The Moral Dimension of the Media Ad Nauseam

David Blankenhorn, The Responsive Community, 4/1/2001

Not only are advertising, education, and entertainment all slowly blending into more or less the same thing, but we now have a generation of young children so tuned-in to advertising, so intellectually and aesthetically captured by it, that some companies no longer find it necessary to pay for their advertisements aimed at our children. Instead, we pay them.

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Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

Consider two recent trends in commercial advertising, both of which suggest a shift in the balance of power between family life and the market economy. First, advertisers are increasingly suggesting that corporations are more reliable than lovers and families. You can't really trust your marriage, but you can trust . . . the company that brought you this ad.

A recent magazine ad from Chevrolet Cavalier shows a dependability meter that begins with "the weather" (very undependable), goes on to "Mom" (somewhat dependable) and ends up with a Chevy Cavalier – "one of the few things in life you can actually depend on." A current ad from Chrysler shows a splendidly isolated 2001 PT Cruiser under the banner "Emotional rescue" and above the line "Ah, emotional fulfillment at last." An ad from Avis, the rent-a-car company, features a blurry, black-and-white photo of two unsmiling figurines, a bride and a groom. The ad banner says: "Trust. Understanding. Commitment." The ad copy begins: "We've got someone special for you." And who would that person be? Yes, it's that "one person to meet your car rental needs."

To make the same basic point, several new print and television ads bluntly employ the themes of divorce and unwed childbearing. A magazine ad from MassMutual, the life insurance company, features a 30-something mother, looking very much in charge, holding her new baby and explaining her situation quite clearly: "'I' is now 'we.' My new start-up has only one key shareholder." Which is why she is partnering with MassMutual.

In a new television ad from John Hancock Financial Services, a tired, stressed-out single mother is imploring her ex-husband to "do more" for their son, Joey, only to be told by the ex-husband that his girlfriend wants him to move to California. "You tell Joey that," the woman replies angrily. "You tell him." Which is why she needs John Hancock, a company that offers "Insurance for the Unexpected." In another TV spot from John Hancock, we see a couple engaged in heavy petting. They stop. Him: Please stay, I don't want you to go. Her: "I promised the sitter I'd be home at 11." Him: Let's move in together, get married, so that "I could take care of you and Molly." Her, with quiet determination: "We can take care of ourselves." Well, not exactly. She and Molly will still need some friendly support – from John Hancock.

Commenting on the Hancock ads, Judith Langer, who runs a trend consulting firm in New York, told the New York Times that women consumers, including those who are married, view marriage as a "precarious" arrangement today, adding: "There's a lot of anxiety out there" – anxiety that advertisers now use to sell their products, in part because people's sense of vulnerability on this issue is immediate and real, and in part because divorce and unwed childbearing are now becoming normative in our society.

Does anyone, including the people who make these ads, actually believe that the suffering and anxieties stemming from the collapse of marriage can be reduced, or addressed at all in any meaningful way, by car, insurance, and financial services companies?

The second trend is that children's books are increasingly using children's food product advertisements as their main theme. For example, a new book from Simon and Schuster is called The Oreo Cookie Counting Book. The book teaches young children to count, as in: "one little Oreo . . . too tasty to resist." Other recent titles include The Sun Maid Raisins Play Book, The Kellogg's Fruit Loops! Counting Fun Book, The Cheerios Play Book, Reese's Pieces: Counting by Fives, The Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book, and Skittles Math Riddles. Some of the most popular books make direct use of the foods themselves. In The Kellogg's Fruit Loops! Counting Fun Book, for example, young learners are taught to insert pieces of Fruit Loops cereal into small cutout holes in the book's cardboard pages.

These books are big hits with many children, teachers, and parents. The Cheerios Play Book alone has sold more than 1.2 million copies in the last two years. The basic idea behind the books is that children are more interested in learning when learning is connected to brand names that they recognize.

But all of that is introduction. The truly revealing aspect of this trend is which way the money flows. Do you assume that these companies are paying authors and publishers to create books that look like advertisements for their products? Actually, it's the reverse. The authors and publishers pay the snack-food companies. Typically, a company receives an up-front advance from the publisher, then splits all royalty payments with the author on a 50-50 basis.

What does this trend tell us? At least with respect to teaching young children to read and count, the circle has been closed. Not only are advertising, education, and entertainment all slowly blending into more or less the same thing, but we now have a generation of young children so tuned-in to advertising, so intellectually and aesthetically captured by it, that some companies no longer find it necessary to pay for their advertisements aimed at our children. Instead, we pay them.

This article originally appeared here.

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