Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yay! The Commercials Are On!

“Mom/Dad, I want (fill in the blank) that I saw on (media du jour)!!!!”

Marketing to kids is nothing new. Anyone who’s grown up in the era of television can sing the jingles for every sugar-coated cereal ever promoted. Anyone remember “oot-fray oops-lay”?

But 21st century parents must deal with exponential message proliferation. That free version of Angry Birds you use to appease the 8-year-old in the car carries a link in every frame. Product placement is intrusive. A character on a recent episode of Chuck quoted Subway’s pitch for a new sandwich verbatim.

How can you shield your child from the barrage? Truth is, you can’t, unless you’re willing to quarantine her; easy when she’s a baby; but increasingly hard in the pre-school years; and all but impossible after that.

A more effective strategy is immunization. It’s possible to message-proof your child. This strategy worked in my house:

• Watch commercial TV--broadcast, Hulu, cable--with your child. Don’t skip the commercials. Instead, ask, “What do you think that commercial is about?” Explain that ads are specially made to make us want things we don’t really need. It’s better for us to figure out for ourselves what we need, and work hard for those things that matter. Talk about product placement, and point it out every time you see it. “Spot the Product Placement” can be one of the best family games ever.

• Take your child shopping. Online or in the store, share your reasons for your choices. Look for every opportunity to remind her of the commercial she saw or the toy ad she found in the Sunday paper. It’s amazing how quickly even pre-schoolers learn that there are people who want us to want things, and we get to decide.

• Let you child see commercial influences in your own choices. I’m a brand loyalist. I buy Sony electronics, wash our clothes with Tide, have finally settled on Hondas or (used) Volvos for our driving needs. My kids know what brand values are, that they appeal to emotion and represent a product or service in its best light. They also know that I back up my emotional purchase decisions with research, and try to make informed purchases that also please me and the family.

Talking your child through commercials is the easiest way to foster responsible, informed consumerism. If you think of your child’s “I want that” as an opportunity for conversation and learning, you can make marketing and advertising literacy part of their basic skills set. Let me sum it up with a catchy jingle. Umm … maybe not. -- Jan Hames

Jan Hames is a marketing and communications professional in Austin, Texas. Her current interest is healthcare reform.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet"

One of the more amazing aspects of Elizabeth Taylor’s story is just how long a career she enjoyed. She began making movies at age ten in 1942 and by 1944 starred as plucky Velvet Brown in Clarence Brown’s National Velvet. This picture has a lot to offer today’s young viewer. Velvet is a hard-working, horse-loving gal. And after she’s dealt the ruling that—as a female—she could not jockey her horse in the Grand National Steeplechase, she lops off her hair and rides as a boy. Velvet ultimately gives up a chance at fame for herself and her beloved horse, The Pie, because—you heard me right—it wouldn’t be so great for the horse. Velvet was strong, thoughtful, and kind; she had character. And any parent of any era would be proud of such a daughter. The movie gives surprisingly modern messages to girls: the sky’s the limit; and barriers are there to be busted wide open.

National Velvet also resonates in the depiction of a refreshing and unusual mother-daughter relationship. Anne Revere as Velvet’s mother is a strong, centered, calm woman who speaks to Velvet with so much respect, it’s almost jarring. She’s not a touch-feely, cover-you-in-kisses screen mom, but a compelling mentor to a young girl on the verge of becoming a woman. Mrs. Brown never talks down to Velvet or pulls her punches; and she never loses her temper. She’s the picture of the wise center that holds the family together. I always loved the fact that her character was a famous channel swimmer in her day, but doesn’t live in the shadow of her former glory. And young Liz holds her own in her scenes with Revere, a character just as strong as mom. As Velvet, the bright-eyed, vibrant Elizabeth Taylor is the promise of the grand star she was to become.

On a side note, Hitchcock favorite Farley Granger just passed away. Granger had a wonderful turn as Niels, the tempestuous ballet master in Charles Vidor’s 1952 film, Hans Christian Andersen. It’s an adorable, singable musical that puts children at its center in a not-at-all accurate but entertaining bio-pic. The film can be seen in its entirety at

Monday, March 28, 2011

Squares One and Two: Work Hard; Be Nice

That’s the motto (and teaching philosophy) of a personal hero of mine: Rafe Esquith, subject of Mel Stuart’s wonderful 2005 documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans. I wish every parent would see this. The documentary follows Rafe who teaches fifth grade in a troubled Los Angeles school district as he inspires and leads his students to greatness. He challenges his students to take on difficult texts by directing them in Shakespeare plays. He leads them into ethics lessons suggested by Huck Finn. He raises money to take them on cross-country trips to broaden their horizons and give them a glimpse of a better life. At the end of the day, Rafe’s philosophy is simple: work hard and be nice. You won’t soon forget the sight of Rafe’s students IN TEARS on the last day of school. Perhaps they suspect few people in their lives will ever care this much again. I like to look at this video to recharge my batteries certainly as a teacher but mostly as a parent.

I lean toward media that supports the basic premise that by working hard and being nice, you can achieve much, probably everything you could ever desire. I guess I’m the opposite of the Tiger Mom, as I place success in personal relationships on a better than equal footing with professional and scholastic success. But I suppose the backlash Tiger Mom received suggests I’m not alone in this opinion. As I continue this exploration, I will examine the new and the old and invite you to join me in the conversation.