Bombarded with advertisements

Earlier this summer I was in Stanwood, Washington hanging out with a loosely affiliated group called the “Positive Futures Network.”

It was there I met Raffi, who since 1976, has been praised by parents and kids the world over for his children’s songs and performances. But even if you’ve never heard of him, but like reading autobiographies, you’ll enjoy reading, “Raffi: The Life of a Children’s Troubadour (1999, Homeland Press).”

Having spent several days in his presence I can tell you that his music is a true ex-pression of his sunny personality, which centers around cherishing the dignity of chil-dren. It wasn’t long before Raffi and I got to talking about kids – my own two daughters in particular.

What the world needs now, he said, is a “child-honoring society,” which shouldn’t be confused with a “child-obsessed society.”

In the conclusion of his book he writes: “I sometimes wonder what the world will offer my young friends when they are my age.” Then he makes an important observation. “The unprecendented concentrations of corporate capital constitute a global power, a concern that should not be left to economists alone.”

Why? Because “today’s business activity affects every family’s health – for better or worse – as never before.”

For example, increasing amounts of toxic chemicals and the diminishing of biodiversity, which causes more damage than terrorism but gets less attention than J-Lo’s booty.

So I ask myself, can I identify one of these “global power” centers as it relates to kids? Reflecting on Raffi led me to research Madison Avenue – the symbolic mecca of the advertising industry, where the American “dream” is packaged for sale. I found that in eyes of ad execs children are viewed as a trifecta of profitability – as buyers, as influencers of their parents spending and as future adult consumers.

And because of that, ad execs aggressively clamor for the attention of children. With access to $15 billion to spend on toys, clothes, candy and snacks, studies estimate that children influence another $160 billion in parental purchases.

You should check out some of the literature on this stuff. AdRelevance, for example, in a report called “The ABC’s of Advertising to Kids Online,” says this: “What do you call a consumer who wants to buy everything you have, doesn’t care what it costs and is less than five feet tall? A marketer’s dream? Nope. You call them kids…Why create ads for kids? They posses a currency more powerful than cash: influence.”

Though the federal government regulates advertising, AdRelevance gleefully reports: “an investigation of 78 family focused companies…showed advertising growth in the wake of the FTC guidelines.”

Then, there’s this highly acclaimed book called “Creating Ever-Cool: A Marketers Guild to a Kids Heart,” by Gene Del Vecchio. One section – “The Child Psyche” – examines “the timeless and underlying needs of childhood.”

One reviewer says of the book’s big idea “I found the concept that there could be a Kid Psyche Gap in the market place to be especially intriguing….Psyche Gaps are ‘that part of the child’s psyche that is not currently being satisfied by a competitor.”

Ad man Buzz Potamkin describes the challenge of kid advertising: “Surely, the argument goes, the little tykes are so open, so trusting, so wanting to believe, that those little minds are wide open to the wiles and ruses of any self-respecting snake oil salesman. Everyone tells you it’s easy, and then you try it….And then you begin to understand just how hard it is to take candy from a baby.”

As if the hundreds of thousands of ads that kids are bombarded with each year isn’t enough, they’ve got things like Channel One, which is a 12 minute “news” program aired in hundreds of thousands of classrooms across the country with commercials popped in between, which exploits a political environment in which cash-strapped schools will do almost anything to get money, including offering up a captive, impressionable audience for Madison Avenue.

So while the right wing radio show hosts and conservative “scholars” like William Bennett lament teachers who are allegedly more concerned with students self-esteem than with the three R’s, I’m more worried about ad execs who see kids with “psyche gaps” in need of ads to heal them and keep them as “consumers who want to buy everything you have, (and who don’t) care what it costs.”

In other ad news: I got a call from a telemarketer the other day. (I’ve got to get my name on that national do-not-call list).

“Hi, this is blah-blah and I’m with blah, blah…We were wondering if you blah, blah, blah, blah,” the telemarketer said.

“Look, I don’t have time right now. I’m in the middle of something important.”

Bzzzzz. Wrong answer! The correct response was: I don’t ever want you to call this house again and if you do I’m going to blow a whistle into the phone until you hang up.

“OK, well I’ll call back tomorrow at about this time.” Click.

If we’re being honest, this kind of behavior would be called corporate assault and battery. But, lest I be branded a liberal, Democrat, Pinko, Commie, Socialist, Utopian (god forbid), let’s call it free-market information networking.

Case in point: After dropping twenty bucks for you and your honey to see a movie, you’re hoping this is one of the few times you weren’t deceived by the hyped-up ads.

Then concession stand clerk gives you the total for the stale popcorn and ice-packed soda and you’re wondering if a free car wash or oil change comes with it.

You get inside the theater and that’s when it happens. Commercials! I’m not talking about movie previews, which I can handle. I’m talking about commercials that don’t have a damn thing to do with upcoming movie releases? (I’ ve seen car commercials during the preview period, for crying out loud).

It’s a violation of the social contract we’ve all come to tolerate: If I’m paying to see it on the TV or a movie screen, no commercials, especially after I’ve just coughed up a third of my paycheck to see this flick.

Or how ’bout this: You’re pressed for time and you call one of those sporting footwear chain stores to find out how late they’ll be open. Before you can eke out a quick question that could be answered in less than five seconds, you’re hit with a five minute here’s-what’s-on-sale-ad from a monotone, minimum-wage-making, employee under management orders to tell information-overloaded potential customers something that 99 percent of them could care less about.

(A sale? What does that mean – that those shoes made for less than 6 bucks in some sweatshop in Asia will cost me only $90 instead of the normal $150? Wow, what a bargain.)

Or say you’re not rich enough to afford your own personal tailor and you’re not into Sears action slacks but still want to look fashionable. Try finding clothes that don’t have the designer label emblazoned all over it. “You want me to pay $30 for this flimsy T-shirt and be a walking advertisement. Shouldn’t you be paying me – at least a fraction of what it would cost you to get this much commercial time from a TV network?”

Abortion. Gun ownership. Same-sex marriage. Never mind that. I’d bet a presidential candidate could get lots of votes for simply running on a I-sweat-the-small-stuff platform, promising to end Internet pop up ads as we know it.

If this dream candidate were really radical, she would push for legislation making it illegal for war planners to profit from the war they are conducting. (Betcha can’t name one corporation with contracts to “re-build” the nations we’ve destroyed in the “war on terror” that doesn’t have close ties to the Bush administration).

Philosopher John Dewey’s father once owned a general store. His window ad: “Hams and cigars – smoked and unsmoked.” Now that’s good old- fashioned advertising. Where’s a conservative pining for the good ol’ days when you need one?

As I get older, I’m learning the wisdom of selling out. So here’s my great idea: Under the guise of shrinking big government (remember when that was in vogue?), we could cut the amount of federal tax dollars we spend on the space program by leasing the bright side of the moon’s surface to corporate advertisers. Imagine: commercial images could be beamed from a satellite every time there’s a full moon.

Actually, now that I think about it, I could start my own consulting business and get paid to pump out ideas like that all day. It would certainly increase the GDP.

By the way, this commentary is brought to you by Sean Gonsalves whose column promises to give your morning coffee that extra jolt you need.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]

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