Archive for October, 2009

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.


Read Full Post »

I’m not a fan of the genre but Adventures in Zombieland had a funny trailer and if I waited for a good Hollywood flick these days, I’d never get to the movies.

Now there’s an obvious social commentary to zombie flix: that Americans are just walking consumer zombies (anyway), driven by the 24-hour media barrage into a relentless, compulsive hunger willing to suck the blood out of anything and everything — including each other. You could say that’s the subtext for everything from Night of the Living Dead to the Thriller video to Tarantino’s Dusk Till Dawn. But in a two-minute montage, Zombieland gives it the direct treatment via iconic images: a groom awaits his bride, who charges down the aisle then ravages him; a soccer mom is trapped in her minivan by a band of maniacal tween fairy-princesses; father-and-son teams walk away happily from a pick-up football game then suddenly devour each other. It is right after this series that the protagonist — a virgin freshman at UT-Austin (really) — is awakened by the beautiful girl-next-door. Fresh from a breathless escape of a zombie pursuer, she snuggles closely with our hero in a fantasy come true. An hour later she wakes up transformed into a hunchbacked vampirella and the UT virgin has to whack her with a toilet seat.

This five-minute satire on American icons may be the film’s only social commentary but it’s killer: our ideal images are oppressive and infect us like plague. They may even wind up killing us.

And yet of course the film has a happy ending. In this occasionally funny cross-country buddy road flick featuring two guys (35 and 19) and two con-artist sisters (21 and 12) speeding on interstate highways and swerving around piles of bodies and cars, the four eventually come together as a family. The younger sister gains a father figure while the older man triumphs over his grief, re-established as a traditional male protector. The bad girl lets down her guard in return for the adoration of the virgin freshman.

Conclusion?: You gotta love Hollywood formula.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and the Kid still gets the Girl.

Read Full Post »

the brand image and me

It all started with a Splenda ad.  Ok, well there was also the Nutrasweet ad and the Diet Pepsi one and, well, I couldn’t do without the Crystal Light original (featuring Linda Evans!).  My book hit a new snag this past week….securing permissions for “brand images” is, well, pretty much impossible.  I played the proverbial canary in the coal mine, heading out with my trusty research assistant, press-provided Excel “permissions log” in hands.  I started at the top.  My request was a simplified version of my true desire: “I’d like permission to reprint that splendid Splenda ad, the one with the white woman looking on the verge of orgasm, swinging back and forth across a landscape of lollipops with bunnies (bunnies! you see why I need this ad)…for my pathbreaking new history of artificial sweeteners!” Answer: no.  Reason: “brand image” protection.

Diet Pepsi quickly followed suit.

I was flummoxed. How can they possibly make this argument?  They need to protect their brand image?  When I pass a huge sign for diet coke on a billboard, is the brand aware of whether or not I’m yelling at my daughter, making her cry.  Using this logic, they should be because if I am, and she happens to be looking at that icy can of Coke while tears escape her eyes, that’s doing some serious damage to brand image.  How about the web page pop ups?  Does Diet Pepsi have any idea what I’m looking at on that other side of the split screen?  Of course not, and they don’t care–as long as I’m thinking about the brand, period, it’s all good in modern marketing.

In fact marketing companies have gone to great lengths to stop protecting their brand image–that’s the whole point of viral and grassroots marketing campaigns: put the product in the hands of human message vectors & let them take it from there.  These techniques have made advertisements as ubiquitous as the ether, and a lot of money for companies to boot.  We’re the ones who need protection, not brands.

If we are, as Liz Cohen suggests, “consumer citizens,” then it’s time to add a new one to the bill of rights: to do whatever we want, whenever we want, with any brand image we should encounter.

Read Full Post »

Numbing Numbers

I found this video of photographer Chris Jordan:

He’s a photographer who graphically represents some pretty stunning and sobering phenomena: the number of plastic cups used daily on airplanes, the number of people in prison in US prisons, the number of breast augmentation surgeries in a given year. And so on. His photos try to capture the phenomena in interesting ways — taking a picture of 2.3 million prison uniforms, or however many plastic cups, and so on and so forth. The photos are beautiful and the project, overall, is quite clever, and asks a really old question: how do we show what seems unshowable?

But strangely, despite his pronouncement that there’s a “strange anesthesia” in America about these phenomenon, I couldn’t help but feel the numbers wash over me — 2.3 million, 4.7 billion, 230,000 — as if the sheer number of numbers was more numbing than everything else.

Read Full Post »

This Day in History

One hundred and sixty-five years ago today, on October 22, 1844, the world was supposed to end.  As you may have noticed, it did not, and while humanity’s continued plodding may be a source of relief to you and me, to the most fervent believers in the October 22nd scenario, the failure of history to climax on that date became known as the Great Disappointment.   Nearly a quarter million otherwise very normal Americans heard the preaching of William Miller, a farmer from Upstate New York, and came to believe, with him, that the Bible foretold Christ’s return to earth on a fall day more than eighteen hundred years since his last appearance.

We, of course, are too sophisticated to believe in such hooey.  The wonderfully smart students in my class on apocalypticism in American culture are sensitive enough to look for meaning—psychological and sociological, mostly—in the tale of the Millerites, but they, and I, also can’t help express a bit of condescension at the rubes who sold their farms and embarrassed themselves in anticipation of the end.

But we sophisticates must tread lightly here.  In my more sober moments I am tempted to call the Miller phenomenon an example of “irrational exuberance,” recognizing that it was no more irrational or exuberant than our own millennial dreams.  The very markets about which Alan Greenspan spoke when he coined the term have proven that.  Mr. Greenspan himself—our William Miller, disgraced prophet of bliss—has been forced to recant, telling Congress a year ago this week that the Crash of 2008 revealed a “flaw” in his previously unassailable faith in self-regulating markets.  A year has passed, and little has been done to learn the lessons of 2008, the lessons of Greenspan’s flaw.  After the Great Disappointment, the vast majority of Millerites returned to their farms, families, and lives; we, on the other hand, continue to wait on the mountaintop. The Millerites are looking less and less crazy all the time.

Read Full Post »

the pink

Three years ago my friend brought me upstairs into her extra bedroom and asked me to pick out something for myself.   The room was filled with pink objects—picture frames, t-shirts, plaques with snappy sayings.  She had been fighting stage-four breast cancer for five years.  The disease had stopped progressing, and she was hopeful.  The whole thing was uncomfortable.  I had already decided what I’d thought about these objects that had sprung up out of the ether around 2005 promising to “find a cure” in the most unlikely of places: through the pink Kitchen Aid mixer (only $300, 10% to the Kommen foundation!!), the ribboned box of Special K, and the ubiquitous bumper stickers, fridge magnets, and coffee mugs screaming pink.  All of it was all relentlessly positive, none of it did much to cure cancer, and it conflated shoppers with those fighting a debilitating, painful, and frightening disease.  People who had cancer were fighting cancer.  People making banana bread with a pink mixer were making banana bread.  That day in the spare room I quickly picked out a silver keychain, the smallest thing I could find.

She died August 10th.  On August 13th I went to my office, took the silver key chain off the bulletin board, and spent two hours in my garage digging through old photos in frantic search for a tiny version of her that I could put inside.   I put my keys on the keychain and often took the locket out to look at it at odd moments during the day.  Sometimes I reached into my bag and traced the ribbon design.  It now hangs on a hook by my front door.

This past weekend her partner came to visit me for the first time and when I asked her if she ever got angry she said only once, when she found a plaque someone had gifted that had a list of things “breast cancer can’t take from you.”  Answer: “your smile,” “your love,” “your courage.”  It turns out, she said, in the end when you die of cancer it can and does take all of those things and more.

And yet the next day when we went to Target, as my kids were wreaking havoc on the toy aisle, I turned around to find her off to the side, transfixed by a display of Pink Ribbon objects.  She picked up the pins and held the cups and read the plaques.

She had seen each of these things a million times and probably had many of them in her house (breast cancer “survivors” acquire archives of pink, for all occasions).  Yet she had to touch them, as if lighting candles at a shrine.

I still resent corporations that convert individual suffering into brand enhancements.  I suspect that all of the pink ribbons (or pink key chains) I see don’t flow into dollars donated to cancer research.  And, in spite of that, I see the value of pink.  In the most unlikely of places (in the baking aisle, while buying tennis balls, when opening the door to the house) via that pink we are reminded of those who are gone.  In a culture where we spend as much time consuming as ours, opportunities for material memorialization like this are important, maybe more than we imagine.  Sure, these objects represent a whole lot of corporate crap and marketing mania.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they seem—every now and then—able to transform an everyday moment into something else entirely.

Read Full Post »