The Lego and Sesame Street Ads I Never Knew I’d Miss

Charting my kids’ development through targeted advertising on our family computer.

Illustration of a mother at a computer getting ads by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

For a very long time, it was the Wiggles. For reasons unknowable, my then–2-year-old son was so powerfully into the Wiggles that his dad braved the two-hour drive from Charlottesville, Virginia, to D.C., and then stadium parking, to take him to see Murray and the other guys at a live show. I mercifully stayed home with the newborn. But for a long time after, the internet sent me Wiggles. Whenever I sat down at my laptop, which in those days was one of two family computers, I saw ads for concerts and music and online games that endured long after we as a family had wiggled out from under the Wiggles. In the world of online direct marketing, nobody knows your babies are aging.

I actually first learned this lesson—about targeted advertising’s mixture of creepy attentiveness and rote obliviousness—the hardest way, even before my computer was overtaken by Australian kid rock. I learned it when I was pregnant, the very first time, and had signed up for notifications from one of those websites that tell you each week what legume your fetus most resembles (pea, soybean, lima, and so on). After I’d miscarried, it took weeks to stop receiving ads from the maternity clothes websites. In the world of online direct marketing, nobody knows your babies are gone.

When my boys were small, my computer was a pipeline to their imaginative lives. Club Penguin checked in regularly, as did Sesame Street Live (the Wiggles were the gateway drug). We let them play on my computer, and the vigilant world of online advertising quickly discovered that we were prime targets for the products, the games, the “clubs” that asked them to buy “gold coins” with mom and dad’s credit cards—and thus began the whole strange enterprise of targeted advertising directed at small people who barely had mastery of their thumbs. We never actually allowed them to buy anything, opposable thumbs notwithstanding. But as their browsing history was reflected in the solicitations that poured in, it helped us to anticipate their endless asks and demands. For a long time, I knew the comings and goings of all the Superfriends. Then the Lego years began and to be candid, have never ended. And while the ads were always a few seconds behind the reality, and annoying in the extreme, and occasionally simply hilarious (no, my child does not need the practice experience of living in a surveillance state that comes with an Elf on the Shelf), it all served as a reminder that my computer was the gateway to our family, and that advertising flowed only through my husband and me. (Because yes, we were the assholes that had no television.)

For years, I was served ads for small plastic raincoats and Spider-Man accouterments. And then my eldest son started middle school and got a Chromebook and it all stopped. Two years later his little brother started middle school, got a Chromebook, and it really all stopped. No more ads, no more kid shows, no more was I the portal to their worlds and their tiny Velcro wallets. Today I am largely just preyed upon by shoe companies, clothes for women who desperately need to lose those last 15 pounds of Trump-era sheet-caking fat, and other shoe companies.

My initial relief at no longer being the target of the tween boy advertising industrial complex was short-lived. To be sure, I still hate Club Penguin and its extortionate ways with the heat of a million melted ice caps. But my kids get their own ads (and I suspect also their own girlfriends) on their own devices these days. We made it through the Axe days intact, but their consumerist hopes and dreams are now their own. They spend their time and money on video games I’d rather not think about, and on component parts for Halloween costumes that alarm me fractionally more each year. (Really, Deadpool?) My kids don’t have their own credit cards, just wads of birthday cash to spend on games and stuff. The world now takes its requests and demands and two-for-the-price-of-one offers directly to their screens and not mine. Occasionally, a Chanukah wish list will surface and on it will be written, in full: “$$$$$”

But as any parent will tell you, you come to mourn the last thing only because nobody told you it was the last thing. You didn’t know when the last breast-feeding would happen or the last kiss before the school bus, or the last time you’d get some hideous Star Wars Lego Machine of World Doom ad on the upper right-hand corner of your screen until it was the very last one. I miss the Legos. And Club Penguin. I miss the wretched Sportacus.
And maybe even the Wiggles a little.

I now love to watch TV commercials with my sons, who are currently in seventh and ninth grade, because they are hilariously and singularly bitter about manipulation and branding in ways that only children whose asshole parents deprived them of television as kids can be.
They know precisely what soft drinks and sneakers and Under Armour really are, and also what the purveyors of these goods would have them believe they are. They know that most stuff is just stuff, and that—as my eldest likes to say—putting labels onto stuff doesn’t make it better. But then I watch the ways in which they half-live in the shadowy world of comic books and movies that are unknown to me, and I realize that my laptop is no longer the portal to their imaginative worlds. My laptop is the place to Skype with grandparents. My kids have morphed, in the blink of a sleep-deprived eye, from boys who long for tickets to see Cookie Monster on Ice, to boys who long for things I don’t understand and probably don’t want to know of.

In three years my eldest son will be in college and in some ways the loss of his years and years of crappy targeted ads has served as a soft launch; a preview of what it will be like when I don’t know what he shops for and what he craves. I understand already that it is my job, as upper management, to not ask and not tell where his consumption is concerned. But I didn’t know that I would stop even knowing what he browsed for, bought, and wanted. Until suddenly I knew nothing at all.