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Mom.me: New products seem to prey on parents' fears

Don't let your children watch television shows online.

Don't let them go outside without that whiz-bang wristband that tells when to reapply sunscreen.

Don't take your children to a theme park or museum without temporarily tattooing your contact information on their bodies.

Don't you feel a common denominator here? As a parent, I do. Product manufacturers are playing into a parent's worst fears, all in an attempt to peddle products.

If the technique didn't work, companies probably wouldn't use it so often. The approach is called a "fear appeal" – using fear as a driving force to get us to act.

"Fear is a huge motivator, and we're even more afraid for the welfare of our child," said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing communications at Golden Gate University. "More marketers are becoming aware of that."

Fear can be a healthy motivator, such as campaigns against drunken driving or even ads warning about using and reapplying a sunblock.

"It's not all evil. The question is: Where do you draw the line between offering safety tools for parents and just scaring them?" Strahilevitz asked.

We're seeing more fear appeals now as companies look to make sales amid a tough economy. Parents are also feeling vulnerable, and fear appeals work best when they do. Consequently, we can expect to see more products aimed at families, accompanied by promises of keeping kids safe, she said.

While some products out there answer legitimate needs, I get irked by others that seem to prey on fears.

Like SafetyTats, the temporary tattoos for kids that read "If LOST, please call:" plus your phone number. The idea was born from a trip to an amusement park, when Baltimore mom Michele Welsh wrote her cell phone number on her children's arms in case they got lost.

Welsh, the company's founder, said the product helps calm parents' fears, not heighten them. Should they get separated, the product could help reconnect parent and child quickly.

"Parents are feeling this way anyways – it's not like we were exploiting a fear that wasn't there already," she said in a phone interview from her Sparks, Md., office.

Here are some ideas: Hold your children's hands. Regularly reward them with praise for staying where you can see them. Take them along only when you know you won't be too distracted to watch them.

Or do what has worked for decades: Let them know that reckless behavior will make the State Fair or theme park or other favorite treat off limits for a specified period of time. Then stick to your guns.

I won't be buying the temporary tattoo kit, and I don't plan on signing up for Amber Ready either. For $20 a year, this service allows parents to create a profile for their children, complete with picture, and delivers the profile to their cell phone and e-mail inbox so that if something happens, parents can forward the information to police.

The program's response network also puts up a $10,000 reward, news releases, posters and information on the company website, Joe Jaap, the company's marketing consultant, said in an e-mail interview.

"Chances are that you will never have to use the system, but in the event it does occur, you will save crucial time that could make a difference in a child being recovered unharmed," he said.

What the Amber Ready literature glosses over is that stranger abductions – the thing parents seem to fear the most – are rare. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, those abductions account for between 60 and 150 children each year who do not survive or come home, said Sue Escobar, associate professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State University.

Escobar said she wouldn't tell parents not to buy a service such as Amber Ready, but their fear might be misplaced. While abductions occur, family members (often embroiled in custody disputes) or a person the child knows are typically the culprits.

She'd advise parents to take common-sense precautions, such as walking a child to their bus stop or driving them to school. Monitor their whereabouts with others.

"Parents cannot protect their children all of the time, but they can take steps in the right direction to protect them and do the best they can," she said.

For instance, we can commit to talking to our kids about using the Internet safely and monitoring them, one of the many responsibilities that comes with the parenting job in these times.

These responsibilities don't mean we have to spend money on unnecessary products. They do mean we have to pay a little more attention to our children.

That's not just free, it's priceless.

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