Simba in the Silver, Marketing on Our Minds

When I walk through my house, there's a crunch, crunch of tiny plastic beings breaking underfoot.

They're everywhere, having invaded and taken over long ago: Simba wedged headfirst between the pipes of the radiator, a 101 Dalmatians car parked beneath the rug, a hippo in the tea drawer, Bugs Bunny in the silverware, and twenty or so other plastic figurines are scattered on the bottom of the bathtub.

My son, Noah, who is five, and his friends are sweet children. None of them watch much more than Barney, Arthur, or The Magic School Bus, and the only commercials they get to see are the ones on public television.

Yes, they absorb far too much Disney and Looney Tunes from videos, which doesn't help in the struggle to raise a child who isn't materialistic and shallow. I grew up on Mary Poppins, the Love Bug, and after-school cartoons in the time before frenzied mass merchandising, and I've grown to dislike anything, including films and TV programs, that spawns this junk in our home.

But they're not the worst culprit. I can set rules about which shows my son watches and decide which videos make it into the house.

On the invasion front line

I haven't, however, had much success in combatting the actual invasion, which largely springs from a source much closer to home.

Last year, I drove a carpool that consisted of my son, another four-year-old, and his two-year-old sister. Each day, no matter what route I took, I heard the same thing:

"It's McDonald's!" Noah would exclaim, excitement pouring out of him. "Mommy, mommy, can we stop?"

"Yeaa! McDonald's!" Noah's friend Evan would chime in. Claire would then shriek: "Old McDonald's!" All the while the three of them gesturing and shaking as if we had just seen a space ship land on Connecticut Avenue.

"Can we go in and get a toy, please Mommy? I just want a toy," Noah would explain. He knows, you see, that I don't think food from McDonald's helps him grow, and, after all, in his eyes McDonald's is first and foremost a toy store.

The company may not have had much luck selling its Arch Deluxe sandwiches to adults, but I can tell you this: It's brilliant at marketing to toddlers and young children.

The old McDonald's

While I'm old enough to remember a time when plastic toys weren't such an everyday part of a child's life, I am not old enough to remember a time before McDonald's.

I remember many happy meals, drinking milk shakes, eating hamburgers, and running around with my brothers and sister. My father even is a loyal McDonald's customer.

But any affection for the fast-food restaurant I may have once felt has vanished. As if conspiring with Disney to fill my house with its hard plastic icons and winning the heart of my son were not enough, the corporate gods at McDonald's now have announced a new deal with Ty, the makers of Beanie Babies, those soft bags of synthetic fur filled with white plastic pellets.

McDonald's is planning to introduce another round of Teenie Beanie Babies this spring.

I don't stand a chance. Already, in addition to the plastic, our house is inhabited by 25 or so Beanie Babies.

To be honest, I don't really mind them: They're cuddly, innocent, not too expensive, and don't make a mess, except, that is, when a seam opens during a game of Beanie catch and the plastic pellets spill out onto the floor.

Noah loves his Beanie Babies. He immediately cuts off all their tags, to make them, in his words, "more real." He's learning through his Beanie Babies, mostly about himself. He's noticed that he likes the ones he got most recently the best, and has wondered why. He has learned about sharing and trading. He thinks about which ones his friends would like for presents. He has learned about limits and money, since he can't have all the Beanie Babies he wants.

Most interesting may be the decisionmaking skills he is developing. He stands in front of a bin of beanies at the toy store for 15 minutes. And just the other day he announced that from now on he would purchase the one he had in mind before he went into the store.

This is all well and good. But I'm not sure how parents like myself can withstand the combined lure of McDonald's, generations of cartoon characters, and Beanie Babies.

The price for 'Snort'

Last year, when McDonald's first offered Beanie Babies, we waited in a long line to buy a Happy Meal - barely eaten - in order to acquire little red "Snort." (I've been forced to develop a whole line of techniques to get Noah to consume at least one Chicken McNugget before zooming off into toy la la land.)

Noah's interest in Beanie Babies blossomed when he saw he could buy them at McDonald's, as if that wise fast-food chain bestowed greater legitimacy on his desire to own more Beanie Babies. Even when the chain ran out of Beanie Babies after two weeks, Noah's desire to stop in and buy whatever plastic drivel it was giving out was more intense than ever.

Yes, I'm the parent - not consumer America. When Noah's asleep, I quietly throw long-forgotten acquisitions into the toy compost pile. We have 25 Beanie Babies, not 200. I say no to almost every request for McDonald's. I've invented a new special treat: We go for tamales, which Noah loves and actually eats.

But the marketing folks at McDonald's know that even if we don't buy them, we are sure going to hear about them. McDonald's is everywhere.

I can't stop Noah from desiring what he sees and hears about. All I can do is hope that my thoughtful child will someday realize that Beanie Babies, cartoon characters, and visits to McDonald's don't satisfy long or deeply.

Still, I worry that if cross-marketing has its way, it will catch Noah and his generation as toddlers and will keep them forever wanting more of whatever it is.

* Nadine Epstein is a Washington, DC writer. Her lastest book is "Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Mayan Healer." (HarperCollins).

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