In a season that inspires earnest letters about toys, one notable batch is being sent not by kids to Santa's workshop but by parents to the executive suites of real-world toy makers.
The message: Please, in these days of economic angst, cut back on marketing your products directly to our children.
The letter-writing initiative was launched by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which says roughly 1,400 of its members and supporters have contacted 24 leading toy companies and retailers to express concern about ads aimed at kids.
"Unfortunately, I will not be able to purchase many of the toys that my sons have asked for; we simply don't have the money," wrote Todd Helmkamp of Hudson, Ind. "By bombarding them with advertisements ... you are placing parents like me in the unenviable position of having to tell our children that we can't afford the toys you promote."
The Toy Industry Association has responded with a firm defense of current marketing practices, asserting that children "are a vital part of the gift selection process."
"If children are not aware of what is new and available, how will they be able to tell their families what their preferences are?" an industry statement said. "While there is certainly greater economic disturbance going on now, families have always faced different levels of economic well-being and have managed to tailor their spending to their means."
'Trouble saying no'
In recent conference calls with investors, toy company executives said they expect to suffer some holiday-season impact from the economic crisis, yet suggested their industry would be more resilient than many other sectors. The toy industry is commonly viewed as recession-resistant, due largely to the parent-child dynamic.
"Parents have trouble saying no," said Allison Pugh, a University of Virginia sociology professor. She says parents often buy toys to avoid guilt and ensure their children feel in sync with school classmates.
"Even under circumstances of dire financial straits, that's the last thing parents give up," said Pugh. "They'll contain their own buying for themselves before they'll make their child feel different at school."
Amanda Almodovar says she encounters such families in her work as an elementary school social worker in Alamance County, N.C., where homelessness and unemployment are rising.
"I had one parent who said she'd prostitute herself to get what her child wants," Almodovar said. "It's heartbreaking. They feel inadequate as parents.
"I try to tell them, worry about your home, your heating bill — but they're the ones who have to look into children's faces, the children saying 'I want this, I want that.'"
More time playing?
Even in some households not in fiscal crisis, there's a sense that this holiday season is different.
John Schenkenfelder, a financial adviser and father of three in Louisville, Ky., wrote a blog entry this month urging families to scale down their gift-giving and spend more time playing together.
"This has been bugging me for years, even when times were great," Schenkenfelder said in a telephone interview. "Maybe people will get it this year — they're so unprepared for this debacle. They're shell-shocked."
In Columbus, Ohio, Erin Beth Dower Charron has been trying to brace her 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter for more subdued gift-getting this year as the family begins financial belt-tightening.
"My 8-year-old is still holding out hope that Santa will get her that one special gift, but understanding this year may be different," Dower Charron said. "My son doesn't understand. Everything he sees, he wants."
Toy ads on kids' TV shows make the process harder, she said. "The onslaught seems to be more intense this year."
Dower Charron was among the hundreds of parents who took up the suggestion to write to toy companies.
"Help me understand why your toy is the better one for my child, and why it should be one of the few I can afford," she wrote. "Don't leave that up to my children."
The director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, psychologist Susan Linn, said she and her colleagues don't expect toy companies to stop advertising — rather, they want the ads directed at parents.
"It's cruel to dangle irresistible ads for toys and electronics in front of kids — encouraging them to nag for gifts that their parents can't afford," she said. "It's just not fair."
The big toy makers aren't likely to redirect their ads for one fundamental reason, according to Richard Gottlieb, a New York-based consultant to the industry.
"Toy companies advertise to children because it works, to be brutally honest," Gottlieb said in an interview.
Gottlieb also contends that it's good for children to encounter toy ads — even in cases where products later turn out to be disappointments.
"It teaches, for very low stakes, how to navigate in our consumer culture," he said.
"They are going to have to spend the rest of their lives listening to every kind of marketing approach, and childhood is where they will learn to cope with it."
As for the economic pressure on parents, Gottlieb sounds a fatalistic note.
"Believe me, there are families with much bigger issues on their plates right now then worrying about whether their child will be unhappy because they did not get a particular toy," Gottlieb wrote in his "Out of the Toy Box" blog. "Delivering disappointment goes with the job of parenting."