Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Strangers Are Targeting Your Child

This is a rewrite of the very first post on this blog some 3 years ago. It then sat there all alone for 3 months before I finally started writing in earnest. It pre-dates that, however, having appeared in Seattle's Child Magazine back when it only existed in a print version. It's so old it doesn't even turn up in their archives. It has the distinction of being one of the motivators for my starting this blog in the first place. I'd written a half dozen or so articles for various publications at the time and it bugged me that they were just languishing on my hard drive, unread and unloved, so I started the blog, at least in part, to give them new life. I started thinking about this one (which originally appeared under the title "What's So Bad About Ronald McDonald?") when I read Lisa Sunbury's recent excellent piece on going "commercial free." My knowledge and thinking on the topic have evolved some over the intervening years and I've made changes here to reflect that. While I think it would be best to just turn off the TV altogether because it is, simply put, a narcotic, here are some ideas for what to do if that just isn't in the cards for you.

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 an advertising 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 which restaurants their families frequent. At the time Ronald McDonald was a more recognizable personage for this age group than Santa Claus. We could never determine for certain 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. Thirty years later the ability of marketers to get at our children has only increased. And just as we move heaven and earth to protect them 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 at all your chid is being bombarded by dozens of advertising 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. Most 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 ideas (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 your 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. This is why you child should, under no circumstances have a television in his bedroom. He will overdose.

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, and involve her in creating it, 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 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. Ask 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 Dad's 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 struggled more 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 homeschool 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 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 comparisons that "prove" their products are the best. Why take their word for it? Do your own taste tests. Make it 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 immoral. And furthermore, I think it should be illegal to advertise to children, to target them with these powerful weapons of commercial persuasion. It's hardly fair when they use these finely-honed propaganda techniques on adults; when they go after children it's criminal.

And make no mistake, this is a war and the battleground is your living room. This is where these strangers find your 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 fighting back. 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.

This is a war and your child is in the crosshairs.

If you live in Seattle and your child, or a child you know, will be 5 on or before December 31, you might want to take a look at Woodland Park's brand new 5's program. Same play-based goodness with Teacher Tom, but for older kids!

Please spread the word!

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Anonymous said...

First time parent here- I love your blog!

Just wanted to say that you do an amazing job and keep up the good work.

What's scary to me is that most adults have already been desensitized to our over commercialized way of life, so parents that are trying to do the right thing often feel a sense of 'am I the crazy?'.

Motherhood, childhood, family life...it's all commercialized and we want to emulate that shiny picture in a magazine, or on TV.

When I was getting my nursery ready, and came to the realization that I didn't need 4/5ths of the things that are in baby magazines, or in Babies R Us, my girl friends recoiled in horror. 'But it's your first baby! You have to do it right!' (Hmm says something about me with the friends I have haha!)

But what happened to us as a society that 'doing it right' meant getting STUFF?

Anyways, sorry for the mini rant :)

Have an awesome day!

Anonymous said...

An inconvenient truth that, if not faced, can slowly but surely steal creativity and imagination from our children.
Say no to raising robot children...
model and embrace originality!

Unknown said...

You had me at "crap" and you nailed it. So now what do we do? I think we should keep posting about these preditors. Malika