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Entertainment's Message: 'Buy Me!'

Marketing is targeting younger and younger children. What is the cost of commercializing every activity, including the education of our young?

Disney's latest animated offering is set to open June 19, but "Mulan" merchandise has been crowding toy stores for weeks. At the same time, pundits dissecting the deflated expectations of "Godzilla" have said that a key failure was not getting creature toys in shops far enough in advance of the movie.

Once upon a time, when monks were writing the book by which society lived, it was illegal to make a buck off your brother (since Christianity taught that all were brothers and sisters in Christ, the Middle Ages were not exactly a market economy).

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Today, in a consumer culture where the stories of our time are being written not by wise elders but by market-driven media conglomerates, there is virtually no entity that hasn't been targeted as a potential profit.

And so, as we gaze into our next millennium, the glow of the campfire is replaced with the bright light of commerce. And more and more, the spotlight is on younger and younger children: Students in some 12,000 public schools in the United States now start their days watching commercial-driven Channel One television, and the pre-language set of one- and two-year-olds has its very own PBS "Teletubbies" program, complete with a line of merchandise.

As activists and advertisers debate the appropriateness of targeting children who can't even speak, key questions are receiving fresh scrutiny: What is the true cost of commercializing virtually every human activity, including the education of its young? What are the consequences for a culture when the moral of its larger, shared story is, "Buy me!"?

Profit-driven culture

Depending on your perspective, from Disney to PBS to academics to professional storytellers, it appears that the full story of a profit-driven culture is still being written - and a happy ending is far from guaranteed.

"Whoever tells the stories defines the culture," muses David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. Whether on TV or in film or ads, the stories of our time define our sense of what's important. "They provide a cultural definition of our heroes," Mr. Walsh observes, adding that producers speaking at a recent conference on children and television noted that networks won't even listen to new-show pitches without firm merchandise tie-ins.

"Stories are how a culture explains itself to itself," says Lewis Hyde, professor of art and politics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Stories can teach us how to live with all the challenges of life: death, sexuality, fear, growing up. However, when stories are burdened with the spin of consumerism, "it's a loss," says Professor Hyde, who says that advertisements are the great myths of a capitalist civilization.

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What is lost, Hyde explains, is the sense of separation between the intimate, private sense of self "not possessed of a price tag," and the public self that is subject to exploitation by market forces. This becomes particularly important with children who do not have a fully developed sense of themselves.

"We're seeing a generation of children who are growing up completely outer-directed," agrees Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television (ACT), which closed in 1992, and who is now a visiting scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. While she says there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting the doll from a favorite story, "what's happened now is we've commercialized our entire lives."

Mrs. Charren goes on to observe that children learn that wanting things is good, that it is actually an identity. She laughs ruefully, "You've seen the bumper sticker, 'Whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins'?" That, she says, is the underlying message - "it's the American way of life, it's what drives the economy. How," she wonders, "does a parent say no to a child when the entire culture is saying yes?"

Beyond that, remarks Elana Yonah Rosen, executive director of Just Think, a media-literacy foundation in Sausalito, Calif., "Children raised on a steady diet of products as the end result of a story are being cheated. As a matter of fact," she adds, "so are we. These same children will turn into insatiable, insecure adults. Is that the kind of society we want in the next century?"

Quality, integrity, and the bottom line

In Anaheim, Calif., Disneyland, also known as "the Happiest Place on Earth," has updated its answer to what a future society might look like. The new Tomorrowland theme area opened in May to great fanfare about its subdued shift from a fast-paced high-tech 21st century to a more realistic, human-scale look at how society might actually use technology.

Will children understand the real-life application of the "smart car" attraction called Rocket Rods on a computer-controlled track? Perhaps not, but they are sure not to miss the point of an exit tunnel that deposits them in the rear of a large store.

Paul Pressler, Disneyland resort president and former president of the Disney Stores, says, "The single most important thing in everything we've always done is quality and integrity," not profit, although he points out that Walt Disney himself was a pioneer in bringing outside sponsors into the park from its inception. "After all," he adds, "how can we continue to do what we do so well if we can't make a living?"

Professional storyteller Bill Harley agrees this is a problem faced by all who trade in matters of the heart "with any conscience at all." Motive is the dividing line for Mr. Harley. "I want to have my cake and eat it, too," he laughs, but, he says, it boils down to how much money do you need to live before you compromise the thing you set out to do?

This is the question PBS has faced with increasing urgency. Alice Cahn, director of children's programming, is deeply upset by charges that the Teletubbies exploit a vulnerable population. "Merchandising was never, ever a consideration in choosing that show. Educational content was always first and foremost on our minds," she adds.

But, at the same time, threatened with federal budget cuts, all public broadcasters have been under the gun to "become better businesspeople," she notes. She points to highly successful merchandise lines such as the Children's Television Workshop's "Sesame Street," which put $14 million back into PBS coffers last year, and adds with a rueful laugh, "We are damned if we do and damned if we don't."

What parents can do

Faced with the forces of commercialism (not to mention the demands of a child who must have the latest film-related figurine), what's a parent to do? "The cunning in being a parent is to set up fences that will protect intimacy. Tell your children stories that don't have any burden on them. A good bedtime story works wonders," says Kenyon College's Hyde.

Better yet, advises Just Think's Ms. Rosen, teach children that they can learn to tell their own stories. She finds hope in the rapidly changing technological universe, specifically the Internet, "where everything is interactive."

The industry spends a huge amount of time trying to penetrate our "story," says Rosen. You can't stop the forces of a market economy, she adds, but you can teach children to give the story their own ending.

Will we live happily ever after? Who knows, laughs Rosen, but at least we should know it depends on us, not the number of toys we own.

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