Once You Go SpongeBob, You’ll Never Go Back

July 12, 2011

Disney princess Band AidsAt the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I have to ask: Has co-branding on products aimed at kids gotten out of hand?

I’m not talking about toys, video games and junk food. Parents tiptoe through those landmines all the time. That’s life.

I’m talking about everyday products such as toothpaste, bandages, shoes, cereal and other staples. Stuff you’d have a tough time avoiding altogether.

It seems as if everything has a popular cartoon or movie character adorning the product or its package. If they make it, someone’s slapping Lightning McQueen, Luke Skywalker or Cinderella on it.

Now, I don’t see anything evil or inherently wrong with Transformers Band-Aids or Arthur macaroni and cheese. The problem comes with the expectations that develop in kids’ minds after they encounter a branded version of a product. Give a kid a Darth Vader bandage instead of the regular kind and the fancy one becomes the new normal. Anything less is a disappointment worthy of a tantrum. Expectations always rise. They never fall.

Toy Story 3 apples at TargetMy colleague Allison shared this recent anecdote: At Target, she spotted fresh apples in a box branded with the character Jessie from “Toy Story 3.” These were regular, unprocessed apples. Allison thought it was refreshing to see a movie promo tied to a healthy food, so she picked up a box. Her kids loved the apples. Victory, right? Wrong. Once the “Jessie” apples ran out, regular apples lost their luster. (Note to Target: Allison totally loves you.)

I readily admit I’m talking about a parenting challenge, not a problem with children. If you don’t want your kids getting upset about having to use “regular toothpaste,” don’t buy the SpongeBob kind in the first place. I get it. But, of course, it’s much easier said than done, especially when kids begin encountering branded products at stores, in relatives’ homes and at school.

The issue is that raising kids already means saying “No” a lot. No name calling. No hitting. No movies on a school night. Saying “No” to an endless stream of branded products would be awfully tough.

It strikes me that much of the promotional branding has nothing to do with the product itself. Case in point: At our house we have a pair of youth tennis rackets — one adorned with SpongeBob, the other with Dora the Explorer. What on Earth do those characters have to do with tennis? (Again, I take the blame for buying these branded rackets in the first place. But let’s see you take a kid to Target for a new racket and come out with a “boring” one … assuming there was even a non-branded model on the shelves.)

Dad makes Dora disappear

And there’s this: When a branded product outlasts a kid’s tastes, you’re in trouble. The Dora tennis racket was fine for my daughter a year ago, but when summer  lessons started this year, Dora was a no-go. Sharing a SpongeBob racket with her brother was out of the question.

So this dad found himself on a recent morning doing something that at once was both ludicrous and brilliant: using acrylic paint and a child’s brush to “unbrand” a tennis racket from Target.