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5 Ways to Combat Back-to-School Marketing

Shop smart, avoid consumerism, and get what your kids want (and need) this school year.

The summer before my daughter started kindergarten was filled with firsts. First summer camp, first swimming lessons, first back-to-school shopping. Thanks to a school uniform policy, clothes were the easy part, but finding a backpack turned out to be an adventure -- not only did we visit countless stores in our search, but we learned a lot about which media brands were working overtime to catch my 5-year-old's eye.

With back-to-school shopping raking in more than $70 billion a year for retailers, it's a prime time to target both parents and kids. And advertisers know that the earlier a kid learns about a brand -- whether it be McDonald's or Tinker Bell -- the more likely she'll be to buy it or beg for it later. In fact, nearly 60 percent of parents surveyed by the National Retailers Federation said their kids influence at least half of back-to-school purchases.

My daughter and I ended up finding a backpack free of media ties at a sporting goods shop, but it wasn't easy. Here are some tips for getting what your kid needs for school while keeping the marketing influences to a minimum.

Have a game plan. Expect to encounter lots of kid-targeted advertising, and figure out your stance before you get to the store. My backpack mantra was "no characters," but you could also use "no words or logos," "no violent images," or any simple phrase that you won't mind repeating a hundred times but that clearly articulates your limits.

Seize the teaching moment. Discuss the tools marketers use to influence kids to buy or beg for something. Turn it into a game where kids try to figure out what product an ad is representing or what symbol marketers decided was popular with kids this year (rainbows! skulls! owls!).

Look for alternatives to big box stores. Online stores, mom and pops, thift stores, Etsy -- any of these choices offers the chance to find something unique, creative, or even personalized.

Talk to other parents. Ask other parents for tips on where to find certain goods and which stores to avoid. (After an early encounter with Bratz panties, I became a willing dispenser of underwear-shopping advice to parents at my daughter's preschool.)

Prepare for disappointment (or at least compromise). Some kids may be so focused on a Barbie backpack or a LEGO lunchbox that they're willing to throw the mother of all tantrums to get it. Browsing online before buying can help avoid getting into this situation in the first place. Ultimately, only you can decide which battles are worth waging. Remember that kids move on quickly -- almost as quickly as they lose backpacks.

Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.