February 22, 2006

How Not To Market Your Baby Product To Me

minivan.gifOne of the most powerful motivating forces in a new parent's life is fear: fear of doing something wrong, fear of something happening to your baby, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of the kid not getting into Harvard, whatever kind of fear you need, rest assured a new parent is stocking up on it, in bulk.

Marketers in the baby industry are well aware of this, and they have become disconcertingly adept at playing to those fears and anxieties, usually with carefully oblique comments loaded with unspoken criticism like, "Of course, you only want what's best for your child, [don't you??]" and "Well, the most important thing to us at Dry Cleaning Bags4Kidz is your child's safety [how about you?]" They're often effective precisely because they leave the parent to complete the thought, to question themselves, and to turn to the company who's only here to help make your baby safe, after all [and to keep the stock price up until the CEO's options vest.]

But sometimes you'll find a company whose exploitative fanning of parental fears is so brazen and disgusting, it really should be called out. In this Googling age, I won't use the name of the product, but it's a simple proximity sensor built into a carseat clip, that goes off if the child is left behind in the car. Obviously, it's intended to prevent kids from being forgotten in a hot car, where they're at risk of brain damage and death. A couple dozen babies die each year in the US, which is obviously a tragedy. But this beeper company not only focuses on the threat of death and tragedy, but the threat of imprisonment and prosecution in its copy, while wrapping up with the promise that "[Our product] will give you peace of mind that your most precious possession won't fall victim to your demanding lifestyle."

babybakeoventimer.jpgAnd if that's not enough, their pitch actually includes the rambling, grief-stricken, firsthand account of a mother whose baby died in her carseat the week after the dad switched to daycare dropoff duty. [No one comes out and says it, but in much of the language of its promoters, the implication is that this is meant to save children from being baked alive by their dads. Actually, one commenter's imagined worst-case scenario gets pretty close: in it, "the alternate parent is rushing to his work to meet his schedule and inadvertently forgets about his child in the backseat since he is not accustom to this daily task."]

That comment was left on a little-trafficked parenting blog from India, of all places, called ilovemybaby.org. [The site's tone is off, in a displaced, outsourced-to-Bangalore way, and it has a weirdly passive aggressive and argumentative opposition to paternity leave, but whatever. Not my problem.] Seems a concerned reader had contacted ILMB about this great, new product coming out which will save tiny lives and demanding lifestyles. And within a day, a couple dozen uniformly ecstatic comments appeared out of nowhere. They all had generic Western names (except for the two guys named "Mat" who had different last names, but near-identical comments, 4 minutes apart.) and had heard about these senseless tragedies that the beeper would prevent, thank heaven.

That same concerned reader emailed me yesterday, giving me a heads up to this VV Important Post and encouraging me to help "spread the word." Then today, I got another email from her, with the link to the beeper's corporate site. Turns out she's the marketing director for the company. [What're the odds, right?]

And to top it all off, this gadget with the Happy Meal Toy-grade technology, that probably cost a buck to make, is available for pre-order for $59.95 with a keychain beeper, and $79.95 with a car-door adapter. Even the MBA in me is shocked, never mind the parent.

So here's the deal, baby product marketers:

  • Try to manipulate my emotions if you must--you're marketers, after all--but don't let me know about it. Or at least make me want to have my heartstrings plucked by your delicate caress.
  • Spare me the tragedy porn, especially if you're not a charity, but a company with a 5000% mark-up. If you find that your product scores >100 on the Paul Newman Index of kid-related tragedy vs. % profits to charity, you need a foundation, not an LLC.
  • Cut with the dad-bashing. Instead of protecting those "demanding lifestyles" with ever-increasing reliance on "quick-n-easy" technological crutches, how about helping to rethink and reorganize them in a way that doesn't create "alternate parents" in the first place?
  • You can outsource your production to China, but don't outsource your buzz to an Indian comment center, cuz you'll get busted.
  • And you better not make it up by culling first names from your Christmas card list, either, cuz you'll get busted.
  • And last, don't play me for a chump by sending me concerned mom emails one day and press releases the next.



    Yup, I got that very same email from the marketing director today too.

    Freakonomics has that wonderful chapter on how fear of tragedy is disproportionate with risk of said tragedy occurring. Case in point...

    This comment on ilovemybaby.org really cracked me up:

    Wow! What a deal! I forget my baby everywhere! I turn around annd Im just distracted by the goodies in the shop and then BAM! down goes baby and away goes his life! Ive lost numerous kiddies this way!!! If only Id had this device!!!!!!

    Good Post Greg Daddy, but why do I hear Xenophobia in your tone? Why take down that "little-traffick" bangalored indian parenting site? Why all that superior tone? You are a reporter. Stay impersonal.

    [thanks, but I'm not a reporter, nor am I xenophobic. In trying to get a sense for what ILMB's POV was, I surfed around a bit. Except for the beeper post--which instantly had a ton of comments, there were no comments anywhere I looked. The contrast seems relevant to the post's fakery. Also, Indian call center reps regularly adopt generic western identities, too, so the comparison seemed apt. As for judging them harshly, to be honest, most of the site seemed automatically culled from wire services in order to generate Google Ad revenue. Except for their opposition to paternity leave, which I consider retrograde and counterproductive, and which, as a dad, I can't be impersonal about. -ed.]

    (warning this comment is meant as dry humor)

    This product intereferes with the human race's evolution. Stupid distracted people leaving their children in the car to bake to death is Dawinism in action people!

    [Believe me, if it were somehow possible to wring actual humor out of children baking to death in their carseats, I'm the first to admit I'd be tempted. Especially if it helped stop it from happening... -ed.]

    hmmmmmmmmmmm, I have read your comments and visited the website @babyalert.info and did not leave with the impression of male or Dad bashing. Independent research supports that busy multitasking parents /care givers both male and female have had this happen at least 121 times in 2005. Further the story of the one writer who states that her husband left her child in a car was also verifiable ... I would support the concept of this company though perhaps not fully it marketing model.

    [like I said, it's an implication, not an accusation. If I'm more sensitized to it because I am a dad and make myself aware of how dads are included, depicted, or ignored in marketing, I accept that others don't read it the same way. Also, it's a secondary (at best) point that I really only decided to mention because it's a dad-oriented site. The maudlin marketing is the issue here, but my real issue is that I see a "backup/safety net" gadget like this often serves instead as a license for parents to ignore their kids more easily. Watch the commercial for the Angel Alert beeper, which offers the same functionality for playgrounds. It basically shows a bunch of moms waiting for a beeper to tell them when a kid gets too close to a black man. -ed.]

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