When Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Dodgson, famed author of Alice in Wonderland, released his work to fanfare in the 19th century little did he know, perhaps, that his success would mark a significant transition in the relationship between commerce and children.

Not only was Alice in Wonderland a literary hit, it also led to an entire auxilia of commercial enterprises. In other words, while you could say Lewis Carroll’s first calling was author, he thought to connect with children through the making of Alice plays, puzzles, and overseeing merchandise including biscuit tins.

But Carroll personally oversaw merchandising, trying to protect childhood innocence from worldly concerns. This idea of protecting innocence while encouraging imaginative play soon fell away, according to Professor Kathy Bowrey, from the UNSW’s School of Law, Society and Criminology.

New historical research by Professor Bowrey, alongside colleague Jose Bellido, shows how authors, toy makers, media empires and manufacturers joined together to link creativity and explorations of imaginary worlds to the pursuit of profit to the point where we, as parents, carers or siblings, don’t even see it unfolding before us anymore.

“The development of what we think it is to be a child was pushed forward by all these business practices that links funding for creators and people who make books, cartoons, films, radio and television for children to people who sell things,” Professor Bowrey said, “it's the managerial relationships behind those deals that has come to dominate what is thought suitable for children.”

The transition set by the era of Alice in Wonderland expanded with Beatrix Potter and educational toys like Meccano. By the 1940s companies such as Disney created new entrepreneurial expertise leading to the rise of merchandising agents specialising in kids products, and it really takes off in the 1960s along with commercial television.

Children’s charities, like the “Peter Pan” hospital in London and public broadcasting struggled to stay out of pursuing the same commercial arrangements. By the 1970s, children’s productions without commercial overtones risked being rescheduled as arthouse films more suitable for adults. Professor Bowrey said public and government funded media had shifted to looking at children as a ‘market’. 

Has childhood been ‘sold’?

While looking at the last hundred years or so, Professor Bowrey says her work has lessons for all of us in the here and now. 

“When we consider the current climate, we only need to look at the considerations that public broadcasters like the ABC and SBS make in relation to commercial tie ins of a programme when they consider an idea in the commissioning process.”

“Rather than protecting innocence and warding off exploitation of children, we look to companies, brands and logos to work out what is suitable for them. We’ve outsourced that responsibility without realising it.”

And there are commercial logics and cultural hierarchies in play, Professor Bowrey said, in essence meaning that if a toy or other form of commercialised play is branded, there is an assumption “it must be a quality product of higher commercial and cultural value and esteem than a lookalike product on the shelf.”

Professor Bowrey said the commercialisation of child’s play raised clear legal and ethical issues about the kind of world we want to live in.

“Our obsession with plastic, trinkets, branded clothing and disposable culture starts in childhood, and how we’ve come to think about children’s play”.

Identifying the problem might be the easier part, because solutions would require shifting the way Western society has treated child’s play for the last 150 years and moving away from the promotion of brands.

“A good start would be recognising the importance of making a space for imagination and free play, and questioning the way marketing and trade mark protection affects how we read the world and what we value in it,” she said.

Jose Bellido & Kathy Bowrey, Adventures in Childhood. Intellectual Property, Imagination and the Business of Play (Cambridge University Press, 2022)