ControverSundays: Licensed Merchandise


ControverSundays is something blog friend Kathleen does, and while I’ve always read with interest, I’ve never felt stirred enough to participate because, well, quite frankly, I have just never made enough time. However, we’re moved now, and while my scheduled obligations remain the same, I find the brain space currently occupied by packing, cleaning, packing, packing, packing, cleaning, packing is now currently occupied by, well, a big ol’ dust bunny. Which is nice.

So when Kathleen put the call out on Twitter for more ControverSunday topics, I was actually game to participate and decided to suggest my own topic – licensed merchandise for children.

First – some housekeeping. This week’s ControverSunday is hosted by Kathleen, and normally Perpetua hosts it. The badge is courtesy of Accidents. If you want to play along as well, all you do is write a post about the topic, schedule it to publish for Sunday (or Monday or Tuesday or whatever) and then post a comment in the hoster’s (Kathleen’s) blog entry and poof, you is in.

So, licensed merchandise for children, my old time nemesis, we meet again.

Wait. What? I haven’t actually blogged about this? Wow. Okay.

Licensed merchandise is a manufactured item that has purchased the right to use a registered trademark (say, a sports team’s logo) on it. It is generally done to boost sales, as the association of the licensed image or logo can increase the market share by appealing to a particular audience (say, fans of said sports team). On adult products, it’s often related to sports and hobbies, entertainment, political parties, etc. Most logoed merchandise is the product of a licensing agreement, as virtually anyone with enough cash to pay the licensing fee can manufacture an item. In looking through my closet and around my house, I have a fairly moderate amount of licensed merchandise – mostly sports teams I follow and support, but not much more. But then, as an adult, I will purchase items based on functionality, price, usefulness, peer reviews, and other logical factors rather than simply “want”.  Of course I own goods that serve no other purpose than flag-waving. My Canucks jersey? My Team Canada jersey? I wear those as symbols of my fandom for those teams. I made a conscious choice to purchase their logo’ed merchandise. But it was a choice.

In the world of  goods for kids, however,  the idea of “want” (or as I say, the Want Monster) is what makes kids beg for things. They don’t consider usage, quality workmanship, or longevity. Kids either want it or they don’t and their minds can be changed on a whim, because that’s what kids do. I’ve got a toddler, and he is at the mercy of his Want Monster on a regular basis, and nary a day goes by when he does not tell me he “needs” some object.

Even before giving birth, I balked at the idea of purchasing items for children emblazoned with logos. While preparing for Kale’s arrival, I spent a great deal of time seeking infant clothing that did not have characters all over it. I didn’t think it was right to thrust a preference upon a child, and I will tell you that it is near impossible to purchase items that are free of logos. Many people also often attach a sense of nostalgia to characters that are long-running; Sesame Street characters, for example, or Winnie The Pooh and  his Hundred Acre Wood gang are often selected as gifts by adults based on a remembrance of happier and more carefree times. The last time you read A House at Pooh Corner, chances are you didn’t have a nine-to-fiver.

Kale owns a few licensed items. All of them were hand me downs or gifts. I hate them all but try and be reasonable that not everyone shares the same ideology as me, and one or two items that have other functions are okay. For example, he has a hand me down ride-on Thomas the Tank, which he enjoys and provides him quite a bit of fun. It didn’t cost me a dime and since we don’t watch Thomas, he has NO CLUE that Thomas is a character on a show or in books. Soon, he’ll he might start making that connection, and Thomas the Ride On Tank Engine will set sail from our house.

As children age and develop, it’s only natural that they assert their opinions and become individuals. I like giving Kale a bit of control over things that don’t matter – like if he wants blueberries or a banana for a snack. Letting him choose some things (mostly) prevents fights over things he cannot choose because he feels he can control some aspects of his life. Kale may one day be a Canucks fan and ask for a jersey himself and he can save his allowance or birthday money and I’ll help him buy a well made one that fits him nicely and will last him a few seasons. He may soon become a Blue’s Clues aficionado (please no, that Steve guy has got to be so unbelievably high to act in that show) and might convince himself that he “needs” a Blue’s Clues shirt to show off his pride and maybe I might buy one if it’s well made enough, the right price, and is more shirt than image. But if that happens, does he also need a tote bag, a back back, a pair of shoes, three posters, a mini toy from a fast food joint,  a sippy cup, a hat, a tube of toothpaste, a colouring book, and a box of blocks? No, he doesn’t. Period.

The proliferation of licensed merchandise, the constant barrage of images that are explicitly designed to get me to BUY BUY BUY BUY BUY is overwhelming. In my neck of the woods, several online stores have popped up catering to parents who don’t want to purchase licensed items, and when I sell boxes of too-small clothing on Craigslis in giant lots, I actually list that as a selling feature – “contains no licensed characters” – and you would be amazed at how many purchasers tell me they appreciated that simple sentence.

The plague is not just toys, either. Licensed merchandise is on clothing, toys, books, school books, food, drinking containers, pretty much every surface large enough to hold a likeness of some cartoon. Nothing is sacred. A recent small study by the Yale Rudd Center  Food Policy and Obesity showed that children believe something tastes better when it has a character on it. And since the usual items with a character on it are sugary items laced with synthetics and high fructose corn syrup, it’s a reasonable extrapolation that many kids will essentially convinced themselves via Pavlovian response, that stuff without characters is “suspect”. (Although, produce sellers take note: get a proprietary cartoon character on there and see if kids start choosing your food over another merchant.)

Licensed characters have no business on items my impressionable child will use day in and day out. He lacks the cognitive ability to see through the trap. And despite some generic rules about advertising to children in Canada, the use of characters is not forbidden on packaging.

The way I see it, there are a few reasons for licensed merchandise:

Dora to the Rescue! The item is flat out lame by itself and can’t stand alone without the aid of a well placed popular character. If the main selling feature is that it has a giant sticker on it with a smiling creepy-looking character that even you as an adult recognize, chances are it isn’t worth your money. Before plopping down the dough, ask yourself what else about the item makes it worth your money? Is it well made? Will it last a long time? More expensive is often because the character cost a lot of money to license.

Elmo Be Your Parent! At our house, Kale long hated getting his teeth brushed. Some parents erroneously believe that if they just buy their child an item with a popular character on it, their child will magically comply and even enjoy activities that previously were a fight. But what happens when the character falls out from your fickle child’s favour?I’ve learned that so much of parenting is simply perseverance and repetition. Kale now will tolerate tooth brushing time – and we didn’t need to resort to a Dora toothbrush – but it’s taken essentially 18 months.

We Haven’t Made Nearly Enough Cash Yet! It’s expensive to create a CGI movie full of characters voiced by well known celebrities.  Spin off merchandise has become an essential part of the machine that is pop culture marketing. Movies are now launched not with a premiere screening on Hollywood Boulevard, but with a drink cup campaign at the local fast food joint 8 months earlier. Most of these items are not released to entertain – they are released to make money.

Look Ma, I’m the Same! Our economy means that folks are watching their disposable income. Toys purchased new are becoming luxury items and not necessities. Kids do need toys to thrive – but if your kid is anything like mine, he’s happy with a wooden spoon on a box and a water hose and a teacup. If three manufacturers make essentially the same item, you can likely bet that one of those manufacturer’s will license a character to make their item stand out. The hope is that the one with the smiling Doodlebop on the box will seem So. Much. Better. to your child, and if all other things are equal, retailers are counting on you as a parent to pick the one your child perceives as better. Remember that study? Yeah. Kids are pretty easy to convince it’s going to be better with Tinky Tonk on it.

All I’m suggesting is that you think twice. Think five times if you need to. Is there another option? Is there a character free option? Is there a reason why this one with the character is “better”? The more consumers start seeking out alternatives, the more manufacturers and retailers are going to try and find other ways to sell to you. Perhaps they’ll lower prices. Perhaps they’ll make it a better quality item. Here at Chez Arbo we live by the whole “trust no one question everything” manifesto and licensed merchandise fails when held up to the light.

11 years ago


  1. Amen! I know you know that I feel the same way but I’m so glad you wrote (and wrote well) about this. I would chime in on my blog if it wasn’t f&*king broken. Lately I have given in a little to letting Moira read books with either Disney or Sesame Street characters in them. She was learning about them at grandmas anyway and since I won’t let her watch TV I figure it is okay for her to know who the characters are as long as her ass isn’t planted in front of a TV all day.

  2. Awesome. You said it so much better! And wow, were we on the same page. Covered the nostalgia of old school characters and using Dora to get a kid to brush their teeth. HA!

    Also, isn’t it interesting about the characters and the taste of food.

    Anyway, this is a great post!!

  3. No kids and no plans for ’em, but I am with you 100% on this, as it’s something I practice with my own clothing. I simply refuse to buy clothing with prominently placed logos. The most obvious it gets is the tag on the waistband of my jeans or the small embroidered bird on some of my shirts. I just don’t like for people to know immediately where I shop and associate me with that store or product.

    Consequently, when I do wear something with a non-random image on it, it’s cause I really love that particular thing (like the Ramona shirt I stole from my sister or my H.P. Lovecraft necklace).

    This is harder than you think it would be for an adult, I can’t even image how hard it is with kids clothes.

  4. I have (somewhat successfully) pointed out the concept of Marketing to our eight and ten-year-old. They seem to get the idea of trying to increase sales if they ever try to sell something. Turning it all around, using selling instead of buying as the perspective, made something click.

    I also found a DVD at the New Westminster Public Library called “Cracking the advertising code.” It deals with celebrity endorsements, etc, but it’s probably not entertaining enough for a two-year-old. However, it may be of interest to other readers of your fine blog.

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