Saturday, April 25, 2009

Are Some Advertisements Targeting Children Good?

I would like to cut right to the chase. In my opinion, no; for a number of reasons. It is easy to see how marketing may negatively affect physical health – today, American youth spend two to four hours in front of the television and may see as many as 40,000 ads in a year. Unfortunately most of these ads aren't for fruits, vegetables, or healthy lifestyle choices, but for candy, cereal, and soft drinks. According to the Institute of Medicine, 33% of America's youth are overweight or obese. It is easy to see how marketing may affect mental health – instilling in youth and adults unrealistic and sometimes undesirable images of what they are supposed to embody. And reinforcing that until they fit that image, they should be self loathing, or at the very least, insecure. It's easy to quantify such things. But more serious than advertising promoting violence, or increased sexual voracity or unwittingly predisposing children to gluttonous behavior, is the fact that marketing 1) seeks to undermine family values and 2) seeks to eliminate the ability to think critically.

Whether they are advertising McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, Bubbilicious gum, Lay's Potato Chips, Barbie & Friends, Mott's Apple Juice, or Call of Duty, it is not necessarily what they are advertising – it is the fact that they knowingly target children and ultimately produce the same results.

Result 1

Now, a commercial for bubble gum may go on the list of the more benign objects being marketed to kids (if you aren't a dentist), however, I argue, unlike many critics, that the harm is not in advertisement of the product itself, but in the way that it is advertised. Consider the next two commercial scenarios.

Scenario 1:
Close-up on a stick of bubblegum against a white background, the voice reads what is clearly labeled on the package. "New grape bubblegum from Bubble Tape!"

Scenario 2: "It's the TRUTH. Your principal can't smile… can't swim…and 'I can't stand Bubble Tape!(says the principal)' Your school bus driver can't drive…wears curlers…makes funny noises…won't try Bubble Tape! 'No way, Jose! (says bus driver)' It's 6 feet of bubble gum for YOU not THEM."

Assuming, for the moment that bubblegum has no adverse health effects. There is generally not too much to be contested with the first commercial. The bubblegum is grape flavored. It is new from the brand Bubble Tape, and the commercial portrays what the bubble gum looks like, it's a fair representation of the product with little to no guile. The second scenario – well, let's look at it from a variety of perspectives. An 16-20 year old is most likely to recognize what is going on here – they are trying to portray adults, especially authority figures that teenagers may fear or dislike, as being "incompetent", "ineffectual", and "stupid". However, these same persons might still find amusement in the commercial and be persuaded to buy Bubble Tape. A group younger than that, maybe 10-15, may actually find merit in what the ad says, thinking, you know what, I have never seen the principal smile! Or yeah, yesterday my bus driver almost hit a mailbox – in high school, my bus driver was pulled over for a DWI while I was on the bus, so this ad hits home - and buy Bubble Tape because they identify with this ad whose underlying messages are many. Adults are incompetent. School adult figures are stupid. Bus drivers are dumb and are hardly qualified to even do the job they have. Principals are scary and stupid and don't understand that kids want to have fun.
These inadequate, ostracized, and annoying people can't understand why Bubble Tape is cool. But Bubble Tape is cool because they don't get it. If I get Bubble Tape, I'll be cool, edgy, hip, and participating in something parents' just don't get.

So it's not that gum is inherently bad, it's that the advertisement is completely undermining the value of respect for elders that parents try to instill in their children. And this is even worse for kids younger than eight, who may not understand that they are being marketed a product and that even though the words "It's the TRUTH" are written on the screen and spoken by the narrator, the words and message that follow are actually not an accurate representation of reality. Your principal does smile and probably can swim, and may or may not mind Bubble Tape. The point is that children are up against 40 hours of television filled with commercial advertisements a week: that's a lot when you don't even know what an advertisement is.

Result 2

Advertising robs us of the ability to think critically from an early age- by first robbing us of creativity. Countless times I have been brainstorming for a class project and the professor will say, "Would you like some ideas?" To which some people may replay yes, but I object almost immediately. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes when I hear someone else's idea I lose the ability to freely think of my own. After I hear or see an example, I begin to think should I model mine after it, not exactly, but the major premise, or maybe just keep that one part, yeah that's interesting, no, no, no. I keep trying to come up with something new, but it keeps looking like what I've already seen. Well, when we constantly barrage children with television shows, commercials, and the like, we are stifling creativity in a similar way and sucking any and all of the wonder out of their worlds. With a book, something is left to the imagination – a character description is never the same to any two people. With a movie or television image- your personal description is wrong, and the thoughts and values of the character designer and producers become the description you must accept.

So instead of having any personal dialogue about what an author may mean by a certain word or descriptive phrase, instead of drawing on context clues – children begin to rely on someone else's interpretations to be true and right. And that's it. Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids, presents this view when considering the Harry Potter books – which began as a wonderful way to revive the popularity of reading. However, once the first movie was made, all enchantment was lost, all wonder placed under siege and ultimately seized right out of the minds of the very wonderers – children. And from then on Harry looked like the Daniel Radcliffe and Hermoine like Emma Watson. This may seem a trivial case, but it is an important case to and for children. Especially since it applies not only to creativity, but to the ability to critically think about advertisements and marketing once children reach teen and adult stages. For so long, children will have been conditioned to think that advertisements are straightforward. And when they become aware of the fact that they are not, advertisers have a few more tricks up their sleeves yet. For example, consider the commercial for Grand Champions collectible horse figurines whose partial script is printed below from Nickelodeon's, Nick Jr. time slot which runs during the early afternoon – a time when children are out of school but before their parent's get home.

"If you love horses, you'll LOVE Grand Champions…the most beautiful horses in the world."

There is something so wrong about this that it may incite any self-respecting adult to anger. What grounds, and what right does an advertising company have to tell a four-year-old that if he or she loves horses then he or she will love this/that/and the other. If a stranger approached your child and told her if you love M&M's then you will love Snicker's, what would you say? Let's assume she's not lactose intolerant, and chocolate isn't the worst thing in the world. The first issue isn't with the entire content of the statement – sure it may or may not be logical to surmise that if I like M&M's I will love Snicker's – although Snicker's is different than M&M's, it has nuts, caramel, and some other weird layer. Similarly a toy thumb-size horse replica will not provide the same satisfaction of a real life horse. The issue is the authoritative statement - you love this, so you must love that. This is just how it is. Accept it. It doesn't matter why. Why do you think I'd like Snicker's, I have some ideas, but what made you say that? Why would I like this toy horse? Unfortunately television does not allow for these sorts of interactive questions, they reserve them for the check-out counter (does it come with batteries?). The point is that in denying you a venue to even voice any type of critical thinking approach, the voice is inherently stifled.

In conclusion, I really don't think it matters what is being advertised. Advertisements have a tendency to undermine family values (in the very fact that they are approaching a child in such a way as to make them want what they don't have) and rob children of the ability to learn how to critically evaluate scenarios, which in the long run (or short run), negatively impacts American society. We are selling out our youth.



Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising. Anchor Books: New York. 2004 pg. 105-124.


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