Yesterday I had the energy to read about two blog posts, and I’m glad that one of them was from Meaghan at My Dog Harriet. I had the pleasure of meeting Meaghan at the BlogHer conference last summer. She’s smart, articulate, and cool, so it’s not surprising that she wrote a very compelling essay in response to a Minneapolis Star Tribune article (a paper which has amazingly crappy archives – find it republished here instead) on marketing to children, that kept me reading even through my feverish haze.
This is less a retort (since I love so much of what she has to say) than my own take on the subject.
As an ad industry person myself (and Meghan’s a sales and marketing pro herself), don’t think I’m about to give a pass to marketers. We judge each other most harshly, I assure you; you’ve never seen anything until you’ve watched a party filled with drunk advertising creatives rip apart every Super Bowl ad, overpriced second by second; or pull our hair out over the fact that there are people in the world who actually like that freaking Afflac duck. I can spot product placement in a reality show before most people have digested the opening credits and it makes me crazy. And I’m so skeptical of polluting my daughter’s toy chest and mind with licensed characters, I was flamed on a message board during my pregnancy for asking why I couldn’t just find diapers that didn’t have TV characters on them.
So I admit we as a whole can be a shady and sometimes despicable bunch (See also: Bratz Dolls, cellulite creams, Armstrong Williams). But I’m not entirely sure the examples in the article make this one of those cases.
The crux of it is the notion that now automotive companies like Hummer and Honda are marketing to children with kid-friendly websites and cross-promotions . As Meaghan and I discussed in a subsequent email exchange, the fact is we’re probably appalled by the Hummer campaign less because they’re turning our 2 year olds into consumers (Wha-at? Kids want things? Why, when we were children we never asked for anything but rocks and twigs!) and more because we agree that Hummers offend us as a rule. After all, HotWheels and Matchbox have been cultivating car brand loyalty in the pre-driving set for years. But no one seems offended by that. We’re just not conditioned to think of it in a nefarious way.
I can’t help but allow my view of an advertiser to influence my view of their tactics. When Beaches or the Cayman Islands sponsors Sesame Street I think eh, kids on a beach. Not so bad. But when McDonald’s runs a spot, I admit I judge the network a little more harshly for allowing the message through. Now what if it was instead an ad for healthy, delicious organic vegetables? Or the Peace Corps? Or an all-out effort to institutionalize National Make Your Mom Chocolate Chip Pancakes in Bed Day? Would we still judge the notion of advertising on PBS as harshly?
I wonder whether it’s that we don’t want our children to be consumers, or that we just want to dictate the kinds of consumers they can be.
For those of you who eschew all forms of marketing, own no television sets, manage your own food co-ops and spend your days teaching your children classic poetry and the magical tones of the pan flute, more power to you. Hope you create the perfect rash cream when that organic hemp layette you sew doesn’t work out too well.
But the vast majority of us, I believe, are reasonable people of moderation. We recognize that not all marketing is bad, not all products are evil, not every advertiser is out to steal our soul. It has its place in a functioning capitalist society and it behooves us to work with it–to figure out which messages are essential to challenge, and which are just little annoyance.
I admit, it bugs me to see easy knee-jerk reaction to a post like Meghan’s along the lines of “the nerve of those evil, evil people at Honda!” When it comes down to it, is the notion of a safe, reasonably priced brand of family cars trying to get my toddler to like them over, say, a Toyota, the biggest of my concerns? Not so much.
Here’s what I’m thinking in terms of marketing outrage priorities:
1. Things that cause immediate physical harm to our children
Tobacco, drugs, violence, guns, war. Yes, war. I used to appreciate the post-punk kitch value of a pair of toddler-sized camos but now that people are actually dying again in them, I’m sticking with florals. The rest of the list: Primo importance. Anything else is a way distant second and a good way to keep the outrage in check over other media-related issues.
In other words, if you’ve got the time to write a letter to a marketer about something, consider it falling into this category.
By the way, I also think we should be incensed at the seafood industry for the lack of warning labels about mercury in fish. Guaranteed that it’s going to affect more kids aversely over time than Hummers.
2. Things that, if not monitored, can cause long-term harm to our children
One of my biggest issues is companies like Coke (of whom I’m a dedicated consumer, by the way) placing vending machines around school halls because it’s the only way the school can fund their extra-curricular programs. It’s product placement of the worst kind because it’s totally under the radar. Fried fast food crap in the cafeteria – same deal.
It’s the kind of marketing especially deserving of our attention because our children don’t even have a choice in the matter; where they do have a choice, they’re not in supervised environments where parents can help guide those decisions. But of course, it’s among the hardest marketing tactics to be aware of, so accustomed are we to seeing these products in our daily lives.
Best solution? Get marketing out of our schools. Unfortunately, impossible now considering the lack of funding for most schools coupled with idiotic measures like NCLB.
3. Intolerance, hatred, racism, discrimination
These are the values that creep in a child’s mind when you’re least paying attention. Any evidence of it through marketing should be called out and shot to little bits. I still get crazy when I think about that ad for the Hook-Up on the N-Spot that I wrote about last year, an online game teaching tween girls to deceive and destroy one another for the sake of a guy.
Which brings me to…
4. Premature sexuality, a.k.a. self-esteem issues
The beauty industry, Laguna Beach, anorexic models, Barbies and their ilk, princesses as the end all be all–I do believe that a lot of these can be managed with parental involvement and the fostering of self-esteem at home. Let your kid (either sex will do) know that girls should be valued for more than their looks. It goes a long way.
Of course I do think we do need better role models than belly-baring pop stars and teens who spend more time in rehab than English class. But again, we as consumers and media gatekeepers have a lot of influence here. Don’t buy the Lindsay Lohan album for your kid, multiply that by millions of moms, and guess what – her next one will only be available in Germany.
4. Everything else
Not too long ago, a client of mine got hate mail from an angry viewer about a commercial featuring a jubilant if overweight mother running through a parade–the viewer was upset because the actress’ boobs were big and shook while she ran and her 10 year old son commented on it.
File that one under People With too Much Time On Their Hands.
I know everyone has his or her own hotbutton issues when it comes to the media. No doubt my list is incomplete and could use some more thought and refining, and will conflict in some ways with your own. But I like the idea of moms taking the time to figure out their priorities, instead of simply shaking an angry fist at “marketers” every time the word appears next to the word “kids.”
Besides, there’s something to that whole united we stand thing.
If parents of the world somehow manage to put our minds and voices together towards the issues that really matter, I’d be excited to see the good that can come of it.
Edited to add: Somewhat anonymous reader ZMT makes the excellent point that what differentiates Hummers tactics from those of McDonald’s, and thus makes them more infuriating, is that they’re trying to manipulate children’s preferences as a way of influencing their parents. My feeling: If your school-aged kids can influence your decision to buy a Hummer, you’re more of a bonehead than the average Hummer driver, and that’s saying something.
I believe it’s more likely the company is trying to develop brand loyalty in children at an early age so that when they turn 16 they can ask for that Hummer “they’ve always wanted.” Or…perhaps they simply want to make parents feel like it’s a good family car–after all they care so goshdarn much about children. Just look at the fun word scramble on their kids’ site!