What Solves the Kids & Advertising Problem: Education, or Avoidance?

by Red Pill Mama · 4 comments

in Advertising+Media,Character,Toys+Products

I love what Red Pill Papa is doing with his daughter (see his “New Study …” post), teaching her to recognize the persuasive intent behind commercials and to understand that despite the ads’ claims, a particular food or toy will not bring her everlasting happiness (quite the contrary, of course).

What I’ve done is a little different: my kids hardly know that TV exists.

They did when they were younger, though: when my daughter, now 7-and-a-half, was born, I received some Baby Einstein DVDs as a gift, and despite an initial resistance (TV for babies?  Why?) gave them a try, and she seemed to enjoy them, so I was fine with that at the time.  She watched PBS Kids Sprout and Playhouse Disney starting at about age 3.  I nixed Disney when we entered a disturbing streak of intense interest in Disney Princesses and I sort of wised up to that whole thing (a future post), and we added in Noggin around the same time.  And now, four and half years later, there are these same two TV channels in her world: and that’s all.

My son is two years behind her, and has the same sort of understanding.  A couple of years ago he entered a phase where he wanted to watch TV all the time.  Seeing that it was becoming too important to him, I limited it to a scant minimum: a little bit during the week, and otherwise only on weekend mornings when Daddy and I want to sleep in — in peace — and encouraged him to play with his toys instead.  He got over it.

So now, they’ve both pretty much outgrown the content on PBS Kids Sprout and Noggin (now Nick Jr.), I’m not about to introduce them to the world of tween TV, and frankly, there’s really nothing in between.  And so, they’ve pretty much just stopped watching TV.  Which means they are hardly ever seeing commercials — when they do, it’s for the type of stuff PBS Kids Sprout runs ads for: pancake puffers and Swiffers and basically stuff directed at moms — and what they never see are the type of commercials run on the other kids channels for toys or food.  And on those mornings when Daddy I want to sleep in?  Lately, we can’t get them to go down and watch TV!

It’s odd, because contrary to what you might think, we do not in fact live on an uninhabited remote Pacific island or in a cave in Afghanistan, and so they do know about all the branded characters from all the other channels: they know who Spongebob is, and Hannah Montana (though they’ve never seen either show).  The kids at their school are literally covered in these characters; Valentines Day presents a veritable Who’s Who of America’s Most Heavily Merchandised Media Properties; they see movies at school; most birthday parties they attend have a branded character theme.  But on only a handful of occasions have either of them expressed any desire for anything related to these characters or brands (Cars — the movie — is an exception: we all love Cars!).  My daughter “likes” My Little Pony and Littlest Pet Shop; my son “likes” Transformers and Batman and Spiderman; but I think this is more because they resonate on sight with these things (even though they know nothing about them!) and are identifying with things their peers identify with, not because they are seeing a constant repetitious barrage of messaging about these things.  And so their desire is far from intense. They might see something in a store and say, “Oh look, it’s Spongebob!” but they are not begging me, or nagging me, for anything.  So though they know enough about these brands and characters to have an affinity for them, the lack of advertising they’re seeing about them might be making the difference.

I didn’t plan this, and so I can’t really take credit for any brilliant strategy that I can now pass along to other parents.  I grew up in a house where TV just wasn’t that important (other than 60 Minutes, weekend sports and the Pink Panther) — books and music and conversation and time outside were important — so it was natural that that basic philosophy would bleed over into my own household (plus, the sound of most kids shows drives me insane; another product of my quiet childhood household, undoubtedly).  My husband’s upbringing wasn’t exactly identical, but he agrees with me for the most part, and is very happy with the end result.

But with the hindsight I have now, there are a couple of things that I suspect probably made a huge difference: the primary one being that we have one TV in the house, and it’s in the basement.  So it’s never on in the background; it’s never a part of dinner, entertaining friends or guests, bedtime, homework or playtime.  You have to go to the TV, and if you want to do anything else, you have to leave the TV.

Another is that I rarely take my kids shopping.  We don’t cruise the toy aisles at Target; they’ve never been in a Toys R Us; we are rarely at the mall.  They don’t see it; and if they don’t see it; they don’t want it (same goes for me, actually).  I don’t take them clothes shopping.  I bring home stuff that I’ve picked out and they are thrilled with it.  They love looking at the toy catalogs we get at home, discussing things with each other and turning down the corners of pages with items that really appeal to them, but I think because they’re so physically removed from these things on the pages, they don’t have that much impact.

So while Red Pill Papa is courageously and astutely tackling the problem head on, I seem to have almost entirely avoided it — for now.  But to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve done the right thing.  RPP’s daughter, by virtue of exposure and training, is already learning — at the age of five — to be a savvy critical thinker when it comes to advertising.  My kids may not know what hit them when the time comes, and more of their lives are spent at other people’s houses or in other situations I have little control over.

Have I done the right thing?  Or have I set my kids (and myself) up for a shock we won’t know how to deal with?

Titling this post made me see the connection with the teen sex-ed debate: whether to teach abstinence only, or fully educate teens about the what, how and why of sex.  Research shows a solidly more positive outcome with the latter approach (see studies published by UCSF and The University of Washington).  I think, from now on, I’ll be looking for, and even creating, opportunities to teach my kids how to fend off this particular foe.

As always, we’d love to know what you think, either by a comment to this post or by taking our poll.  And if you want to really understand the relationship between kids and advertising, I encourage you to read the Red Pill Parent bible (always available in our Red Pill Reference section), Consuming Kids.  It’ll change your life.

– Red Pill Mama

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mandy February 25, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I’m following your plan Susan, and like you I’m unsure of the consequences.

We don’t even have a TV in the house. It wasn’t intentional, but we were so horrified by the cost of a TV when we moved back to NZ we kept putting off buying one, then decided we didn’t need it (partly because I’m a TV addict, so I’m better off being completely without).
Our boys (4 & 2) watch the odd DVD (or 1/2 of one) on our laptop, and they get to watch TV when they go to Nanna & Grandpa’s house once a week. They’ve seen enough to know about the Disney charachters, and some other pre-school shows. I rarely take them shopping as well, only for friends birthday presents, so they do see some stuff, but aren’t exposed to much advertising .

My concern is, will they know enough about the “real world” to be able to communicate with their peers when they get to school? or am I isolating them too much?
I know that I “missed out” on much of the water cooler conversation when people said “did you see that show last night….” but I’m okay with that, how will my kids fare?

Also will they rebel and become TV addicts later in life, as they’ve been so deprived for their childhood? It is after all a genetic trait (I got it from my father….)

Anastasia February 26, 2010 at 7:57 am

How about doing both?

Like you, my son’s TV world consists of Nick Jr. (formerly Noggin), PBS Kids, Sprout, and whatever DVDs we may choose to watch. Now that he’s in school and involved in an extra curricular activity, there is no time at all for TV, and weeks will go by where he hasn’t watched a single show. (Of course, what with me laid up with flu-like symptoms and my husband working from home all week, TV has been my son’s main activity for the past few days. But I’m glad to say that this is the exception, and I hope to be TV free again as soon as I can hold my head up for longer than ten minutes.)

I nurse my daughter while watching TV sometimes (at 14 months, I am ecstatic to say she has no interest in it and has never watched more than five minutes. It’s just not a part of her existence.), and I’ll watch Food Network, or The Golden Girls–and the ads will, of course, make their mark on my son, who says, “Look, Mommy! If you buy that cleaner, it will make the floor sparkle!” However, I started teaching him about the evils of marketing and advertising since he was old enough to string two words together. He knows not to believe commercials, he doesn’t ask for the toys he sees, he says the people doing the voice overs are “lying” and just trying to “make us buy something.” He knows the soda, food and cereal at his eye level at the supermarket are “junk food,” and calls them that, loudly (which can be embarrassing but mostly makes me pat my Red Pill Parent self on the back!).

I’m also with you in that we do not take our son shopping at toy stores–what a nightmare that would be, even without the evil marketing and advertising ploys!

I should say that we don’t live in any extreme. Alex loves trains and cars, and we have a ton of Thomas the Tank Engine toys. Of course, we also have lots of trains that are completely unrelated to anything, and he likes those as well. He loves anything magical and enchanted, and since we watched Snow White, Cinderella, etc., he does have a penchant for toys and activities that are centered around that sort of thing. I cringe, however, when I hear him say “DISNEY princess,” as if that’s the only type of princess there is. He has no idea what he’s saying, of course, but it’s like the word Disney has been burned into his brain.

Sorry for the horribly long comment; love this blog!

Christine March 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Some of us do not have the luxery of going to do errands without our kids. So out of necessity I have discovered my kids understand marketing ploys, and what we can spend our money on or not. They have learned not to succumb to the stimulus. As you stated, the friends at school give them so much education about the trends out there. We also only have 1 TV, upstairs in a room for it and is rarely on during the week. From my experience it is the outside influences that really push the desire for “Stuff”.
My kids hand made 40 valentines each for their schoolmates and family, and they are always the hit of the class, something special in the sea of cold cartoon character cards and pencil holders, we spend weeks ahead of valentine’s day making them, and always have a blast.
I have yet to read the Ped Pill Bible, but I’m off to the park to practice softball with my kids…..

Red Pill Mama April 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Forty each? Wow, that’s impressive. I’m like you: I get a nice little dose of happy satisfaction out of seeing my kids’ creations in the sea of cartoon characters. I don’t know if they even register in the minds of any other parents, but the most important thing is for my kids to feel proud of what they’ve done: which they do! Props to you for being a 1-TV household!

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