Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's So Bad About Ronald McDonald?

Strangers are targeting your child. Not with weapons, thank god, but with media messages designed to make them beg, whine, and cry until you finally break down and buy yet another piece of crap. Excuse my French, but that's the technical word for most of the toys, electronics, candy, and "food" they sell to children.

In college I was part of a student team working on a media buying plan for McDonald's. Our research turned up the fact that in households with children between 2 and 8, it's predominately the children who make the decision about what restaurant their families frequent. At the time Ronald McDonald was a more recognizable personage for this age group than Santa Claus. We could never determine whether advertising was the cause or effect of this phenomenon, but I just can't imagine that 2-8 year-olds had a lot to say in restaurant decisions during previous generations. Twenty-five years later the ability of marketers to get at your children has only increased. And just as we move heaven and earth to protect our children from those who would target them in other ways, it behooves us to take measures to protect our children from these marksmen as well.

It's not just television advertising -- but it's mostly television advertising -- that we're talking about here. We're all aware of the staggering statistics about how much TV American children watch. I feel confident that most of us adhere (more or less) to the one hour per day model, but even so, if you permit commercial television you chid is being bombarded by dozens of commercial massages a day, hundreds a week, tens of thousands a year. (Don't be deluded into thinking that PBS is safe: its programming is rife with subtle commercial come-ons and merchandising tie-ins.)  And these aren't just index cards posted on a community bulletin board. These are pitches employing the most powerfully persuasive techniques known to man and they are targeted directly at your child.

Of course, your child has no money of his own; she can't take herself to the store or restaurant. No, these marketing geniuses realize that they must rely on our little ones to in turn "persuade" their parents. Children are no less marketing geniuses, tending to eschew high tech methods, however, in favor of the old school techniques of persistent pleading, sulking, and tantrums. Even if we parents manage to resist their rhetorical efforts, it generally winds up with children feeling denied, and parents feeling -- at least a little -- like mean-spirited ogres.

Curse you, Madison Avenue.

Avoiding TV altogether is, of course, the best solution, but abstinence is not realistic for most of us. Many pediatricians recommend no television for children under 2-years-old, then no more than 2 hours a day thereafter. I've only personally known one child who was successfully kept from television during her preschool years, but as a kindergartner she proudly told me that she can watch TV now. People are weak. Most of us cannot be lifelong TV virgins.

This is why we need commercial prophylactics. I warn you that the following guidelines (which I've gathered from a number sources, including parents in our preschool) are far from 100% effective, but they can at least help in your efforts to protect you child from advertising executives and their designs on the peace of your family.

Control the remote

A responsible adult should control the TV as they would any narcotic. Even as your child grows older and can operate the TV himself, he should be expected to ask permission before watching. As I see it, it's a fundamental responsibility of American parents to closely monitor what and how much their child watches.

The television plan

Develop a TV viewing "plan" that can function something like the rules we use in our preschool. If you make the plan clear to your child, it's not you, the parent, limiting your child's viewing, but rather it's the plan

Some families like to predetermine viewing schedules at the beginning of each week; others take it day-by-day. In our family we began rationing TV by giving our daughter Josephine 4 poker chips every day, each worth 15 minutes of viewing time. We eventually dropped the poker chips after a time, but the concept lived on, with her having innovated the idea of saving her "chips" for a couple of days in order to "buy" a longer movie later in the week. It turned out to be a valuable lesson in delayed gratification.

Whatever you do, the key is to stick to the plan. The moment your child knows the plan isn't written in stone is the moment she will conceive of the idea to plead for exceptions.

Watch and talk

Watch TV with your child as much as possible. Not only do most children enjoy the companionship, but it puts you in the room with those who will target your child. And as powerful as they are, you are more powerful.

I know that you have phone calls to make and floors to mop, but there are many chores (folding laundry, ironing, filing, personal grooming, and even exercise) that can happen while you watch. Not only will you be role modeling active behavior, but you will be there to talk during the show.

That's right, there is no better counter-balance to the narcotic haze of passive viewing than talking. As your child questions about what he is watching. Offer your opinions about what is going on. Create the sense that TV is a family activity. My memories of watching TV as a young child always include my mother, father, and brother together in our small den chatting about The Brady Bunch (I was Greg and my younger brother was Bobby) and The Partridge Family. I'll never forget Dads' response to my comment that Danny Partridge was funny: "It's just the way his pants fit." I still use the line while I've forgotten everything Danny ever said. On Sunday we would eat popcorn and apples for dinner while watching The Wonderful World of Disney. I have no memories of the actual programming, but very clear ones of the family tradition. TV is not the same as going to a movie or the theater -- silence is not golden.

And forget the misguided notion that watching TV is restful. Reading is restful. Naps are restful. Watching TV alone is narcotizing.

Make your child commercial savvy

At an early age, Josephine became a master at deconstructing the automobile and beer commercials that target me during sports broadcasts. By the time she was 5 she'd learned to guffaw at the notion that pretty girls will like a man for drinking a certain beer. She recognized when cars were shown performing impossible feats of speed or agility. She when the commercial was targeted at her. It was a gratifying day, however, when she said, "That won't really make me popular."

If your child is aware of any brand at all (Disney princesses, McDonald's, Star Wars), she's ready for your own home school media curriculum. Children need to understand that advertisements are created by people who are trying to get us to either buy something or do something. it's a fun game to dissect a commercial message: Who is trying to persuade us? Why? What do they want us to do? How are they trying to get us to do it? What do they take us for -- fools?

For very young children, the game might just be to play "spot the commercial". It can be difficult for a 3-year-old to distinguish between the sales pitch and the "entertainment", but it's an important media skill to learn.

Try covering your ears and talk about how the commercial makes you feel with and without sound. This can be a great example of how advertisers try to manipulate our emotions. How do certain commercials make us feel and why do they want us to feel that way?

Commercials often boast about taste tests and other comparison surveys that prove their products are the best. Why take their word for it? Do your own taste tests. Mike if even more fun by involving friends. Does the heavily advertised brand really taste better than the store brand? It's not something most of us can afford on a regular basis, but I would occasionally purchase an advertised product that Josephine wanted simply for the purpose of demonstrating that it's a piece of crap. A less expensive method is to point out advertised products while shopping. How does the actual product compare to the advertisement? Examine the label (especially if it's food) and the packaging. What did the commercial leave out? Where did the commercial exaggerate? Do you feel the same way about the product in your hand as you did about the one on TV? Why?

Young children can often become confused about what is real and what is make-believe on TV. Talk about whether or not what is happening on the screen could happen in the real world.

Lest you've missed it, my personal belief is that targeting children with advertising messages is unethical. I've been known to write to companies that I find the most offensive. There are some who would have it be illegal altogether. I won't go that far, but that doesn't mean we can't use our consumer power to pressure companies.

The real battleground, however, is in your living room. This is where these strangers find our children with their slick, deceptive messages, stoking the flames of unattainable desires in their little souls.

Most of us have lived our entire lives as targets. We don't know life any other way. Some of us have made our peace with it, while others are still trying to figure out what it all means. Whatever the case, it's certain that advertisers will continue to step up efforts to target your child with junky toys and junky food. And we, seasoned veterans that we are, like it or not, have the job of teaching them how to sort through the crap.

Excuse my French.


Anonymous said...

My mum used to use this way to help myself and my siblings recognise ads:

We would watch the old black and white movies that used to be on during the day so that the colour ads would be more obvious and we could recognise them as separate from the tv show. And then, she would encourage us to critique them- much like you explained. Her favourite line was "You don't want it, you just think that you do!"

the_Tmac said...

LOVE this post. advertising is my biggest reason for limiting tv - and for being extremely selective with what is seen by my 4 year old. I feel the advertiser's goals for him are so counter to what I want for him to discover in life. (and so often they are advertising things we disagree with, like toys made by other kids in sweatshops.) i let him watch a tiny bit so I can shower now and then, but still, he doesn't know who Buzz Lightyear is, and has never heard of McDonald's - I have to admit, as a parent that is nice!

for the occasional tv time...we do like the Beatrix Potter books on DVD - they are slow paced, child-appropriate, drenched in nature, and inspire wonderful creative play because the stories are so rich.

Unknown said...

We only use netflix and youtube. Any time an add pops up on youtube my 4 year old asks what it is. I tell her it's an add trying to get us to buy something, then click out of is asap. I do the same with adds that come on the mail. She asks what they are, I tell her they are adds trying to get us to buy things, then in the trash they go. Recently I heard her explaining to her 4 year old cousin that a catalog I had actually kept was "just an add trying to get us to buy stuff".