized childhood where everything and everyone is for sale.