I never understood how blissfully unaware I was of the whole “Grocery Game” until I had my son. Before having him, I would just zip in and out, grabbing the few items I needed, not paying very much attention to my surroundings other than how long the check out line was.
It’s all painfully clear. From commercials, ad circulars/coupons to the actual stores themselves, I now realize the carefully constructed ways that companies, advertisers, and marketers all work together to make me want to stand in the middle of the cereal aisle and scream.
It all starts with commercials and advertisements. I never paid too much attention to them before, but along with the kiddo came a bit of a stricter budget. I compared brands, I clipped a few coupons, and I cringed at what I noticed.
The majority of ads are directed at women. Advertisers assume that it is the women that do all the cleaning, shopping and cooking, and so 99% of ads target them. Perhaps women do tend to take on these roles more than their male counterparts, but why is that? Maybe it’s a chicken and the egg type of conundrum. It’s assumed that traditionally the women take on these domestic duties and so the ads focus on them. We, in turn, see these ads where gender stereotypes (Women cook, clean, and care for kids! Men grill and build and mow the grass!) persist and they infiltrate our subconscious.
However, advertisers apparently have no problem demeaning both women and men to get men into the grocery store (and sell a little milk in the process):
If the ads aren’t enough to put you off from the supermarket, once you step foot inside—with a child—you’ll want to run screaming for the hills, because that’s when the marketing truly hits. As a parent, you try and set limits, and you’ll quickly come to learn that branding/marketing becomes your arch nemesis in that regard.
Let’s use Disney as an example (since they’re one of the biggest offenders when it comes to branding). Sure, you might expect familiar Disney faces to pop up in places like mylar balloons in the florist department, on band-aids, shampoo, toothpaste, and tooth brushes in the health aisle, or on paper goods like plates, napkins, and cups. But would you expect those sneaky princesses to pop up in the produce section?
Grapes—sponsored by Disney!
Yet most of the branded items stray very far from the healthy choices of the produce section. Prepackaged food filled with artificial colors, sugar and questionable ingredients all call out to passing kids with their cartoon-laded packages.
The stores chip in as well with product placement—not giving parents much of a fighting chance. All of the sugary (and also more expensive) products are placed at kid level, making it much easier for them to spot, followed by a chorus of “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy!”
Of course common sense dictates that we leave the kids at home when grocery shopping, but reality doesn’t always work that way. People have jobs and shopping gets done when there’s time, and that might mean with a kid or two in tow.
While the ideal (for me at least) would be procuring most of our necessities via local farms, stores, or co-ops, that isn’t always feasible. Shopping in stores where branding is limited also comes with a price: a higher grocery bill. And for many families it’s just not possible.
We can also do our best to teach our children what healthy food is. My son has an excellent grasp on what “growing food” is and why he needs it before he can have any treats. He knows what food fuels his body best, but that doesn’t stop him from jumping up and down, demanding a box of macaroni and neon orange “cheeze” with Lightening McQueen stamped all over it. When Congress is essentially declaring that pizza is a vegetable, parents can use all the help they can get.
Branding is never going to go away. Companies learned long ago that connecting their image to anything they could get their hands on would boost profits, and they’re not going to let that go without a fight.
With the holiday season now directly upon us, branding and marketing become harder to ignore, especially as trips to the store may become more frequent. Ideally, the rules to the Grocery Game will start to change as more and more people become frustrated with the way marketing targets them and their children. Until then, feel free to join me as I rush past the cereal aisle, an echo of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” trailing behind.