Selling selfishness to children

By Rebecca Hagelin

So just what does McDonald’s put on those Big Macs?

Let’s hear it, everyone 35 or older. A one, and a two, and a … “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”

We also know things go better with Coke, Gillette is the best a man can get, and Dominos delivers.

We know because we’ve heard these themes thousands of times in commercials. We learn a lot from advertisers, and we seem to remember it forever.

This is no accident, of course. Advertising companies spend billions of dollars to determine precisely how to reach children. Some – such as cigarette companies back in the bad old days – perfected the art of bypassing parents and appealing directly to children. They know that children make the decisions on how billions of consumer dollars are spent each year, and they’ve learned how to capitalize on it.

This may not seem so bad when it’s, say, McDonald’s and Wendy’s competing for a kid’s dollar hamburger. But think about some of the slogans kids encounter: “Just do it.” Why wait?” “Obey your thirst.” “No boundaries.” “Got the urge?” In other words, be selfish, instantly gratify yourself, regardless of the consequences. And remember, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

If these are not the messages you want your child to hear and act on – and surveys show that overwhelming majorities of parents fall into this category – it’s up to you to do something about it. One step might be to join forces with the Motherhood Project, an operation of the Institute for American Values. The project has brought together moms from all walks of life and political persuasions who, according to an open letter from the moms to advertisers, have declared themselves “in rebellion against a popular culture that is waging war on our children.”

The Motherhood Project is long on benefit of the doubt, but short on patience with advertisers. “We do not believe that you intend to harm our children,” the letter states. “Perhaps you don’t recognize that you are harming them. But you are harming them with such growing intensity, and with such grave consequences for their well-being, that we have no choice but to challenge you directly as a vital step in reversing the tide that has turned against our children.”

But they want advertisers to take the letter’s contents to heart. They want to see more Chick-Fil-A’s out there – companies that position themselves as family-friendly, dare I say Christian businesses. They want advertisers to cross over to their side in the culture wars with cleaner commercials and more appropriate products. They want executives to truly consider whether it’s a good idea to, say, sell clothes that make young girls look like streetwalkers-in-training. There may indeed be profit in these sales. That doesn’t make them right.

These mothers are ready to talk with companies that want to do better and to extend all manner of understanding to those trying to improve. And they are more than willing to walk away from those that don’t take them seriously.

And let’s not forget, folks – values education begins at home. Many of us need to a look inward and commit to improvement, to lead less media-driven, work-driven and consumption-driven lives. We need to work harder to assert ourselves and our values into the lives of our children. We need to teach them to deconstruct the messages advertisers send. We may not be able to make our homes and schools and families commerce-free, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to minimize advertising’s influence. There is no reason for our children to be bombarded by advertising, marketing or market research in their schools. None. And we should see that they don’t.

Also, we should join the Motherhood Project in urging advertisers to quit targeting children younger than 8, to avoid product placement in movies aimed at kids and to redirect how they spend the millions they spend now figuring out how to influence our children contrary to our wishes. It’s time they quit promoting selfishness and instant gratification and quit sponsoring sexually graphic or violent programming likely to be watched by children.

We hope, of course, advertisers will work with moms on the all-important and terribly difficult job of watching out for our kids. But if they won’t, we need to show them we mean business. We need to show them who really controls the money in the family. And it’s not the 8-year-old.