How American Children Earn Their Keep
Print, December 1992
Children support the economy, no longer as unskilled laborers, but as savvy consumers. And for this they must be trained.
One hundred years ago, one sixth of the children in America were working in cotton mills and factories. Their fate was worse than that of slaves. Dressed in rags, poorly fed, harshly disciplined, they were busy from dawn to dusk cleaning machines. Laws banning Child Labor were voted in 1933, a full sixty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Our children were not spared for humanistic reasons. The new laws were designed to prevent the grossly underpaid five to twelve year-old from undermining the earning power of their parents.
Today, the idea of competing for a job with a child is unthinkable. Children are not allowed to work for a living, however they still must earn their keep. They are expected to do their share to support the economy — not as unskilled laborers, but this time as savvy consumers. And for this they must be trained. We subject them to a severe apprenticeship, following an inflexible daily practice schedule: as soon as they come home from school, children grab a snack and sit in front of the tube. American kids watch an average of 3.5 hours of television every day, a yearly time period equivalent to 50 days of reinforced consumer education.
Children are a lucrative market. Toys "R" Us ranks above ITT among the Global 1000 companies on the international scene. The preferences of young consumers, also called "influencers" by Madison Avenue, are taken into consideration by manufacturers of packaged goods, fast food, snacks, electronic gadgets, apparel, shoes, and, last but not least, toys. The sales of toys in 1991 were at an all-time high — $9.2 billion — growing at a 5% rate, a very healthy figure in the sluggish economic climate. In TV time only, toys represent a 500 million dollar market. A 30-second spot on a Saturday morning cartoon show can run as high as $50,000. There is a lot of money riding on the little tykes parked in front of the tube.
"Watching advertising on television is a child's first introduction to what it means to be a consumer in the U.S.," says Dr. Arthur Prober, Director of CARU, Children's Advertising Review Unit, a self-regulatory organization established in 1974 by the advertising industry to promote responsibility and respond to public concern. "Kids are such a vulnerable audience and parents have little time to monitor their TV watching. We want to make sure that children are given the right 'tools' and the appropriate information to appreciate the diversity of available choices."
CARU's guidelines, addressing print, broadcast and cable television, encourages advertisers, for example, not to mislead children about product performance and benefits, not to exploit a child's imagination, not to portray violence, not to create a sense of urgency or exclusivity and not to pressure children into asking their parents for toys.
CARU's employees are paid to watch the programs the kids watch during their so-called free time; they follow through with notifications requesting changes when they think advertisers are ignoring the guidelines, or grossly misrepresenting their products on the screen.
Usually, by the time a CARU's complaint is processed, the delinquent advertising campaign is over and the damage is done. Is the system working? Are our children still exploited by ruthless employers and are we risking their future to benefit our economic prosperity?
Stuck on the wrong side of the screen
Granted, watching television is not as hazardous as cleaning heavy manufacturing equipment, but it is still overwhelmingly stressful — and just as jarring and strident. Mesmerized by the flickering lights and enthralled by the high pitched voices of the cartoon characters, the young viewers are subjected to images that trigger a heighten sense of fear, drama and uncertainty. In spite of CARU's well-meaning guidelines, there is still violence, loud music, excitement. Will the hero die? Will the villain survive? Will justice prevail?
Stuck on the wrong side of the screen, unable to come to the rescue of their heroes, the kids watch the programs with a mounting sense of urgency. Feeling restrained and defenseless, they react with increased restlessness and anxiety. They've got to get involved — quickly. The commercials offers them a way in. Getting the toys, drinking the sodas, going to the fast food restaurants, all these activities suddenly are endowed with a sense of mission. They give the helpless viewers a means to regain control. Give me the most advanced electronic games, the cutest dolls, the latest Ninja Turtles. Let me play a part. Give me a piece of the action.
Television is a lot more than a "tool". It is a toy. It is, in fact, the ultimate interactive toy. That's why no amount of regulation will ever change the nature of our television experience. The advertising industry self-regulatory guidelines are misleading us into thinking that responsible toy advertising can make a difference. However, telling toy manufacturers how not to advertise their products is like trying to tell an infant how not to play with a rattle. The mesmerizing television images are as irresistible as colorful noisemakers.
Kids treat televised information the way babies treat their first educational toys: mouth first. They don't want to compare, analyze or test the products. They want to get a taste of it, and they want it now.
Like the toy advertising, the toy merchandising techniques capitalize on the fact that kids have an acute sense of immediacy. Renée Sweeney, Creative Service Director at Tyco, tries to recreate on the packaging the vivid visual appeal of the television screen. "We use every trick in the book to build brilliance in the ink," she says. "We experiment with sparkles, fluorescence, perlescence, you name it. Kids expect our packaging to be as bright as what they see on TV. Shades of pink, purple and violet attracts girls. Boys like bright red, orange and chartreuse." To evoke the ultimate toy — the tube — she mixes cartoon illustrations with realistic photography, busy layouts with crisp messages, enhanced definition with soft focus. It's like trying to do MTV without video or stereo technology. "It's unfair competition," she says, "our medium is cardboard, not fiber optic."
Realism is the latest trend
Aggressiveness sells. Explicitness pays. In fact, Tyco offers some of the most thought-provoking toys on the market today. "Crash Dummies" is a widely successful toy that features stick figures who are strapped in cars and can be savagely dismembered in wrecks.
"Magic Potty Baby" is a doll that sits on a potty that fills up with a yellow liquid, gurgles and empties itself "with a real flushing sound."
"Baby Feels So Real" comes with a bony skeletal structure.
Even more frightening is "Baby Shivers", a malnourished-looking plastic infant that gets the chills when you undress her. To stop her from trembling, you must hold her tight, her frail body against your chest weighs a little less than her head.
When asked if realistic toys are here to stay, a Tyco representative remains non-committal. "The most interesting trend today are line extension toys," she says. "'Arielle The Little Mermaid' is a spin-off from the film. She is becoming as big as Barbie. She has multiple alternate wardrobes and accessories. We think she will remain strong for years."
To survive more than a season, a new toy today needs to be more than a play thing, it needs to be a concept: a product, like Ronald McDonald, a cartoon character, like a Ninja Turtle, or a film star, like Michele Pfeiffer catwoman in Batman II. In the August 23rd issue of the New York Times, President Bush was shown on the campaign trail, waving victoriously a doll of his wife, Barbara. Art imitates life. Commerce imitates politics. Reality imitates fantasy.
A brand new generation of toys goes even further: they probe into a child potential traumatic experiences. "Baby All Gone" allows little girls to force food down the throat of reluctant infant dolls, in a let's-pretend-she-is-anorexic game.
"Magic Diaper Baby" unveils another neat game, a mock pregnancy test for girls who want to know the sex of their miniature diapered dolls. Last but not least, the "Mommy-To-Be-Doll" comes with a removable baby (born cesarean style) and an optional "Father-To-Be". Both $20.00. Mother plus child are a package deal, together they cost as much as daddy.
"Sexism? We don't use that word."
Some toys are not kidding around with sexual stereotypes. "Don't preach," advocates Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacall, an ad agency specializing in products for children. A savvy marketer, he knows what to do, and what not to do, to make kids listen to his client's message. Put it to music. Move it along. Make it fun. He also knows how to handle calls from journalists.
"There is no sexism in toys," he said in a recent phone interview. "We don't use that word. We help children find their identity by reinforcing their play patterns. Boys and girls have definite preferences, and sexual identification through toys is a healthy part of their development."
When it comes to figuring out what is good or bad for children, the advertising community shamelessly denies accountability. "The toys manufacturers are responsible advertisers," said a public relation executive who asked not to be named. "They are careful not to misrepresent the appeal or quality of their products. It is up to the kids' parents to decide on the value of a toy." Bob Garfield, Advertising Age editor at large, sums it up: "The fact is, the ultimate responsibility for dealing with slick' n' sleazy kids marketing is ...with the parent."
The "parent" (singular) stands alone. It's one against all. "It is almost impossible for parents to combat the powerful imaging and stereotyping proposed by the media," says Jeri Robinson, director of Early Education program at the Boston Children Museum. A pre-school specialist and a mother herself, she tries to help parents find alternative solutions to commercial toys. She knows how tough it is for both kids and parents to fight the persuasiveness of Madison Avenue. "So many toys portray the blackest kind of sexism, yet they are seductive because they 'grammarize' certain kind of play patterns. Kids are caught. It looks like fun. They want it. Parents, who have less time and feel guilty, are easily convinced."
When a six-year old asks for the latest "Totally Hot, Totally Cool, Totally Hair Barbie", a best-selling Mattel doll with a mane that reaches to her ankles, her busy Mom (too busy to get her hair cut) does not have the heart to say no.
Guilt is the name of the game. Demographic patterns show that toy sales profit from an ever increasing sense of guilt.
New parents feel guilty: they wish they could offer their new baby the hand-me-down toys they inadvertently threw away long ago. They buy a lot of new toys in an attempt to recapture the lost feeling.
Grandparents, who are generous toy-givers in the first place, feel guilty: they live far away from their family and have more fun than their own parents ever did at the same age. They buy toys to show that they still care.
Divorced parents are the most guilt-ridden group, and each one, competing for their child's affection, buys toys on numerous occasions.
Mothers — all mothers — feel guilty, not matter how much time they dedicate to their family.
Understanding the motivations of mothers is as critical to toy manufacturers as understanding the motivations of children. Market researchers, who rely heavily on focus groups to figure out what kids like, conduct special sessions with mothers to analyze their "yes" versus "no" reactions.
A toy that can convince a mother that her son or daughter will be happier gets the green light. But what provokes a child's merriment? A sturdy, well made natural wood airplane that does not fly is more likely to get her vote than a gallant (but junky) little flyer made with sticks, rubber bands and paper. In her search for "quality" products, a concerned mother overlooks the raison d'être of a toy — its power of enchantment.
Boredom is a defensive system
The appeal of a toy is its playfulness, a quality that can only be measured in action. To find out if a toy is "working", you have to try it. TV commercials show kids engrossed in play and recreate the feel of the real thing with vivid sound effects and dramatic editing. It is so convincing, it makes you envious. But nothing is more frustrating for a child than watching someone "demonstrate" how to have fun. Remember how young children grab toys away from each other, competing not so much for the possession of the object, but for the possession of that magic moment when the toy becomes pure experience and pure fascination.
According to Art Ulene, M.D. and Steve P. Shelow, M.D., authors of Bringing Out the Best in Your Baby, playing is a function of the development of the brain. The choice of a toy, even for an infant, is motivated by a physiological need: to gradually unfold the capabilities of his or her sensory system.
Babies form their perceptions of the world on the basis of what they see, hear, feel, smell and taste, a process that cannot be rushed. Boredom, called "habituation" by psychologists, is a defensive system. When a child rejects a toy, it is usually because it offers too much or too little stimulation. Too much can harm the child. Too little can slow down his or her development.
Watch kids watch television. Glued to the tube, they are sorting out information of the utmost importance. They are lost in contemplation, like soothsayers. Last April, the New York Times published an article exploring some of the latest findings on the effect of television watching on children. "While watching television, children tend to burn fewer calories per minutes than when doing nothing and almost as few as when sleeping." A twelve to sixteen percent drop in metabolic rate can be expected. In other words, a child goes into a trance-like meditative state. "The youngsters' metabolic rate falls lower than it would be if they just sat still doing nothing."
This altered state of consciousness is a form of alertness. Growth is a process monitored by the brain. Television watching is so challenging, it mobilizes the child's innermost mental resources. With a drop in metabolic rate, the body quiets down and the brain's activity shifts, producing more alpha waves — a rhythmic cycling of electrical responses often assimilated with deep thinking. When children watch television, they are not "doing nothing," they are very busy indeed. They are deciphering the deeper meaning, not the superficial content, of the media message.
Nickelodeon, Viacom's cable TV network for kids, has done extensive research to understand their potential viewers' unique way of thinking. Their findings proved that children scrutinize television with more than just entertainment on their mind. They want to figure out what the world is all about, and what they find out can be very disturbing to them. The network's most profound discovery, and the key to their programming, revealed that, unlike their predecessors, kids nowadays don't want to grow up. "We asked why," says Marshall Cohen, executive V.P. of research and planning for MTV Networks. "They started talking about all these horrible things [they see on TV]... drugs, AIDS, sex problems. They were worried about nuclear war, the environment, homeless people, their parents, and somewhere down that list they were worried about getting good grades."
Most networks try to draw their own self-regulating guidelines regarding children's programs. For example, ABC commissioned a Stanford University study to understand how children respond to TV toy commercials. The researchers were careful to show their young subjects advertising spots that did not over-glamorize the products, avoiding unrealistic settings, too much animation or too much live action. "We found that children are very savvy," says Seth Geiger, who managed the project with Byron Reeves. "Except when they have no experience to compare with. Boys have no concept of what girls toys are all about, and vice-versa."
When children look glassy-eye and distracted, they are often focusing on an invisible dilemma. During a focus group conducted by Doyle Research Associates in Chicago, Adam, a fifth-grader, was not listening. He was looking out the window or mindlessly waving one arm above his head. At the end of the session he pointed at the ceiling and asked, "What are those for?" The interviewer tried to evade the question and said the room was decorated to look nice. "Not that," Adam said. "What are the microphones for?" Adam was savvy. His strange behavior was the result of a conscious choice: he did not want to speak on the record.
Kids are deeply suspicious about adults' motivations and we should be grateful for that. It proves that they are constantly learning. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything must be inspected. To learn, grow and develop, a child instinctively looks for new material, new ideas, new challenges and new options. A new toy is first and foremost a novelty — and a novelty is a chance to try, experiment and explore. So yes, a healthy child should have a lot of toys and watch a lot of television.
"TV is one of the most powerful, cost effective instruments of education the world has ever known," wrote Peggy Charren, founder and president of Action for Children's Television (A.C.T.). A fierce advocate of the October 1990 Children Television Act that limits advertising in children's programming to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends, she nonetheless supports a broadening, not a narrowing, of television viewing options. "I didn't want to use censorship tactics as a way to change television. " she wrote in 1990.
Today, she is less optimistic. "Limiting advertising time is not enough." she said in a recent phone interview. "What's most harmful to children is the fast pace, chopped up and jarring quality of the latest commercials. Kids are subjected to constant interruptions. The 10.5-minute limit on advertising does not include all the station identification spots and programming announcements. We are acting as if the latest regulations were doing our kids a favor. In fact we are being deceptive."
Hopefully, as children grow older, they will become increasingly more able to pay attention to important information and increasingly more able to ignore irrelevant one. CARU suggests parents help children become discriminating by explaining to them how advertising strategies work.
But the CARU step-by-step parent's guide manual requires a high level of marketing sophistication to decipher. "Ask your child to decide which elements of the advertising story provide information about the product and which parts are not relevant to a purchasing decision." No kidding! Show me a parent that can do that and I'll show you an advertising executive. The hidden cynicism of the CARU brochure is the advertising industry's most damming evidence.
The Parenting experience
"Parents who really care about the quality of their children's education must try to fix the situation at the ballot box, not the TV box," says Charren, who believes that the deregulation philosophy of the Reaganomics is responsible for the way we exploit our children. But we cannot blame our problems solely on the politicians — we elect them, after all.
A former art director for Parenting magazine, I have experienced child exploitation first hand. I used to interact with children on a professional level during tedious casting calls and laborious photo sessions. Enthusiastic about their kids modeling, parents would explain that it was a way to pay for college education. The little boys and the little girls thrived on the attention. Many were born actors and most loved to ham it up. They had watched a lot of television.
Not allowed to "work for a living", they nonetheless all wanted to be "pros". They had been told that to be successful, one has to pay one's dues. They would sit patiently in crowded airless rooms, undress hastily in location vans parked on the side of the road, act cute even though it was rainy and cold.
Terrible Twos would bravely model scratchy sweaters with tight shoes.
Six months old babies, competing to get a shot at the cover of the magazine, would smile at me obligingly.
Toddlers, still in diapers, would share with me their milk and their stuffed tiger during our lunch breaks. In three years, I almost never heard a child cry.
Even surrounded and protected by parents, baby-sitters and well-meaning adults, the children were vulnerable. Their innocence and eagerness to please made them such easy preys. I was always concerned about taking advantage of them unintentionally. I would go home at night filled with gratitude, respect — and shame.
5 - From the pages of Parenting magazine: most kid's rooms in the US look like warehouses
2/5 - Toy advertisers are telling parents how to educate their children
3/5 - The light inside the refrigerator has replaced the flame of the cooktop
4/5 - First the wheels, later the engine: gas-guzzlers are made, not born
5/5 - Most children today love to ham it up. They have watched a lot of television.