Born to Buy: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias

This is the fifth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the second portion of the third chapter, starting at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias” on page 51 through the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61.

born to buySince the last discussion, I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of parents living vicariously through their children. I know personally of several examples of this – parents who are permissive with their children and buy their children lots of things because the parent never had these opportunities as a child.

I see where these parents are coming from. They’re looking back at their own childhood and trying to perceive the inadequacies there as an idea of how to improve as a parent. They look back on their own missed experiences and decide that their child will be exposed to those experiences, and they feel personal joy when they see what their child is gaining.

From my perspective, the real filter here isn’t whether you’re giving your child all the opportunities you never had, but whether you’re working to open up the right kind of opportunities. Giving your child an iPod simply because you would have loved one when you were a kid doesn’t really help them become a stronger person, but spending a week with them in the countryside of a foreign nation and exposing them to new cultures in a way you dreamed of as a child can change their world.

Anyway, on with some more thoughts on Born to Buy.

Where Kids Rule, Adults Are the Enemy

On page 54, Schor writes:

Industry insiders and outsiders confirm the antiadultism in much of today’s youth advertising. As one marketer explained to me: “Advertisers have kicked the parents out. They make fun of the parents … We inserted the product into the secret kid world … [It’s] secret, dangerous, kid only.” Media critic Mark Crispin Miller makes a similar point: “It’s part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor. That huge authority has, interestingly enough, emerged as the sort of tacit superhero of consumer culture. That’s the coolest entity of all.”

A while back, I saw an ad for Verizon DSL that really stuck under my skin for a while. In it, a young girl is using the internet to look at a website. Her father attempts to be involved with her learning experience, but he is basically blown off for not being adept at it.

This ad is targeting a mix of people, but it reinforces the idea that a parent is a doofus and that the child is better off without his “interference.” The child is seen as being intelligent and the unintelligent parent is seen as little more than a distraction.

I personally think the ad is fairly humorous, but the underlying implication is there, and it’s repeated in ad after ad after ad. Children seek acceptance and a sense of being valued by adults, and this type of ad caters perfectly to it. The child is seen as equal or superior to the parent with the aid of the product.

If you watch Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel for very long, you’ll see lots of ads with this theme: kids are smarter or cooler than parents or teachers. In one isolated ad, it’s an interesting gimmick – in enough ads, it becomes a reinforced stereotype.

This is, to me, one of the most compelling reasons to limit your child’s television exposure. If my child goes downstairs to watch Hannah Montana, this type of ad is something they’ll see several times. On an individual basis, a child might be able to discern what’s really going on, but with lots of different ads using lots of different angles to reinforce that idea, I’m not surprised that children with a lot of television exposure would seek an antagonistic relationship with their parents.

My solution is as usual: spend a lot of time with my kids away from the television. I’d rather go out in the yard and toss the football around with my son or try to teach my daughter how to do a cartwheel than do something by myself while they watch the latest offering from Nickelodeon. Which of those two experiences reinforces a positive parent-child relationship – and which one reinforces a negative one?

Dual Targeting
A significant portion of this section focuses on dual targeting, a phenomenon where ad campaigns target both parents and children by highlighting different aspects of a product. Schor gives my favorite example on page 59:

Another example of this strategic thinking is Alpha-Bits. The regular version is targeted to moms, because the letters are seen as educational and beneficial for kids and it has less sugar than Alpha-Bits with marshmallows, which is targeted only to kids.

For those unaware, Alpha-Bits is a cold breakfast cereal where the individual pieces of cereal are shaped like letters. As a kid, I have vivid memories of my older brother spelling out obscene messages using Alpha-Bits in his cereal bowl.

It’s easy to see where this goes: the makers of Alpha-Bits is happy if either the parent or the child goes into the cereal aisle and picks out an Alpha-Bits product. So they simply make a “mom” version and a “kid” version and market each to that audience, focusing specifically on the attributes attractive to each. The version for moms is a pretty healthy cereal and a potential educational opportunity – seems good. The version for kids is a marshmallowy sugary fun time – seems good.

This happens over and over again. McDonald’s targets kids with their Happy Meals and parents with their salad line and burgers. Kool-Aid tells parents that it’s an inexpensive way to get Vitamin C and shows kids partying with Kool-Aid Man. (How can I compete with Kool-Aid Man, really? He’s big and red and bursts through walls!)

For me, this is a prime reason to get kids involved in your buying process as early as you can. If you can’t explain to them exactly why you’re buying a product, then why are you buying it? Let them see exactly how you shop – and force yourself to live up to that standard that you want to preach. Actions speak far louder than words.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the final portion of the third chapter of Born to Buy, starting at the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61 through the remainder of the chapter.

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