One of the laments we often hear about the state of childhood in America today is that childhood has become commercialized. Our news media and bookstore bookshelves regularly feature stories about how American children are barraged by advertising and marketing: the average child views 40,000 television commercials a year, children as young as three can recognize brand logos, kids these days are “born to buy.” There is no question that children are exposed to an inordinate amount of advertising and consumer messaging in their daily lives–just as adults are. However, it’s sometimes easy to forget that what appears to be the latest “crisis” in childhood is not exactly so new. I was reminded of this recently when I showed students in my popular culture class a clip from the 1950s children’s program, “The Ding Dong School.”
“Ding Dong School” (1952-1956, NBC) was hosted by Dr. Frances Horwich, an educator who pioneered the idea of interacting with her young viewers through the television set (an approach Mr. Rogers perfected years later). “What day is today?” she would ask, then pause to give kids at home time to answer, “Friday.” The content was meant to be educational and culturally enriching. Like any other television show, however, “Ding Dong School” was commercially sponsored, and “Miss Frances,” as she was known, regularly pitched products to her young viewers. The clip I showed in class was of Horwich hawking Wheaties. You can watch the clip on YouTube here. Viewing this ad, we are reminded that direct advertising to children is nothing new. Holding up a Wheaties box, Miss Frances asks kids at home, “What do I have? [pause] What do you think it is? [pause] Say it with me–Wheaties!” She proceeds to instruct her young viewers, “When mother goes to the store, you help her find the new Wheaties box… I’ll tell her about it. You tell her about it, too. Please.” This naked appeal to children to develop brand loyalty, to think like consumers, and to influence their parents’ spending is arguably no less sinister than what many Americans rail against today as the “newest” threat against children.
There is in fact a long history in the United States of manufacturers marketing their goods and services to children, using a variety of direct and indirect means. Boxes of Cracker Jack started coming with toys inside them in 1912. In the 1930s, many toymakers began appealing directly to children (previously they had targeted parents with their advertising). Pinocchio toys were in production a year before the release of the Disney film in 1940.
There is similarly a long history of adults fearing that children are being unduly influenced by consumerism. In 1902, for example, social reformer Jane Addams observed starkly, “Has our commercialism been so strong that our schools have become insensibly commercialized?… Is it possible that the business men, whom we in America so tremendously admire, have really been dictating the curriculum of our public schools?” And in 1956, Dr. Frances Horwich resigned from NBC because she was concerned that children’s TV programming had become too commercialized.
Watching Miss Frances sell Wheaties in class this week, and reflecting on this broader historical context, reminded me that many of our contemporary fears about American childhood have been around for a long time. I was also reminded of a lament expressed by many scholars who study the history of childhood: As a society, we tend to do a much better job of complaining about the state of childhood than of actually working to change and improve the lives of children.