Monday, February 9, 2015

Kids and Commercials

When I was a small child, the rule at home was that my younger brother and I were only allowed to watch shows that aired on PBS unsupervised.  The main reason was because these were educational, but looking back I think another big reason was that "Reading Rainbow" and "Ghostwriter" only ran with the most minimal and unobtrusive advertisements, if at all.  Anti-ad sentiments were common.  I had friends who were allowed to watch network television, but had to mute the commercials.  Other parents used VCRs to time-shift programming and edit the commercials out.  Some ignored broadcast television completely in favor of videos borrowed from the local library. 
My parents were never that extreme, and watched plenty of television themselves.  As long as they were around to explain things, I was allowed to watch a lot of things in the evenings that weren't age appropriate.  Eventually, around age eight, I had complete unrestricted access to cartoons on most afternoons.  I wasn't the type of kid to fixate on certain toys or breakfast cereals, and never whined for them, so my parents eventually stopped worrying so much about what I was watching.  However, the ads definitely still made an impact on me.  I still remember many of them better than the programming that they ran with, since some campaigns and characters persisted for years.  I remember Fred Flintstone from the Fruity Pebbles commercials more than I remember him in "The Flintstones."
So I find it absolutely fascinating that the kids growing up now in cord-cutter households have much less exposure to traditional commercials.  Netflix and Amazon Prime offer big libraries of children's programming without a single ad-break.  You can find a lot of the old cartoons I used to watch on other ad-free platforms.  And since kids put much less of a premium on watching new and recent shows, is it any wonder that  these services are now taking a huge bite out of cable and traditional television viewership?  Recent ratings numbers show that kids' programming is suffering some of the worst drops in viewership due to cord-cutting.  Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel have been feeling the impact the most heavily, and it's no surprise that Nick recently announced that they'll be launching their own streaming service in the near future.  
This doesn't mean that kids aren't still being bombarded by advertisements though, especially online.  Some parents may end up missing the days of TV commercials, because digital advertising can be much more pernicious and difficult to spot, requiring more vigilant monitoring.  Think about the amount of spam, clickbait, and viral videos in circulation that are really just thinly-veiled ads. Mobile games are notorious for pushing in-app purchases.  Heck, think about the new "My Little Pony" cartoons and "The Lego Movie."  There are always going to be companies trying to sell kids their products in some form or another.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Commercials may have been an annoyance, instilling questionable messages, and ensuring a disturbing degree of brand recognition in our young minds ("cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!") but they were also our earliest lesson in media awareness.  Being exposed to them taught me to differentiate between different types of content and to identify different advertising tactics.  And those are vital skills in the information age.  So I don't think that a commercial here and there, clearly marked, is as harmful as some paranoid parents think.  I mean, every so often even "Sesame Street" was obliged to cede some air time to PBS pledge drives. 
Digital media offers more control than parents had in the analog era, and some services have format and content options for advertisements.  I can imagine at some point, conscientious parents will be able to pick and choose what kind of ads their children can view.  "Frozen" dolls and Tonka trucks, yes.  Cinnamon Toast Crunch, no.  However, I imagine that most cord-cutters will be trying to avoid ads entirely, and raising kids who are not just cord-nevers, but commercial averse ad-nevers.  And that's where things get interesting. 
Exposure to commercials will happen eventually of course, but think of a world where the default assumption is that kids don't see their first McDonalds ad until they're eleven or twelve, when they can think and reason more carefully.  Think of kids who never develop a fondness towards cereal box mascots or display Pavlovian responses toward branding jingles and catchphrases. 
Think of a whole generation of them.       

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