Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Commercial impact

Yesterday evening at the grocery store, Josiah was helping us shop. We told him that we needed raisins and pointed him to the raisin shelf. He glanced at the various options, selected a Sun-Maid raisins package to put in the cart, and said almost to himself, "Sun-Maid is proud to sponsor PBS Kids."

Aaauggghhh! Even supposedly non-commercial PBS is indoctrinating our five-year-old into corporate brand recognition and identity. He already makes a consumer choice to prefer Sun-Maid over other brands simply because they sponsor shows on PBS Kids. Sigh. Well, at least it's a healthy choice. Could be worse, I guess. At least he's not saying, "Budweiser is a proud sponsor of Sesame Street."

Ellen and I don't watch much TV, and one reason is that we don't want to put up with the commercials. If we follow a show, like Lost or Alias, we prefer to get the DVDs and watch them straight through, without commercial interruption. The only exception is Heroes. Sometimes we watch it live and mute the commercials; other times we tape it and watch it later, fast-forwarding through the commercials. It's disturbing how the ads tout their products as essential to human happiness and fulfillment - like anyone really needs a cell phone MP3 player or a luxury car that parks itself.

And sadly, product placement within the shows themselves makes advertising even more unavoidable. On Heroes, Claire's new car happened to be a Nissan, with the logo prominently visible (and was promptly followed up at the break with a Nissan commercial to reinforce it, in case you missed it in the show). New character Elle (played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame) holds her cell phone in such a way that the Sprint logo is clearly seen.

Cynical Gen Xers that we are, sometimes we will bust out laughing at the absurdity of the commercial messages. Like the one saying that you can get exclusive preview clips of Heroes sent to your phone - it's a commercial to get you to download more commercials! Or the Target ad that talks about how a percentage of your purchases goes back to community philanthropy - it's pitching shopping as virtuous and charitable. Help the community by buying more stuff! Feel good about your consumerism, because some tiny percentage is being donated to help people! Sad, really. Commercial messaging is so much the air we breathe in our consumer culture. We can do our best to unplug and avoid it all, but it's everywhere.


Anonymous said...

Don't you think that instead of sheltering your son from commercials, it would be better to allow him to watch the commercials and then deconstruct them with him? That way he will learn to be critical of commercial messages.

Al Hsu said...

Sure. And we do so to some extent. I'm certainly not about sheltering my kids from pop culture (though finding it necessary these days to limit how much time they spend in front of the TV). It's just annoying that even though PBS doesn't have actual commercials, they still have these "sponsorship statements" from Kellogg's or Chuck E. Cheese and whatnot. And even educational shows like Sesame Street or Blue's Clues become their own brand properties with their own consumer product empires.

Richard Foster recommends that Christians learn to make fun of ads and commercials and say, "Who do they think they are kidding!" We do some of that. But I'd also say that given childhood development issues, there is a time to deconstruct, and there is a time to just unplug the TV. Either or both are necessary at times!

Anonymous said...

This is why DVR is the greatest invention in tv history. I just fast forward through the commercials so I can watch my shows I want and none of the commercials I don't. I do occasionally stop and watch a few of the commercials I like though. Being a Heroes fan, confusingly, I happen to like the Nissan commercial they show. I think it's pretty clever.
I don't think commercials like that are bad for kids. Others can be questionable about who they target.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking on the stupidity of stores promoting buying their wares as charity! Last winter I was in a coffee shop in Washington D.C. where you could buy a $3.00 bottle of water to "help" the thirsty people of some dry country (sorry I don't remember which). How absurd! Or, perchance, you could SKIP the water bottle, go to the drinking fountain, and send the WHOLE $3.00 to a charity that delivers clean water. Of course, I'm fully aware of my psuedo-hypocrisy here since I probably dropped 15 bucks in this shop on coffees for me and my husband and cholocate milks for the kids....

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to be inundated by advertising and product placement; it's another to give into it. Helping our children understand this is difficult, but it's even harder when we give into the persuasion ourselves.

Marcus Goodyear said...

Your post reminds me of a quote from the movie Wall Street. "Greed is good," the main character says. Greedy CEOs force companies into higher profits which supposedly create a healthier economy for all.

It also reminds me that I need to be careful about how indoctrinated my kids are by commercials and media in general.

We limit "screen time," but maybe we need to deconstruct screen time as well, like Isaac said.