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Are We Really a Baby-Obsessed Society?

I’ll start by saying that I’ve said it too: “we are also a baby-obsessed culture (pick up any issue of People magazine to see that).”  It wasn’t until I was helping a friend with her book proposal that I realized that I had been overlooking a truism of the publishing industry which also holds in the general marketing world: rarely is it a good thing to say that there is nothing like your book in the stores.

That’s the instinct, right?  You tell the agent that your book fills this untapped niche.  There are people out there, just like you, and your book will help those people.  But it’s actually not usually a good thing to point out that no book like yours exists on the market.  There is usually good reason for that.  Publishing is very different from book writing.  Publishing is a business transaction.  Usually it matches up: the story is good AND there is a market.  But sometimes, you can have a great book that just doesn’t have a clear-cut audience that the publisher can market to and it doesn’t get picked up.  And sometimes you have a fairly crappy book written by a celebrity who brings with her a clear-cut market and they publish her book because they know they can move copies.

So it is better then to explain to the agent why your book is superior to the ones already on the market.  See, there is an audience for my book BUT my book is better than all the ones already catering to that audience.  Even if you have to stretch a bit to find something even remotely similar.

How does this tie into babies?  Well, I realized as I was telling her this that sure, if we only look at magazines or the way mommy bloggers are approached or sitcoms, we may walk away with a belief that our culture is obsessed with babies.  And I clearly have until this point.  But remember, marketers are not necessarily reflecting what we want or what we believe.  They are reaching out to a specific population that they can reach.

magazinesImage: Ken Hawkins via Flickr

For instance, new parents tend to focus on a certain, small amount of subjects.  They frequent the same places.  Therefore, new parents are a good target audience to appeal to for sales.  You know who isn’t a good target audience?  Parents of teenagers.  Parents of teenagers have a large, diverse set of issues.  They go off in too many directions.  There isn’t a clear place or subject matter to use as a focus.  Therefore, while parents of teenagers could probably use their own magazine, they don’t get a nice magazine such as Martha Stewart Baby because it would be too difficult to get subject matter that would appeal to the majority of the population you’re trying to reach. (If the magazine doesn’t contain enough articles that interest you, you’re going to stop reading it.)  And while they know that pediatricians and Mommy-and-Me gyms are going to toss Martha Stewart Baby on their waiting room table, there isn’t a place where parents of teens are congregating in the same way that parents of small children tend to hit the same type of establishments those first years.

In Apart at the Seams, one of the characters muse on how there are so many wedding magazines and no marriage magazines.  Any outsider looking at humans would concur that we are only interested in this single day — the wedding — and have no interest in the aftermath.  Though personal reality tells us a different story.  Yes, we talk with our friends about the wedding, but we continue to talk to our friends about the marriage, especially when there are issues in a marriage.  Yet brides are easy to market to: it’s a finite amount of time, most weddings contain the same moving parts, and there are clearly wedding vendor establishments that can carry the periodical.  Marriage… that’s too amorphous for publishers.  That’s too big a population.  What may interest me about marriage probably won’t interest you, especially if we’re at different points in our marriage time-wise.  Dating is slightly easier to market to because it’s focused on moving you toward marriage.  But marriage itself?  What can you say?  Here are some tips for… more marriage.  More of the same.

That’s what we want, isn’t it (I don’t think anyone wishes to go through divorce), but it isn’t what sells.

So we can’t really look at the media around us to tell us what matters in our society.  We have to look at society itself; human interactions, laws, studies.  We have to go to the personal.  When I look there, I see a conflicting reality.  I see us understanding that babies are a necessity if we want to continue the species and being down-right annoyed by them at the same time.  We pass out lollipops at the bank and ban kids from restaurants.  We’re like this in a lot of places; we’re touched and annoyed by the very same thing: elderly people (love grandma and hate that old people walk so slow!), differently-abled (wow, that was a touching video of someone who had their leg amputated walking again for the first time and then ask in the same breath why people should get special parking permits due to physical limitations), and yes… babies (so cute and yet I don’t want to sit anywhere near you on an airplane).

So I’m not sure we’re really baby-obsessed.  Baby-interested?  Especially because it comes from a biological drive?  But I’ll refrain from making the above statement again in a future blog post (and please remind me of this post if I do).

So I guess I ask all of you: are we as a society really baby-obsessed or is marketing baby-obsessed while we’re baby-interested?  Or are we really not any more interested in babies than we are in the next Super Bowl winner or whatever is in front of us at the moment?


1 Bionic { 01.21.14 at 8:40 am }

This reminds me of a thread on a local parenting board, in which someone was asking for advice about taking her very young children to India. Someone who had done a lot of traveling their with her kids replied that, unlike the US, India was a very family-friendly society, in that people would be genuinely happy to see kids most places and welcome them in ways our culture doesn’t, but at the same time, many of the things that we consider proxies for real welcomes — changing tables, etc. — would not be there. On a smaller scale, this is why I love taking my toddler to Chinatown and Koreatown restaurants in the city. They may lack the markers of “family friendly” that the more assimilated restaurants have (highs chairs, for instance), but the people working there seem happy to see children, unphased by our bringing special foods, etc. Even in crowded places, they have some place to stash a stroller, and they don’t act like it’s a huge favor to do so. It’s like they think kids are people or something.

Babies are supposedly celebrated here, but I am with you in that what’s really being celebrated is babies as a marker of people who will buy things. Actual babies? Way too messy and loud and real.

2 a { 01.21.14 at 9:19 am }

I think you could make the case for baby-obsessed, actually. When families get together, and there’s a baby, that’s where much of the focus is. People won’t approach me to ask questions about my 7 year old, but they certainly would and did when she was an infant. It’s unlikely I would get any reaction but scorn if I were having a loud argument with my daughter in a store now, but I certainly got sympathetic looks when she was having a meltdown as a toddler. We’re also drawn to baby animals – you can get the same reaction with a puppy or kitten. Sure, there are some people who complain, but there are people who complain about everything that doesn’t live up to their idealized standard. Maybe it’s regional? Or urban vs suburban?

3 fifi { 01.21.14 at 9:30 am }

I think that when you’re interested in something, you notice it more. For example, normally I don’t pay much attention to car brands, but if I’m buying a car I’ll pay attention to the type of car I want to buy, and suddenly the roads seem to be full of Civics or Corollas or whatever. And for the past few years I’ve been stuck in “baby mode”, so it seems that the world is obsessed with babies, although maybe it’s just me.

4 Sharon { 01.21.14 at 9:48 am }

Hmm. Interesting question. I certainly think that we are obsessed with celebrity babies–though I’m not quite sure why–but I don’t know about babies generally.

5 sarah { 01.21.14 at 9:55 am }

I think our culture is obsessed with transformative moments – new baby, new marriage, makeovers, home remodels, etc. We just love the drama of change, but not the work or endurance that comes with maintaining relationships or good habits over time. And yeah, I think you’re right about marketing – easier to market to a moment. I don’t really understand publishing and books, though. Seems like a lot of mediocre stuff out there; I wish publishers would take more chances on stuff that doesn’t fit the mold!

6 Orodemniades { 01.21.14 at 10:19 am }

No. We are absolutely not a baby-obsessed society. I used to think we were until I moved to Britain, which *is* totally obsessed with babies. Toddlers and young children, not to much. They pretty much disappear off the radar until teenager-hood.

Now it may be just a regionalism, but it seems to me that culturally, the US is a little more interested (on the face of it, anyway) in all parts of a child’s life…but again, that could just because of where I live.

7 Lauren { 01.21.14 at 11:00 am }

I think Sarah hit the nail on the head. We love the “kodak moments.” The times of change. Graduation, engagements, weddings, babies, and even death. Those are the things that get written about because they are different from the day to day.

8 Alexicographer { 01.21.14 at 12:21 pm }

I’m not sure who “we” are, but to the extent that “we” are marketers or people trying to draw the attention of the folks of interest to marketers (e.g., magazines), my understanding is that pending/new parents are, indeed, a major focus. See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 for, um, interesting coverage of same. Apparently (and this does make sense to me), new/pending parenthood is a key moment in an adult’s life when it is possible to change our shopping habits, which otherwise tend to be pretty stable/fixed. So people who want to sell stuff to us want to catch our attention at that moment, for obvious reasons.

9 Rebecca { 01.21.14 at 2:30 pm }

Just dropping by to say hi from ICLW

10 Esperanza { 01.21.14 at 5:07 pm }

I read somewhere once that at big transition times, especially the transition to parenting, people are finding new favorite brands and are even susceptible to changing brands, so those are the transitions that companies focus on. Especially the transition to parenting–it’s one of the only times when you start buying something that you never bought before, so it’s a prime opportunity for brands to invest a lot of money in making themselves known. I suppose it makes a lot of sense, then, that there is a lot of stuff marketed to people during those moments. Plus, weddings and parenting are just times when people spend A LOT of money. When people spend money, there is a market and publishers etc respond.

I also think Sarah is right, we obsess over the big transition moments, the ones that are glorified in photographs for the rest of the world to see. Graduating, getting engaged, getting married, having a baby… these are the biggest moments like that. And we LOVE to make a big deal out of them.

I also thing “a” is right, that we’re obsessed with babies but not so much kids. I was noticing the other day that pictures of my 3 month old still get 50+ likes on FB but pictures of my 3.5 year old only get a dozen likes, at most. It’s really kind of shocking to me, because just before my son was born, my daughter’s pictures got lots of likes, but I guess now people aren’t as interested, now that there is a baby to fawn over. It’s kind of sad, actually.
I also think

11 Queenie { 01.21.14 at 8:36 pm }

We travel a fair bit with our kids, and Bionic definitely has it right. Other cultures seem to enjoy kids more. They don’t have the STUFF, but they still know what is important. I think our society has accessorized children.

12 Mali { 01.21.14 at 10:31 pm }

I wrote a really long response, but I’m thinking on that further.

Ultimately, yes, I do think we are more baby-obsessed than we used to be. Media, marketing and advertising both reflect this, and create some of the change too. (As other posters have noted, moving into parenthood is a time when spending habits change suddenly, and are “ripe for the picking.”)

I think it is perfectly okay for you to continue to say that as a society, we (and I’m using this in the broad, Western, sense) are baby-obsessed.

13 Persnickety { 01.21.14 at 10:34 pm }

Babies and kids are more accessories than persons. I saw an interview with a female star from the early 80s ( Meryl streep?) where she mentioned that when she had babies it wasn’t really a gossip mag thing, it was almost hidden. At some point in the last decade a baby has become the ultimate celeb accessory, and a source of wild speculation, and therefore something to be aspired to by all others… Actual babies, you know those crying pooping human beings, along with their close relatives the toddler and the child – not nearly so interesting.

I live in Australia, where it is baby obsessed but not fundamentally child friendly. The concept of catering for kids, outside of mcDs, sizzler ( shudder- overpriced garbage) of those chi chi kids room shops, not so good. I was blown away with the difference between australia and NZ, which did seem to be more willing to accept kids.
Japan also seemed more tolerant of kids being kids, even though a lot of other things seem less friendly ( stairs and almost no lifts in the subway,) but that could be a side effect of the fact most new mums stay with their mum and don’t go out much the first few months – not sure why. There also seems to be a policy of ( in rural Japan at least) maintaining elementary schools within walking distance for all children- even if it means a two child school grade.
I contrast this with out current – close the schools on the most valuable land in my city.

14 Elizabeth Obih-Frank { 01.21.14 at 11:51 pm }

I’m inclined to say we are baby interested most of the time and probably baby obsessed in the early years of Motherhood. I know I read all the baby mags when my twins were little. I bought the books, clothes, video, classes and whatnot that came with the territory. Now, I don’t do any of that and I don’t get targeted either. I love the point you brought up about wedding and marriage; it hadn’t occured to me that mags on the latter are non-existent! Not surprising divorce rates are up. Hmmm mm

15 Elizabeth Obih-Frank { 01.22.14 at 12:21 am }

Oops! I forgot to add that I’m from ICLW. I noticed the introductions especially this being our first day.

16 kateanon { 01.22.14 at 6:54 am }

I don’t know about society as a whole, I’d think yes, but I’m biased; however, in Utah, I find they’re more baby obsessed than most. Even after explaining my childless status, I’m re-told all the ways a baby could come into my life. Asking questions about my personal struggle, sharing their own baby stories, convincing me their opinion is right, and so on.

17 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 01.22.14 at 8:35 am }

True. Very true. Good point. I don’t really think we as a society spend an inordinate amount of time talking about babies, although if you’re in a specific time of life or if you’re in a situation (infertility?) where you notice it a lot it can certainly feel that way. Bonus for infertile couples: they are usually also at “that time of life”. So it probably doesn’t just *feel* that way.

But once people have been through it and have spent every hour of every day talking about nothing else unless they make a seriously concerted effort because they haven’t slept so they’re barely able to carry on a conversation in the first place and when they do they really can’t think of anything else to talk about except what’s in their head which is baby all the way – no, people don’t talk about it a real, awful lot.

A bit, yes. Certainly. There’s usually someone they know having a baby somewhere or they can see one or one is annoying them or they are being reminiscent or whatever, but I would say that currently I talk about stuff other than babies almost all the time.

Gosh babies in restaurants. Again. I am fascinated by the way people think they can judge a scenario and come to a firm conclusion when they weren’t actually there and don’t know a great deal about what happened or how it came about. Again.

18 loribeth { 01.22.14 at 9:36 am }

I agree with most of what’s been posted here… I certainly agree that marketers are partly behind this, and I think Persnickety is on to something re: baby-obsessed vs child friendly. Everyone goes gaga over pregnant women & babies & even cute toddlers… and the politicians love to talk a good game about “family values,” etc… but when it comes to providing concrete support for children & families — decent maternity leave, affordable & high-quality daycare, etc. — a lot of countries fall very short. I have read some studies that show many young people today are not intending to have children, even though they might like to, because they just don’t know how they are going to swing it. At the same time, I see a lot of handwringing by policymakers & politicians over declining fertility rates, etc. If they really do value families and want people to start having more babies, they’re going to have to put their money where their mouths are and make it easier for people who want to have children to do so. And that includes more support for those who would like to have children but are fertility-challenged.

19 deathstar { 01.22.14 at 3:58 pm }

In times of transition, we are vulnerable. When we are vulnerable we are apt to consume. Something. Food, booze, comfort items, and STUFF. We buy stuff to make us feel reassured that are indeed fine, just fine, and buying THIS stuff will ensure we are RIGHT in doing whatever it is we are doing. When you are wealthy, and good looking and in People magazine, you can wear cute clothes and cute babies and everyone will want one too. You can even redecorate with cute things. And since celebrities always seem like they are having fun and living la vida loca, we want too as well. And that’s what marketers do – sell us the dream that we can join the Pinterest, Martha world with our cute babies and be acknowledged and lauded for having babies. Ahem, the fact that no one in Third World countries think it’s a big deal is dismissed. Cause they can’t buy cute onesies. Or IVF procedures for that matter. But that’s a whole other rant.

20 amy { 01.22.14 at 8:15 pm }

I agree with Kateanon…utah is super baby and child crazy!

21 Justine { 01.26.14 at 12:56 am }

I wonder if we’re baby-obsessed or “mommy”-obsessed. Because that’s what marketers are really playing on, isn’t it? Our fears about not being good enough parents, and our need to arm ourselves with as much stuff as possible to wall up that fear? I swear the employees at BRU can smell that fear. Pinterest thrives on it. Because it’s not about love, it’s about the stuff that you can touch.

And the magazines feature the babies, but they’re also about celebrity moms; for me, those magazines reinforce some basic expectations of women. In a way, it’s like objectification of motherhood, consumption of motherhood, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but that I feel is a little insidious. I don’t remember those magazines being all into the business of celebrity moms when I was younger; they were about those women, their power, their dynasties, their relationships. Now, it feels like they’ve created a yardstick by which good and bad moms are measured.

Just some random $.02. 😉

22 Mash { 02.03.14 at 3:09 am }

I don’t know if it’s that we are baby obsessed or child obsessed. It is a VERY mother centric society that we live in. As those of us infertiles know, the treatment that we get from large parts of society when we are unable to reproduce, is at times, nothing short of bizarre.

Conception (because it is so miraculous) is seen as something magical, mysterious and supernatural. Which in fact it is, since no medical professional seems to be able to reliably cause it to happen. Those who are graced with the “magical” ability to reproduce, are for a short time, seen as supernatural magicians. People who have miraculously created a life. Just listen to the comments directed at pregnant women, the bizarre superstitions that people start to spout, these are certainly not things that would be directed at someone who, for instance, got promoted at work.

And weddings. Well, I think that’s all just a product of the fairytales about love and princesses that we have been force fed as children. Heaven knows that marriage is no fairytale, there is nothing marketable about it at all. It’s hard work, even if it is rewarding. The part in the Sleeping Beauty/Cinderella/Snow White stories where the princes were more interested in watching sports on TV than taking out the trash, that part is for some reason, omitted. Maybe if it had been an integral part of our fairytales, then marriage would be more of a marketable item too…

It always just makes me think of how primitive we really still are as a society!

23 Portia { 05.03.15 at 6:31 pm }

Sadly it is a built in biological wiring for humans to be very interested in babies and marketers take advantage of that. It would be good though if humans developed additional wiring to care about what happens when those babies X millions of them are adults & the kind of world they will live in. Overpopulation needs to be addressed. But, wait, that doesn’t SELL products the marketers want the fertile to purchase. Sigh. Humanity needs more balance on these issues with an eye to how babies = what happens to earth for a long time = our collective fates.

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