Updated on 04.10.08

Born to Buy: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias

Trent Hamm

This is the fifth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the second portion of the third chapter, starting at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias” on page 51 through the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61.

born to buySince the last discussion, I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of parents living vicariously through their children. I know personally of several examples of this – parents who are permissive with their children and buy their children lots of things because the parent never had these opportunities as a child.

I see where these parents are coming from. They’re looking back at their own childhood and trying to perceive the inadequacies there as an idea of how to improve as a parent. They look back on their own missed experiences and decide that their child will be exposed to those experiences, and they feel personal joy when they see what their child is gaining.

From my perspective, the real filter here isn’t whether you’re giving your child all the opportunities you never had, but whether you’re working to open up the right kind of opportunities. Giving your child an iPod simply because you would have loved one when you were a kid doesn’t really help them become a stronger person, but spending a week with them in the countryside of a foreign nation and exposing them to new cultures in a way you dreamed of as a child can change their world.

Anyway, on with some more thoughts on Born to Buy.

Where Kids Rule, Adults Are the Enemy

On page 54, Schor writes:

Industry insiders and outsiders confirm the antiadultism in much of today’s youth advertising. As one marketer explained to me: “Advertisers have kicked the parents out. They make fun of the parents … We inserted the product into the secret kid world … [It’s] secret, dangerous, kid only.” Media critic Mark Crispin Miller makes a similar point: “It’s part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor. That huge authority has, interestingly enough, emerged as the sort of tacit superhero of consumer culture. That’s the coolest entity of all.”

A while back, I saw an ad for Verizon DSL that really stuck under my skin for a while. In it, a young girl is using the internet to look at a website. Her father attempts to be involved with her learning experience, but he is basically blown off for not being adept at it.

This ad is targeting a mix of people, but it reinforces the idea that a parent is a doofus and that the child is better off without his “interference.” The child is seen as being intelligent and the unintelligent parent is seen as little more than a distraction.

I personally think the ad is fairly humorous, but the underlying implication is there, and it’s repeated in ad after ad after ad. Children seek acceptance and a sense of being valued by adults, and this type of ad caters perfectly to it. The child is seen as equal or superior to the parent with the aid of the product.

If you watch Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel for very long, you’ll see lots of ads with this theme: kids are smarter or cooler than parents or teachers. In one isolated ad, it’s an interesting gimmick – in enough ads, it becomes a reinforced stereotype.

This is, to me, one of the most compelling reasons to limit your child’s television exposure. If my child goes downstairs to watch Hannah Montana, this type of ad is something they’ll see several times. On an individual basis, a child might be able to discern what’s really going on, but with lots of different ads using lots of different angles to reinforce that idea, I’m not surprised that children with a lot of television exposure would seek an antagonistic relationship with their parents.

My solution is as usual: spend a lot of time with my kids away from the television. I’d rather go out in the yard and toss the football around with my son or try to teach my daughter how to do a cartwheel than do something by myself while they watch the latest offering from Nickelodeon. Which of those two experiences reinforces a positive parent-child relationship – and which one reinforces a negative one?

Dual Targeting
A significant portion of this section focuses on dual targeting, a phenomenon where ad campaigns target both parents and children by highlighting different aspects of a product. Schor gives my favorite example on page 59:

Another example of this strategic thinking is Alpha-Bits. The regular version is targeted to moms, because the letters are seen as educational and beneficial for kids and it has less sugar than Alpha-Bits with marshmallows, which is targeted only to kids.

For those unaware, Alpha-Bits is a cold breakfast cereal where the individual pieces of cereal are shaped like letters. As a kid, I have vivid memories of my older brother spelling out obscene messages using Alpha-Bits in his cereal bowl.

It’s easy to see where this goes: the makers of Alpha-Bits is happy if either the parent or the child goes into the cereal aisle and picks out an Alpha-Bits product. So they simply make a “mom” version and a “kid” version and market each to that audience, focusing specifically on the attributes attractive to each. The version for moms is a pretty healthy cereal and a potential educational opportunity – seems good. The version for kids is a marshmallowy sugary fun time – seems good.

This happens over and over again. McDonald’s targets kids with their Happy Meals and parents with their salad line and burgers. Kool-Aid tells parents that it’s an inexpensive way to get Vitamin C and shows kids partying with Kool-Aid Man. (How can I compete with Kool-Aid Man, really? He’s big and red and bursts through walls!)

For me, this is a prime reason to get kids involved in your buying process as early as you can. If you can’t explain to them exactly why you’re buying a product, then why are you buying it? Let them see exactly how you shop – and force yourself to live up to that standard that you want to preach. Actions speak far louder than words.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the final portion of the third chapter of Born to Buy, starting at the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61 through the remainder of the chapter.

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  1. imelda says:

    Haha- how the hell does the same product get marketed as both “a pretty healthy cereal” and “marshmallowy sugary fun time”? Just goes to show you how completely manipulative and dishonest commercials are!

  2. Nathan says:

    This was the most compelling bit from your previous review. I think I knew this was happening on a sub-conscience level, but to have it so clearly demonstrated with real ads and with real evidence is a deeply concerning matter. Good advise on sharing the buying experience with your children and explaining why exactly you buy what you buy…

  3. pbh says:

    i’m currently a college student and i have a bunch of younger siblings. over the years we’ve gone on and off of having any TV programming in the house, correlating directly with the months we get satellite service to watch the world cup.

    when we have things like Disney channel and Nick, my little siblings would watch shows like Dora, the fairly oddparents, lizzy mcguire show, etc.

    meanwhile, i realized that so many of these shows i hated because they perpetuate stereotypes that i’ve found not true at all in my life, and in some cases i think directly exaggerated because of their omnipresence in culture… this is one reason i hate the movie ‘mean girls’: because it was completely unlike my high school experience (‘course, maybe that’s cuz i’m a guy and we’re not bitchy in the same way).

    when there isn’t TV in the house, my littlest siblings would have a steady stream of Dora the explorer, magic school bus, and other shows from the library.

    i don’t know where i’m really going with all this, except this: when i’m a parent, it makes me want to vet all that my kids are watching, including commercials, b/c i wouldn’t want my daughters to end up as catty vacuous bitches by the 6th grade. to this end, i envisioned some sort of DVR system which i would stock with copies of shows like Dora, Bill Nye, etc. and other shows i considered wholesome to some extent. all without commercials, too.

    it’s funny, when my dad talks about some shows he watched as a kid, i kind of roll my eyes, but i think it would be awesome if i were able to be have a treasure trove of shows from my childhood and continuing towards my childrens’.

  4. Vered says:

    I agree with involving kids in the buying process and teaching them why we buy stuff – which is very different than the reasons that advertisers are trying to give us. It goes back to a previous discussion over here that touched on the subject of taking your kids grocery shopping with you. It really can be a valuable learning experience.

  5. It’s the easiest path for marketers to follow, unfortunately. They usually want to sell to everyone, or in this case, every kid, and the quickest way to do so is to use the tired “Kids rule!” theme. It would take more effort and probably more research money to otherwise, while at the same time limiting their target market.

    Those catchy themes and jingles can really stick deep in a kid’s head. While reading your article I was reminded of an old ad for “Fiji Fruits” candy – “Come to the island of Fiji Fruits, Fiji Fruits. Flavors forever, grownups never!”

    They have field-tested the heck out of this tactic and they use it because it works. Kudos to all parents (and friends of parents) who work to instill into children a good sense of questioning the message.

    Nifty News & Decent Deals

  6. Andy says:

    I am in my second week of a marketing class (my first one) and am interested to see if I learn anything really interesting. I have already learned that marketing is different from advertising, but I am excited to see what else comes up. It is definitely an all-pervasive subject. Again, I am completely new to this marketing thing, but one interesting thing I read was a theory that in each industry/field, a certain business model works best, and once that is found, all the companies gravitate toward that. Then they end up so similar that the only thing differentiating them is marketing.

  7. My.cold.dead.hands says:

    I always think that topics like this gives an interesting window into human nature. When a commercial, TV show or ad portrays a group that we belong to as buffoons we see the “overall dire implications”, but when another group is being mocked we declare that “political correctness has gone too far”.

    Personally, I think that this is the opportunity for parents to discredit marketing by not only watching TV with their kids, but heckling the commercials as the come on.

  8. !wanda says:

    Commercial culture didn’t invent anti-adultism. They’re just co-opting a common and wide-used these and using it to sell stuff. Many, if not most, classics of Western children’s literature portray children as triumphing over the malice or stupidity of the adults around them. The Secret Garden fits into this category, as do the Narnia books. Children like these stories; it’s hard not to feel oppressed by arbitrary rules and adult authority figures, at least some of the time. Of course, a lot of these child characters in literature are orphans or are in other situations where their parents aren’t around. So, there’s very little anti-parent, but there is definitely anti-adult.

  9. Your write — “For me, this is a prime reason to get kids involved in your buying process as early as you can. If you can’t explain to them exactly why you’re buying a product, then why are you buying it?…”

    Amen. Advertising is always aimed at the consumer most vulnerable to its message. Whether it’s a big, hunkin’ truck during football games or kids’ stuff and cereal on children’s channels. Parents must be involved in their children’s lives and maintain constant vigilance over what they see on TV. Otherwise, the kids will supplant you with the messages they get on TV.

    I can’t really fault the advertisers that much. They’re just trying to drive the consumer economy. They’re getting paid for a product.

    Parents need to stay involved.

  10. Lori E. says:

    The same tactic is used for stuff like cleaning products, only women are the primary target. How many commercials show a clueless man trying to operate a mop? It is then inferred that the woman is much smarter, since she uses the Swiffer, or whatever.

    There is also a deodorant commercial where all of the bridesmaids use inferior products so they can’t have fun at the wedding, but the bride, who uses the correct deodorant, is having a blast (and is the one getting married, pretty obvious what the message is here).

  11. Michael says:

    I agree with Wanda that rebellion against parents is an old theme. But I disagree that it was one of C.S. Lewis’ themes. In the Narnia books, the wicked children (Edmund and Eustace) thought themselves better than others, the most sophisticated, and party to some exclusive privilege. Those obedient to Aslan were content to be children, as that was their station. Because of this they experienced joys they could not have had if they tried to usurp age and authority.

  12. !wanda says:

    @Michael: Yes, I agree that your analysis is the message an adult would get. However, from a child’s point of view, submitting to the authority of a magical talking lion is different from submitting to the authority of an ordinary adult human being. (Most of the human (and human-shaped, like the witch) adults in the series are not good characters.) In the end, the children still end up saving the day. I wouldn’t call this theme “rebellion”- I doubt a lot of modern commercials advocate outright rebellion- but it is an instance where children possess something and fix problems that the adults around them can’t.

  13. AJ says:

    What about mainstream television? In most sitcoms the fathers is even more immature than his children.Today’s TV fathers are horrendous role models especially for fatherless households.

  14. Jillian says:

    The stuff that’s going on here is part of the reason I don’t want to have kids. I have enough trouble ‘competing’ with airbrushed supermodels on a daily basis without having to worry about cartoon characters who burst through walls as well.

    The trouble is there’s no logical argument. The kid knows real people can’t fly or burst through walls, but fantasy is far more interesting than reality, so he accepts it. The husband knows the model is airbrushed and photoshopped to the hilt, but he chooses not to think about that because it ruins the fantasy.

    You can try and tell them but then you’re just reinforcing the idea that you’re a boring old spoilsport who doesn’t want them to have any fun. What’s a normal, average-looking person with no superpowers to do?

  15. JFunk says:

    Just how obscene were the Alpha-Bit messages your brother created that a “vivid” memory was burned into your brain?

    I laughed out loud when I read that part; you make it sound like a traumatic experience!

  16. Marie says:

    Remind me again, why do people watch tv? I haven’t watched tv in 10 years! I haven’t missed a thing. I get movies at the public library or rent them for 99cents from Redbox and the news off the internet. I refuse to poison my mind with anymore marketing than I have to- it is everywhere! We are being stalked. Get the kids away from the tv!

  17. Tyrone says:

    “Kool-Aid tells parents that it’s an inexpensive way to get Vitamin C and shows kids partying with Kool-Aid Man. (How can I compete with Kool-Aid Man, really? He’s big and red and bursts through walls!)”

    OH YEAH!

  18. Todd says:

    A few thoughts on the contagion of marketing to children:

    1) This is not our first go-round with this type of advertising. I’ll be 40 this year, and I remember the Kool Aid man bursting through walls.

    2) If you share several traits/behaviors with the doofus adults depicted in this marketing, you have bigger problems than being harassed to buy sugary cereals.

    3) You can’t protect your kids (or yourself !) from all forms of communication that cater to a child’s anti-establishment alter-ego. After all, we want them to be smart enough to take care of us, eventually !

  19. We try to be cery careful with how we present the value of money around our daughter. She is still fairly young but before we know it she will be buying into the whole “got to have it now” mentality that some of her friends will have! We have to do our part to let her know that there is a right way and a wrong way.

    Todd’s right in that you can’t protect your child from the billions of dollars corporations spend specifically marketing to our kids! It;s effet can only be minimized.

  20. ablemabel says:

    Trent, this is totally off-topic and I apologize, but I’ve been meaning to ask you if you have read any Alfie Kohn? I know you tend to do a lot of critical thinking about raising children/self development, and he has some very interesting ideas about behaviorism, or should I say against behaviorism. I’m reading one of his books now and find it very… unsettling, yet I can’t help thinking he’s really onto something. It would be really interesting to hear your thoughts on some of his writings.

  21. Tao Kuei says:

    I don’t have kids myself, but I may have one day. My younger cousin watches a lot of those channels. His respect for his parents and for me is quite good considering but he does tend to watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games.

    Today, just before I read this coincidentally, I made him sit wth me and read two pages from a book before he could play on the PlayStation. He seemed to enjoy it because he ended up wanting to not play the console but finish the book.

    Right now he’s too young to go out and play, especially since the neighbourhood we live in in is fairly rough, but were that not the case, I would have taken him out perhaps.

  22. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Just how obscene were the Alpha-Bit messages your brother created that a “vivid” memory was burned into your brain?”

    He put in the extra effort to spell out my name in cereal as part of his secret message.

  23. KoryO says:

    All this talk about Trent’s brother reminds me of this one neighborhood kid who managed to get his Speak & Spell to blurt out obscene messages.

    Ah, memories of innocent youth! ;)

  24. Kate says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious that no one will consider “practical,” kill your TV. That gets rid of the majority of advertising your kids will see during their lives under their parents’ roof.

    There ARE other options. We have a DVD player/projector. So we watch whatever we want, so long as it comes free from the library, and never put up with a commercial. I realize that a good chunk of DVD’s for children are just one marketing wing of a vast army of consumerist crap wearing the Thomas the Tank uniforms, or the Cars uniforms, or the Ice Age uniforms. Still, eliminating the babysitting of the mind that endless TV provides can only benefit children. Even if the DVD’s vetted by parents come with a free dose of addictive marketing, those ads are easier to skip and combat than the ones on TV. Parents can also search out programming for children that DOESN’T include targeted marketing.

  25. Monica says:

    I’m with !wanda. Children doing amazing things without adults/parents is a common theme in children’s stories, and not just in recent years. Think of the Boxcar Children (originally published 1942). Think of all those Enid Blyton mystery stories. The Narnia Chronicles take place in a different world where the children end up without their parents and they have to assume great responsibility on their own. Think of all the stories where the children just “happen” to be orphans, or just “happen” to be away from their parents when adventures happen. I think this is part of what helps children to gradually grow up and become independent people. (Now, actually making fun of parents like the ads you mentioned is something different.)

  26. Jillian-the current culture makes this hard, but not impossible. I have four kids, and they have very little exposure to the media at this point. They’re homeschooled, and we don’t watch TV(DVDs only). At their young ages, I don’t think they’re ready to withstand the marketing that’s out there, so they’re pretty sheltered right now.

    Like Trent advised, though, as they get older we’ll gradually involve them more and more in what we buy, we’ll let them be more exposed to advertising, and we’ll teach them how to see thru the ads.

  27. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    I’ve also noticed the negative messages being shown on tv about both parents and men. The frustrating part is that it’s not even limited to the commercials! A lot of the cartoons out there portray the parents as idiots and a lot of sitcoms portray the men as idiots. It gets very frustrating. I’m totally with the folks that have ditched the tv!!!

  28. DimKnit says:

    OMG! My husband and I were just discussing this. The whole “my parents are sooo dumb” mentality on shows. I know it was there in the shows I watched when I was younger. Maybe it’s because *I’m* the parent that I’m offended.

    We’re going through TV detox at my house. The crappy weather has caused us to go a little loco, and I’ll admit we’re relying on it more to entertain. Before I get the “you’re terrible parent” comments, let me say that we are a VERY active household…we are generally on the go too much to watch. I just realized today, though, that the last week or so the TV has been on too much, particularly in the morning. The noise gets annoying. So this weekend: DETOX! :)

  29. Michael says:

    !wanda, you are right that children will see that Aslan lets the children do things they couldn’t do in England, and that both adults are very sinful too. Still, I don’t think they can miss the theme of obeying good adults and resisting wicked adults by submitting to the “chief adult” even if they are young, because of how Lewis wrote the books. I think children’s marketing is closer to the White Witch’s temptation of Edmund than Aslan’s calling of Lucy, Susan and Peter.

  30. Monica says:

    Michael: I think the children in Narnia are taught to submit to legitimate authority, not to adults in general. Aslan is the supreme legitimate authority, which comes before any other. Peter takes the lead among the children because he is oldest and the High King, but in Prince Caspian Lucy learns that she should have broken away from the others and followed Aslan even if she had to do it all alone. If the authority figure is wrong, you don’t follow them.

  31. Michael says:

    Monica, I agree with you. I think the difference between Aslan’s call and the advertisers is that Aslan chooses the children to be kings in spite of their cleverness while television commercials tell children they should be kings because they are clever. In other words, it’s the Beatitudes versus the Seven Deadly Sins.

  32. SwingCheese says:

    My husband and I have also been having the conversation about how men are portrayed in the media. I remember my father making that comment about the Cosby Show – how Cliff Huxtable was always able to outsmart his children, but his wife always was able to best him. I can’t think of a show in which a husband/wife team is portrayed as a team that works togther, as opposed to adversaries that spar with each other, and each say horrible things to their children about the other parent.

  33. palm says:

    We don’t have a tv and the only screen time our son has ever had is home movies and a few showings of “Cars” on the laptop when he was sick, but it is impossible to avoid advertising messages. Thanks to the other kids in his preschool and swim class he now spends much of the morning chanting, “Mickey, Mickey Mouse!” and can identify characters like Elmo and Big Bird on sight. I can only imagine how bad it would be if we actually watched television.

    It bothers me that despite our efforts to opt out (we live in a city neighborhood virtually without chain stores, don’t have a television, buy foods in bulk and direct from the farm to avoid packaging appeals, almost never drive so there’s virtually no billboard exposure, minimize shopping, spend afternoons and weekends walking through parks, etc.) that at two years old our son is nonetheless fairly engaged with consumer culture. He has never watched television, set foot in a McDonald’s, or read any advertising outside of a few seed catalogs and posters at bus shelters, but it is not enough.

  34. michael says:

    Considering the sad state of education in this country, I surmise that 99.9% of parents are, in fact, complete buffoons. Children, on the other hand, haven’t been completely indoctrinated with their parents’ buffoonery, and are therefore intellectually superior.

    These TV shows and commercials are both appropriate accurate.

  35. michael says:

    Ha! …appropriate AND accurate.

  36. !wanda says:

    @SwingCheese: In the Simpsons, of all shows, Marge never explicitly berates Homer, and it’s quite clear that she loves him and is committed to him even though Homer is a buffoon who sometimes does really stupid things. Actually, you can tell that there’s a lot of love in that family in general, despite everyone’s individual foibles. (This doesn’t mean I think the Simpsons is appropriate for children to watch!)

  37. Jillian says:

    @SwingCheese – Ghost Whisperer. In all my years of watching TV (although admittedly not very much) it’s the only program I’ve seen portraying a loving, respectful husband-wife team. Having said that, I hate the rest of the show but I do like to see a TV ‘couple’ getting along the way a couple should.

  38. MVP says:

    Wow, I’ve honestly never noticed the anti-adult ads, but now that I think about it, they’re everywhere! There’s one in particular I can think of that’s current – it’s a commercial for a cell phone company, where the dad is just made out to be a total doofus. Which brings me to my next point: I noticed this a long time ago with MEN. Just think about it, there are TONS of ads out there making dads, husbands and basically men in general, look like idiots. Argh.

  39. Tomasz Stasiuk says:

    Thanks for articulating the anti-adult bias. It is something I have felt was there for some time, but never put into words…

  40. RE: says:

    I’m with !wanda too. I watched absolutely no TV as a kid and I still thought my parents were lame.

  41. r.alamo says:

    Great article. My son only watches PBSKids which is commerical free and has quality programming such as Curious George, Sesame Street, etc. Parents today need to pay very close attention to what their kids are watching. Some parent believe that because they are watch Disney or Nick, that it can be trusted with wholesome programming.

  42. We aim for moderation and discussion in our house. The amount of TV and what the kids watch has boundaries and for those shows that bring up stereotypes or behaviours that don’t sit within our family values, I like to make the effort to get the kids impression on what they have just watched. The often see things very differently than we do with our adult eyes, so it is always worth the time to check out what they have taken away from the TV show they have just watched.

  43. K12Linux says:

    While part of me would love to shelter my youngest from the manipulation of all ads its just not possible without moving out into the woods. Many schools have started accepting advertising in the halls, on TVs, etc. to help pay the bills. There are programs that give schools free cable TV but the kids are required to watch a specified amount of advertising each day.

    Bottom line is that I think it makes the most sense to follow Trent’s example and be someone to your kids that they can look up to while minimizing their exposure to ads. I’m also planning on trying to instill in my kids a healthy skepticism of anything told to them by someone they don’t know. And an even higher degree of skepticism of those who want to sell them something.

    I’m hoping they will learn the skills needed to be critical of advertising as they get older.

    One of the most useful things I learned in high school in this regard was in a civics class. I honestly hated that class, but it did have a section covering a number of base techniques used to advertise. Things like the bandwagon approach (hey everybody else has it) or the emotion approach (this things will make you happy… so you don’t really need to know details about it.)

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