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The Shape of...

The Shape of Sequence

The book What Kids Buy is by Dan Acuff, one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of marketing to children and key consultant to many of the nation’s largest toy companies. Acuff notes five stages relating to sensory and emotional needs of children:

Birth to 2 (Dependency/Exploratory)
3 to 7 (Emerging autonomy)
8 to 12 (Rule/Role)
13 to 15 (Early adolescence)
16 to 19 (Late adolescence)

Is there a relationship to the sequential stages above with the hero’s journey in books like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Jung’s Symbols of Transformation and Neumann's The Origin And History of Consciousness? Is there a relationship between the above stages of children’s development and contextual and contentual symbolism?

In What Kids Buy, Acuff shows that there are many correspondences between the stages and products. For example, Acuff suggests that certain characters and shapes have a strong relationship to the stage the child is in. During the first stage from birth to two years old, feature films like Beauty and the Beast and television shows like Sesame Street, Barney & Friends and Mickey Mouse hold children's attention.

He notes that the key elements in film and television programming for this age group (dependency and exploratory) center around animals, safe characters and slow pacing of presentation. All of these products feature caricaturized or cartoonized animals such as birds, dog-like Muppets, friendly dinosaurs and mice. In fact, Acuff notes that some research has shown that as much as 80 percent of children's dream content is of animals up to the age of about six. He notes that, "It appears through animal dreams children work on the resolution of a variety of issues and fears that they are dealing with in their young lives."

The primary needs in this first stage are for nurturance and safety and these needs are expressed in the type of characters which interest children. A key contentual symbol showing safety and nurturance is a round shape. Big Bird and Barney are designed with this in mind. Acuff makes some very interesting observations about roundness:

"Regarding roundness, research has proven that as early as 18 months of age, children identify crooked, jagged lines as ‘bad guys’ or things that could hurt you, and round, curving lines as being ‘good guys’ or safe. It’s no accident that most of Disney characters, for example, are quite rounded in their design. Mickey himself, for example, has a very round head; it’s also larger in proportion to his body, like an infant’s head. Mickey also has round ears, rounded arms and legs, and roundish feet/shoes."

Acuff points out that as children mature, they demand more "edge" from their characters and with edge, more potential threat from the character. The character becomes challenging rather than nurturing. He notes the comparison between Warner Brothers’ Tasmanian Devil, often showing a ferocious mouthful of teeth, with the very round and toothless Big Bird of Sesame Street. The roundness that appeals to younger children causes older children to turn away in disinterest. "The above-7-year old," he notes, "is more often than not, going to gravitate toward the emotional stimulation present in more edgy characters such as Tasmanian Devil, Garfield, Ren and Stimpy, the X-Men, and even Bugs Bunny with his cutting wit."

The relationship of contentual symbols such as animals and round shapes to particular stages in children’s development and their appearance in products to meet the needs of these young consumers may tell us a great deal about the symbolism of products in the adult world. Might it be that products cluster around a generic roundness of shape in the early parts of cyclic sequences, moving towards roughness and jagged edges as the sequence progresses? Is roundness related to the security of beginning the heroic "voyage" of life out of the unconsciousness while jaggedness (and the squareness of sharp angles) related to consciousness and masculinity towards the end of cycles?

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