I’m working on an article for Geez Magazine, and you loyal readers get a sneak peek. It’s pretty rough. I just wrote it up last night (and stole a couple paragraphs from a previous blog post), but wanted to get some feedback on it. So, without further ado:
Who’s That Big Yellow Bird?
Each week I walk my two toddlers down the hall at the Children’s hospital, past the large statue of an over stuffed yellow bird and up an elevator to our appointment. Sometime’s they’ll point out the “big birdie”, other times they won’t, it’s no more attractive or unique then the moose in the painting ten feet away or the cars in the window of the skyway.
What I haven’t told them, and what they don’t know, is that that large stuffed yellow bird is one of the many adorable characters from a television show that I myself have fond memories of; of Big Bird and the whole rest of the gang. And though I’m sure someone will soon point it out to them (they’ve already learned who Elmo is), I’m in no rush to have Bert, Oscar, or any others media character become my children’s childhood pal.
What’s wrong with Sesame Street? Well, it’s certainly not Power Rangers or Barbie, and I’ve even heard the programming is pretty good (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen the show in at least ten years), but it’s not the characters themselves of the content of the show that bothers me, it’s all the other places those characters manage to show up.
Grover is selling my kids diapers, Oscars peddling fruit snacks and juice boxes, Big Bird’s pimping t-shirts and shoes and Snuffleupagus, don’t get me started with Snuffleupagus. Licensing characters is a multi-billion dollar industry and Sesame Street is the least bad of the bunch, but even they sold out when Elmo (introduced in 1987) became a smash hit in 1996 as a “tickle me” plush toy. And though it’s still a non-profit with support from the government and “viewers like you”, 68 percent of it’s revenue is from licensing. (Thomas 112-113)
An estimated $15 billion dollars is spent each year marketing to children under the age of 18 in the United States. Given that there are only 74 million kids in that age group, that means corporations are spending roughly $200 per child in advertising. You’d better believe they aren’t blowing $200 on your child without knowing they are going to make far more then that back. And if your one of those invincible, unfettered-type who haven’t let advertising affect your purchasing, then that means they are making double their money off the kid down the street.
This isn’t the same as marketing to adults. Most children under the age of ten don’t understand persuasion. They don’t understand that the smiling kids on the commercial are paid actors following an elaborate script with the soul purpose of making them want a product. They don’t understand that when they’re told by their favorite character that this junk food is fun or tasty or cool that it’s a deceptive scheme, not an honest opinion. We know when we see a celebrity or athlete promote a product that it’s an advertisement (that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective), but children don’t. Imagine you discovered that everything your trusted mentor (maybe a pastor) had ever said to you was in an attempt to get you to purchase certain items. You’d be shocked and appalled wouldn’t you?
You remember some of your favorite Saturday morning cartoons? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? He-Man? Strawberry Shortcake? Gummi Bears? They might have been cartoons to you, but to the marketing execs they were called “Program Length Commercials.” That’s right, you spent your Saturday mornings watching informercials for kids so that you’d go out and nag your parents for every product Donatello was on.
I don’t want my children (or myself) to be victims of the same deception. So when we pass the big yellow bird at the Children’s hospital all week, we might say “hello”, but he’s not going to get any special treatment.