In this short video clip, Brian Wansink, a researcher for Cornell University, shows how amazingly well-tuned the marketing efforts of cereal companies are when it comes to selling to our kids.
Without the tactics of nagging, cajoling, forcing, or demanding, they have our kids wanting, asking, and (sometimes) even begging for their product. Before a child ever tries the cereal, they are convinced it will taste amazing.
It’s a fascinating study in psychology. Things like having a friendly character on the front of the box…or making the character’s eyes look at the child make a direct impact on how the child *feels* about the product. The words used, the colors used, all change our perception of what something is like.
As adults we do it too– the old adage “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” shows how we are pre-disposed to this outward marketing.
We are always sending messages to our kids.
And yet, when it comes to parenting, how often do we fail to market things things of true value to our children? More accurately, we ARE marketing to our children…but what are we telling them that they are being sold?
- “Look at this mess…Clean your room!
- “Eat all of your vegetables.”
- “We have to get started on your school work.”
The subtle messages here?
- Cleaning your room stinks. No one wants to do it but you have to. Seriously.
- No one wants to eat these vegetables. But if you want to get out of that chair, it has to happen.
- School will be an unpleasant interruption to your day, but we have no choice.
And then we wonder why we are having a hard time motivating our kids to want to do these things.
If we translated these messages onto our own boxes, what would they look like? A wincing parent tentatively holding a fork with the words “You won’t like it, probably,” or a glowering parent, sternly pointing at the child under the phrase “I told you yesterday!”?
I mean, how often would I want to buy what I’m selling?
Changing our messages
The first step in sending better messages is believing in our product.
If we believe that cleaning their room is drudgery, that eating vegetables is nigh torture, and that learning is an unpleasant necessity, those beliefs will translate into the messages we send.
Undoubtedly, sometimes our biggest marketing effort has to begin with our own hearts before it can be passed along. But it’s worth the fight.
First, we must get back to the root of why we want these things for our kids- and really believe it– and then our messages will be a bit more tailored to our ultimate desire for our kids.
A cereal company believes that a child will love their product.
A cereal box unabashedly touts the positive without wincing at the potential response. Time and again you can walk down that aisle, and that same bright, smiling box will confront you regardless of the number of times you have passed it by.
In the same way, we have to divorce what we expect that they will think from what we want them to think.
- We can model a love of organizing and bringing order, of making something sparkly and shiny and clean.
- We can share food enthusiastically, we can praise it’s wonderful flavor combination, we can share our delight in each dish, regardless of the response.
- And we can marvel at the wonder of learning, at knowing new things. We can delight in discovery- even the discovery of new patterns in math.
Think of the difference (in your own head) between “Let’s start cleaning day.” and “OK, let’s take some time to sparkle and shine!” Which one do you want to participate in?
Or what about this “We are going to do your math drill,” or “It’s time for the 5 minute Math Master Challenge.”
I have found the terms “race” and “challenge” to be extremely motivating to my own kids. I was perusing Pinterest this morning and came across a pin that advertised “TeePee Challenge!” And showed a kid who had created a pretty awesome structure out of wrapping paper tubes and sheets. Kids love a challenge.
Other words kids love?
Brave. Courage. Strong. Hunt. Adventure.
Beautiful. Sparkly. Sweet. Cute. Adorable.
We can use these words to market things we really want them to have.
Interestingly enough, even naming our food can make an impact. In one of his talks at Cornell University (check out minute 20 for the clip I’m referencing) Professor Wansink discussed the importance of something as simple as naming your dishes. He conducted a study at a cafeteria where they changed only the name of the dish offered. All of the sudden, the cafeteria served “Succulent Italian Fish Fillet” instead of “Fish Fillet.” Surprisingly, not only did sales rise, but so did the perception of the taste of the food, AND even the skill level of the chef.
In school cafeterias they have used this research to brand plain ol’ broccoli as “Broccoli Bites” or “Teeny Tiny Trees.”
A quick perusal through Pinterest recipes shows that we understand this principle works well on adults (Chicken Fajita Pasta? Yes please!)…but how often do we sit down to dinner without sharing that fun name with our kids? To them it’s just those noodles with that sauce and those chunks of peppers that they are sure they don’t like…
Could simply giving the dish a more attractive name help them enjoy it just as much as we do? Research sure seems to point in that direction.
Not flashy, but effective.
The thing that surprised me was the subtle nature of the messages being sent. Sure, they are positive, bright and cheerful, but they aren’t screaming “YOU WANT THIS!!”
In the same way, we can change our delivery and change our message in subtle ways that make things of true value and worth attractive to our captive audience. And honestly, we might have a moral obligation to do so.