Friday, March 9, 2012

Consumers from Birth

There we were; my wife, my mother-in-law and I, standing in 104° degree heat on a strip of asphalt within eye-shot of the Hood River, wondering how we had gotten ourselves into this.  Directly in front of us was a garish white tent with plastic windows; our children had already run inside.  This tent was an altar to the star of the show, a lovable blue train named Thomas the Tank Engine.  His friends were there, of course.  James, the "splendid" train that hates to see his paint get dirty; Harold the helicopter, who comes to the rescue in times of need; even the train station's manager, Sir Topham Hatt.   Train toys were stacked in pyramids on elaborate wooden train station sets like those on display at Barnes and Noble.  But the adults in the party couldn't care less about toys at this moment.  We (and our children) needed water.  We had stopped by the drinking fountain on our way to this so-called mercantile after exiting a small camper trailer that was showing Thomas films over a projector to a group of disinterested and overheated children, but found it mysteriously off.  Thomas' friends had us covered though--flimsy twelve ounce bottles of Arrowhead water, lukewarm from the heat, for a premium of five dollars apiece.  We had driven--in a rented SUV--three-hundred and sixty-eight miles to be here.  Bought gas; bought snack foods; bought a room at a nice hotel within walking distance, and now the place we had bought at ticket to enter was going to charge us five dollars to give our children a moment's respite from the blistering heat.  It was tempting to say "no" to the outrageous price, but others had tried to resist and the ambulance had come to this mock Sodor twice to treat children for dehydration.  It was less than ten minutes until "Thomas" (a real train with Thomas' face glued to its rear) arrived.  There was no time to dash somewhere else, so we compromised as best as we could.  We bought one bottle and then commandeered a hose (which, to add insult to injury, was just running out onto the dirt) to make sure everyone got something to drink and something to take on the ride. 

Why would we face the threat of dehydration to take our children--not even three at the time--to visit a fictional character?  I’m sure the consensus would be love.  We love our children, and in turn they "loved" Thomas.  They loved the kindly characters with their big eyes and shiny paint, loved their adventures (filled with just the slightest hint of non-offensive danger,) and Elijah especially loved trains themselves.  But the truth is we were just participating in another link of the cradle-to-grave marketing strategy. 

Prior to the nineties, it was in bad taste to market directly to babies.  Babies were used in advertising to lure in mothers, and they had elementary school children in their palms since Star Wars, but children under two were taboo, and worse yet many advertisers considered children this young to be bad business. What was the event that changed all of this?  An educational conference held at the White House in nineteen-ninety seven.  Due to new brain research, a group of well meaning people began to stress the importance of educating children under the age of three, and the market responded with a slew of products aimed at creating "genius babies."  There were compact discs, and mock computers made of hard plastic, and dozens of other toys that stressed learning, but none of them captured this infant learning zeitgeist quite like Baby Einstein.

Created by Julie Aigner-Clark, the Baby Einstein films combine images of babies at play with classical music, disembodied voices speaking a variety of languages, and all manner of numbers, letters, and shapes.  By making two simple promises, (that busy moms could sneak off for a shower without having to worry what their child was up to; and that junior would be smarter because of it,) Ainger-Clark created a ten-million dollar business that was quickly bought up by Disney.  The only problem with this Capitalist success story is that it was built on half-truths.  While it is true that many mothers (my own wife included) were able to use the videos to catch a moment's respite from keeping up with baby, the science just isn't there when it comes to the film's ability to educate.  Part of Ainger-Clark's inspiration, a presentation delivered at the aforementioned Clinton conference, demonstrated how exposure to foreign languages as a child increased the ability to learn them, but specifically stated that this had to be live exposure.  Research had shown videos incapable of transferring the benefit.  The "Mozart Effect" (a mid-nineties study stating children learned better immediately after exposure to Mozart's music) was never replicated and consequently debunked.  It didn't matter, of course; the damage was done.  Now that Disney had control of Baby Einstein, new mothers were greeted with copies of the films attached to cribs in maternity wards.  Despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association advises against children under the age of two watching television of any kind, Disney's money allowed hospitals to accept the lie that these products were an essential part of early-childhood education.

Of course, once "Baby Einstein" got through the gate other baby and toddler themed programming followed.  In the years following the educational conference, the 0-3 age group came to be worth an estimated twenty-billion dollars a year.  PBS launched the Teletubbies, and began to skew the beloved Sesame Street younger with the introduction of Elmo.  Due to the Republican-led attacks on its funding in nineteen-ninety five, Public Television (although still ad-free in a traditional sense) had begun to tout its corporate underwriters before and after shows, and so infants were told of the virtues of McDonalds and Juicy Juice by their animated “friends.”  Nickelodeon went so far as to create an entire network devoted to this age group, Noggin, which purported to be "like preschool on TV."  In the past, babies that ended up watching television were watching it alongside their parents, but things had changed.  Busy moms continued to follow the example of Baby Einstein and duck out for a shower, leaving their infants alone in a room off brightly colored salespeople.   Marketers had children right where they wanted them.  New research had begun to show that children recognized brands as early as eighteen months, and started to ask for them around their second birthday, so rather than focusing on individual products, advertisers set out to make the characters the brands.  Stores were rearranged to put familiar faces (Elmo, Dora, Tony the Tiger) at cart level so that children's recognition would signal their parents to buy whatever it was they were selling.  And it worked.

Although the focus on babies was relatively new, advertisers had been through this before.  Ever since Mickey Mouse--in Steamboat Willie attire--appeared on a notebook cover in the nineteen-thirties, there have been products that aimed to sell themselves solely based on the character attached to them.  Still, advertisements that targeted children were considered to be a lesser part of the equation until my generation.  Shortly before I was born, Star Wars changed everything.  The film's success sold millions of toys, but that was only part of it.  A Star Wars logo could sell practically anything.  Trading cards, lunchboxes, pencils, bed sheets--if it had to do with Star Wars people were buying it.  This changed the rules so drastically that by the time I was born in nineteen-eighty, advertisers had stopped trying to look for the new Star Wars and were attempting to reverse engineer it.  They had a name for the cartoons--He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe, to name a few--that I got up to watch each Saturday morning.  They were PLCs, or "program-length commercials."  It's no surprise now, going back to watch an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on Netflix, that the whole thing is an unintelligible mess.  The toys had come first, and the show was nothing more than cobbled together set pieces.  But again, it worked.  I, and many children like me, got our parents to spend millions of dollars so we could recreate the battles of Saturday's shows while enjoying the snacks selected for us by the cartoons' sponsors. 

One thing I didn't have to contend with in the eighties was the advertising following me to school.  It was starting to happen, that's true.  But Pizza Hut's Book It! program and the one lonely Pepsi machine by the principal's office of my elementary school have nothing on what kids see today.  Cash-strapped schools, denied funding by taxpayers again and again, have had little choice but to turn to corporations for funding.  Nike and Reebok, once satisfied with placing their logos on professional athletes, now brand high school gymnasiums.  The fast food restaurants that kids once had to sneak off of campus for have set up shop in the cafeterias. 

If the ads were limited to the public grounds of the schools, it would be bad enough, but the corporations have managed to get them into the classrooms as well.  Starting in nineteen-ninety, Channel One--a twelve minute news program for kids--debuted in classrooms across America.  Claiming to offer an educational way to get students to pay attention to current events, it has worked its way into some eight thousand schools.  Whittle Communication--which founded Channel One--and its subsequent owners offer schools invaluable equipment such as TVs and satellite dishes, and in return offer their corporate sponsors a captive audience, a strategy which has earned them up to twenty thousand dollars for a thirty second spot on their show.  To make matters worse, the news itself--Channel One’s justification for being allowed into our children’s lives--is often filled with celebrity gossip and more product placements.  Other companies have provided sleek covers for textbooks which sport even more advertisements, replacing the grocery bag and crayon covers of my childhood.  Worst of all, at the schools where money is most desperately needed, the corporations have started developing curriculum.  YMI (Young Minds Inspired,)   is a company that promises advertisers an “in-school, curriculum-based program where children will interact with your brand in a meaningful way for hours,” and that said brand will gain credibility with students and parents due to its delivery by teachers they trust and respect. 

While Channel One--for the time being--is limited to middle and high schools, as are the fast food dining options, Cover Concepts--the company responsible for producing the book covers dotted with ads--has taken the lead in bringing advertising based curricula to a younger audience.  Trading product samples to daycares for demographic information, Cover Concepts created a newsletter that center directors could place in the children’s cubbies, offering parenting tips and coloring sheets alongside ads for McDonalds and Mott’s applesauce.  Each center’s newsletter is custom designed to reflect advertisers in the area, as well as the income and ethnicity of the parents.  YMI creates Pre-K worksheets that feature Dora the Explorer shilling for Yoplait and science lessons by way of Bubblicious bubble gum.   Teachers and school administrators know better than to allow these pitchmen and adwomen in, and it has been proven that young children don’t have the mental capacity to evaluate whether or not an ad is presenting the truth, but it is one thing to know that the advertisers don’t have our children’s best interests in mind and another to turn them away when allowing them to spackle the blank spaces means funding for music, art, and anything else that doesn’t fit on the standardized tests ushered in by No Child Left Behind.  My son’s school, which is relatively free of overt advertising, went as far as to conduct a fundraiser that didn’t sell any actual products, instead sending children home to collect e-mail addresses of adults; each was worth a ten-dollar donation to the school’s budget, a pittance until you consider the damage years of funding cuts have caused.

The advertisers would like to argue that they are doing no wrong.  They would like you to think that anyone who doesn’t like their methods can just tune them out, that the schools who accept their wares do so out of anything other than desperation.  They’re just selling another half-truth.  We can shut off the TV at home, shop conscientiously, and do our best to educate our children about the way that advertisers work, but we are still competing against a billion-dollar industry.  Our children will still go to school and see other kids wearing the latest fashions and using the latest high tech gadgets, and all that our work will have done, should we limit our focus to our own kids, is keep them from fitting in. The only way to get advertising out of our schools and away from our children is through political action at the grassroots level, and even then it won’t be easy.  Politicians who are up for reelection are ripe targets for lobbyists who will argue that removing advertising from schools is an assault on freedom of speech and free enterprise.  We have to ask ourselves--how much do we care?

Which takes me back to Hood River; there is no doubt in my mind I was manipulated into getting there.  Ever since an executive at a British toy company realized that placing as-of-yet unavailable toys into the children’s sections of book stores would appeal to middle-class, liberal-leaning parents by giving the high quality wooden trains (which were based on books from the forties) a certain literary appeal, and launching the ensuing show and product line in response to “customer demand,” the seed was planted.  Just as he envisioned, whenever my wife and I (or my in-laws) headed out to browse books, the kids would run, enchanted, to the wondrous train set and the other children at play there.    Thomas and friends were incredibly toyetic (the industry’s word for characters that make the best toys,) with big eyes and vivid colors that were as bright as their smiles.  Our house was soon filled not only with Thomas toys, but Thomas books, coloring books, and videos.  We printed out pictures and let the kids play games on the official website.  It’s a story that happens over and over again with other parents and their children, whether the salesperson is Dora or Elmo--advertisers know that while young children might not associate with the name of their products, they respond to characters, and so the characters themselves have become the brand.  I have never fought the crowds on Black Friday to get a hot action figure.  I haven’t bought my children the giant play sets that go with their action figures.  But by following the cult of Thomas to Oregon that summer, I played my part in the advertiser’s game.  I would be lying if I said that I regretted the trip to Hood River; it was a valuable chance to bond with my mother-in-law, and we had a lot of fun whenever we weren’t following Thomas’ script.  We traveled to farmer’s markets, visited my wife’s extended family, and ate at new and interesting restaurants.  Outside of the reason we had come, it was a lovely vacation.  Yet looking back, it feels somehow tainted by the two hours dedicated to what turned out to be little more than a conditioned response to a product, no matter how friendly that product may have been.  That, to me, is the sinister part of child targeted advertising; not just that marketers will sell sex and violence to even the youngest demographic if they feel like they can earn a buck, not just that every attempt to teach proper nutrition is drowned in a flood of promotion for the worst sorts of food, but that it is so overwhelming and pervasive that until I read the marketing strategy used by Thomas’ manufacturers in the research for this paper, I felt like the choice to go to the “Day with Thomas” event was my own.  Now, however, when I look behind the curtain I see a straight line from maternity wards giving Teletubbies toys and matching branded diapers to babies to the college students receiving their diplomas in buildings named after Taco Bell or Wells Fargo, and I know that it is nearly impossible to see the world without at least part of my perception having been defined by the corporations who hunger for my money. 

Since I have had this realization, I have spent almost as much time trying to tell my friends and family what I have learned as I have writing about it.  I have tried to promote the local school funding initiative at work so that my children’s schools can buy new books without having to look for corporate partners.  I have shared my research with my children over dinner so that when they are exposed to advertising they will at least have the chance to think about the message behind it.  I have no idea if any of this will make any difference, but at least I know what the marketers are up to, and as GI Joe always taught me, “knowing is half the battle.”