Total Length: 2875 words ( 10 double-spaced pages)
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Selling (to) Kids: Advertising, Children, Youth and Commercial Culture
Advertising for children and youth has always had a special appeal. Gen X’ers remember the Toys ‘R’ Us song, “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid,” and link it to their childhood—even if they never went to a single Toys ‘R’ Us store. They invariably saw the commercials multiple times if they had a TV in their home. The commercials showed children blissfully happy because they had toys galore—and the aim of the ad campaign was to get kids interested in consumerism. On the surface, it seems like a harmless engagement. However, from the standpoint of critical theory, turning kids into consumers perpetuates the power structure of the capitalist system in the U.S.—that is how the Frankfurt School would argue it. This paper will use critical theory—the idea of the Frankfurt School that media can be deconstructed to reveal the sociological and psychological dynamic between the ruling class and the working class. Using critical theory it will examine 3 ads from different companies to show why when President Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business,” he could have easily been talking about the way corporate America peddles cheap toys to kids via the commercial culture and ropes them into the club of endlessly buying.
According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry and consumerism were responsible for turning human beings in the 20th century into empty, vacuous, sated buyers of goods and services that they really had no need or use for (Jeffries). Whybrow notes that “the human animal is a curiosity-driven pleasure seeker easily seduced” (111), and that this seduction is particularly the purpose of the commercial culture. Bernays, after all, understood how to use psychology to lure adults into desiring what companies had to sell them—all by using advertising to appeal to their senses and stimulate their impulses (Jones). The same method applies for advertising to children and youth: by appealing to their natures as children, they can become consumers for life, chasing the dream of commercial happiness all throughout adolescence and adulthood, so long as they continue to submit themselves to the commercial culture.
In the vintage 80s Toys ‘R’ Us commercial, the toy company advertised its products to kids by featuring several children over the course of the 30 second spot all singing along to the same song promoting Toy ‘R’ Us toys. The song became like a gold record among kids in the 80s, and as Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson state, after seeing the commercial, the “Toys R Us kid would likely entreat his mother to reveal which of the toys she was planning to buy him the following day, sincerely believing that this knowledge would make him happy” (121). Thus, the child would be absorbed into the world of commercialization at a young age, uniting childhood innocence and happiness not with any type of spiritual joy but rather with materialism. The child in the 80s toy commercial lived in a room surrounded by Toys ‘R’ Us products and rode a giant toy train in a circle around her room. Her room was like toy paradise—and the way to paradise was through the spending of money on toys. Some kids in the commercial only one had one toy—a bike, for example, which was being peddled down the sidewalk, evidently showing that the child was on his way, racing into adulthood where the toys he would prefer would be cars, clothes, electronics and so on. The important thing, from a critical perspective, was that the child link happiness to consumerism and make joy synonymous with the possession of “stuff.” Were George Carlin alive today, he would surely make the connection between the Toys ‘R’ Us commercial and the perpetuation of consumerism: the culture industry was planting the seeds of consumerism into the child targets of its advertising. As Jurin et al. point out, “Consumerism is more than just buying stuff; as George Carlin would say, it is about a way of life. In 1776, advertisements did not exist as we know them today” (40)—and that is because the way of life has changed: the true rulers of the U.S. emerged following the Industrial Revolution. America became a business, as President Coolidge indicated in 1925 and as Paddy Chayevsky reiterated in the film Network when Arthur Jensen pronounces, “The world is a business, Mr. Beale!”
But toy companies were not the only ones capitalizing on childhood innocence by luring children into a lifestyle of patterned behavior based on the desire to consume.
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The fast food industry also had an incentive to get them young—and that is why in two McDonald’s commercials, each a fifteen second spot, the fast food behemoth uses knowledge and technology to identify itself with natural childhood tenacity, curiosity and the desire to learn and use technology. In the first fifteen second spot from a 2018 campaign for Happy Meals, McDonald’s shows a young African American family: Mom, and two small children seated at a clean booth in McDonald’s by the a large window on which the bottoms of the “Golden Arches” can be seen. The same arches are prominently displayed on the tops of the two Happy Meal boxes that sit atop the booth table. African American Mom is clearly working class—she is wearing a blue plaid button up (unbuttoned) overtop a green-gray t-shirt. Little Miss is sitting upright by her side and across the table is Junior sipping on his milk. The focus of the commercial is not the food—but the fun and games that come with enjoying a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Thus, the commercial uses the “fun” factor that Toys ‘R’ Us exploited in the 80s and unites it with its need to sell food to consumers. The Happy Meal is a way to get the kids in the door early and get them to be lifelong consumers—and the hook that the Happy Meal comes with in 2018 is made possible by McDonald’s partnership with National Geographic Kids. The commercial shows that in the Happy Meal are National Geographic Kids Weird but True fun fact cards that tell the consumer all about something weird but fun found in nature. The commercial shows Little Miss reading the card over her Chicken McNuggets, which appear in the background, crisp, golden and delicious-looking. In her left hand is a single golden fry ready to be consumed. After Little Miss reads the weird but true fun fact, Junior makes a joke about milk and the family laughs. The commercial ends with the viewer, if a child, likely lured into thinking that he must get Mom to take him to McDonald’s fast so he can get a fun fact card and have a good time eating good food and learning. The commercial uses a child’s natural desire to learn about the world as a way into the child’s heart. If the Frankfurt School is about using critical theory to show how “cultural forms have the power to construct 'false needs', to indoctrinate and manipulate men and women into social conformity and subordination” (Nava 2014), the McDonald’s commercial uses images of food, family happiness, and learning to create in the child a “false need” for trivial information that comes in the form of a fun food box.
This “false need” is equally made apparent in the company’s other 15 second spot, which shows an African American family—this time Dad and two Little Misses, the young girls on either side of the booth and the Dad in the middle on the window seat. Dad is wearing a gray-green plaid button up shirt (also unbuttoned) to show his working class ethic. The Golden Arches are on the window behind and are again featured on the Happy Meal boxes which also show a golden yellow happy face smile on their fronts, reinforcing the idea that when kids go to McDonald’s they have a lot of fun there. The commercial does not showcase its weird but true fun facts gimmick. Instead it focuses on tweens’….....