Friday, January 27, 2006

Media-Savvy Parenting? Apparently Not

We interrupt this string of unoriginal blogging for a topic of my own devising.

My kids own a plethora of Fisher Price Little People products. I hadn't realized how many until I catalogued them recently: schoolbus, farm, garage, firestation, zoo, train . . . (Hmmm. It's kind of embarrassing to see them all listed.) One of these toys came with a video featuring clay-animated Little People. I tucked it away in a hidden spot because it just seemed too promotional.

So much for my hiding skills -- it's been discovered. Sean and Allie begged to watch it, and instead of remaining steadfast in my conviction that it probably wasn't worth viewing, I caved.

On the surface, it's completely innocuous, consisting of four or five little stories featuring Little People. But as I watched more closely, my fears were confirmed: The thing is one long advertisement for Little People and their products. There was the schoolbus, the garage, the train, the zoo animals. And of course, the kids LOVE it.

Since they've watched it a few times, I've observed a curious, insidious phenomenon: Sean has actually begun playing with all those toys a lot more. As soon as he's done watching the video, he pulls out the train and plays with it. Then he gets the schoolbus and re-enacts a scene he's just watched.

I'm fairly horrified at all this. I've known that kids are easy to manipulate and that marketers exploit this vulnerability all the time. It’s one thing to read about it, quite another to see it played out in your own family room. I consider myself to be pretty media-savvy -- how could I have let my kids succumb to this?

One might reasonably ask the same of the reverse scenario -- when videos inspire toys. I've certainly fallen into that trap: witness the fleet of Thomas the Frickin Tank Engine trains in our house. For some reason, though, I find that less objectionable. Is that just because I've been duped? Is there really no difference? Is the video-first-licensed-product-second just a more ingrained cultural trend?

Yeah. I think I've been duped. But at least my kids don't watch commercial TV, right? I shudder to think how easily my porous-as-a-sponge little boy would suck up all that crap. I don't mean to sound self-righteous, but the kid marketplace is a scary place. I've been wanting to read Juliet Schor's Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. Now seems to be a good time.