Teach a Child to Shop . . ."

RL gang

The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.” Some marketer has discovered that this applies to children. Get them shopping as young as possible and you have made them a consumer for life. Today’s Boston Globe has an op-ed piece about a new gimmick offered by Ralph Lauren, the maker of fancy clothes. Their web home page pulls you in with this slogan, “Explore and shop our romantic Western-style inspired collection, straight from the runway.” Anticipating that early readers won’t bother to find their website, Lauren has come up with a novel way to get their attention. Here’s what the Globe says, “If the commercialization of childhood isn’t widespread enough, here comes the Ralph Lauren company with a sly new mutation: ‘The first ever shoppable children’s storybook.’” It comes in both printed and online versions.

“The RL Gang: A Magically Magnificent School Adventure’’ is a 32-page volume, aimed at preschool-age children. Its slim plot involves a group of eight impossibly cute classmates, all dressed in Polo Ralph Lauren finery, with names like Willow, Oliver, Hudson, and River. The junior fashion icons use magical paintbrushes to draw themselves a garden party that comes alive, complete with ice cream and kittens.

Woozy yet? Reading along in the online video version — narrated by Uma Thurman — parents and kids can take a break to “look inside Oliver’s closet,’’ for example, and buy the twee outfits. “The RL Gang’’ is touted unblushingly as “an innovative way for parents and children to explore style, literature, and digital technology together.’’ . . . No, it’s an online clothing catalog disguised as a book. And you thought Angry Birds was a threat to children’s literacy.

Wow. This one is right up there with tattooing ads on foreheads as finding yet another once sacrosanct medium to exploit. In what might be the height of hypocrisy, Lauren promises to donate 15 percent of the profits (but not to exceed $25,000) from sales the clothes in the catalog to a charity named by Uma Thurman, who narrates the online version. Why a limit? The charity is Room to Grow, whose mission is “to enrich the lives of babies born into poverty.” Maybe Ralph Lauren thought it was doing Robin Hood’s work, robbing the rich to help the poor. Snideness aside, how far have we fallen into the depths of pure, unadulterated consumerism? Literacy is a cornerstone of civility and the fulfillment of our humanity. Teaching reading to pre-schoolers should introduce them to the wonders of the world, but I hardly think shopping is one of them.

The whining complaints of those in the book business miss the point. This is not at all about whether the book is a good book or not.The Globe article continues:

“It’s the worst sort of self-published writing, no plot at all,’’ said Terri Schmitz, owner of The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, adding words such as “appalling,’’ and “just awful.’’ Schmitz finds the whole concept of a shoppable storybook insulting to legitimate children’s literature — she notes “The RL Gang’’ series doesn’t even have an author. “Its just one giant ad in the guise of some kind of lovely story,’’ she said.

It’s not about the plot in the book; it’s about the plot behind the book. Even if the author was named and the story not, “just awful,” it would still be a travesty. The circumstances are entirely different from the Joe McCarthy days of my youth, but Joseph Welch’s outcry, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” would apply to this misadventure.

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