I am far from perfect and my kids are far from brilliant sometimes, but one thing I’m sure I got right was media literacy in the early years because both BalletBoy and Mushroom effortlessly and cynically pick out media and advertising messages and connections all the time. I think this is the result partially of being raised by someone as cynical as me, always pointing out all the wastes of money out there. I think it’s also a result of having specifically taught some of these skills beginning early on and continuing as a conversation when we see new things.
We all like TV, films, video games and screens in this house, so I have always wanted my kids to be savvy about ads and media messages. I expect us to be consumers, but to try to be smart consumers. I have never bought into the alarmists who talk about kids and screens. However, I wanted us to be smarter about our use. We do limit screens during the day and we keep up our conversation about the media messages. Part of how we started the conversation was with online videos.
Lesson: Be Careful What You Eat
First up, there’s the fact that fast food is disgusting. There are a few Youtube videos out there with this theme, but this one is pretty simple. It just compares the image of the food from the ad with the actual food after purchase. Ew. If you need an even bigger ew factor, there’s this clip about a Happy Meal left out for months. Second, here’s an episode of Buy Me That (an older HBO show) that covers the theme of food advertisements. You’ll have to link for the next two parts. There’s some great information about cereal, soda and snacks in the first part. Kids taste test soda to realize they can’t figure out what they’re drinking. In the last part, they show a food photographer and how she makes the food look so beautiful when it’s actually not. The actual ads are older, but the information is solid.
Lesson: Toys in Ads Look Cooler Than in Reality
Here’s another old episode of Buy Me That, but one we have referred back to it so many times over the years that it’s been really invaluable. They show an ad for a toy along with kids actually playing with and commenting on the toy. It’s pretty exciting in the ad and extremely lame in reality. Big surprise. If you skim to the end of the clip, there’s another segment about using sound effects in toy ads to make the toys seem more exciting. That’s continued here on the second part.
Lesson: Ads are Everywhere
We know all about product placement and cross marketing, so kids should too. Here’s a short and interesting history of product placement. The first couple minutes flashes several famous examples then shows that product placement has been around nearly as long as movies but has slowly built to the point that whole films are made just to sell products. The second half of that one shows more recent examples from big movies, but many of them include romance or explosions, so you may want to stop midway through for the kids. However, sometimes it’s less obvious. Take this preview for Wreck-It Ralph (which my kids are excited to see, by the way). After watching it, we talked about how the movie shows many real video game characters, which helps sell video games, as well as using music that was popular, which helps sell the music. The second part of the Buy Me That episode I linked about about toys also has a lot about product placement in the middle of the clip.
Usually we think of cross marketing as being about toys, Transformers being a prime example, with a movie, toys, clothes and so forth. However, when Angry Birds was at its height of popularity, the kids and I noted what a great job of cross marketing they had done. Quickly, the birds ended up on absolutely everything, with people even making their own crafts and scarecrows and other homemade bits celebrating or, um, advertising them. And we really enjoyed this ad for a phone that employed Angry Birds, which was really funny. And a prime example of cross marketing. So are many of the kids’ favorite Lego products, of course.
Lesson: Read the Fine Print
I don’t have a video for this one, but I do have examples. Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about how companies give you things in order to get you to advertise for them. Or they give you free things to lure you into buying more. My kids are well aware that “free” apps on the phone are ways to get you to buy more levels or that the “free” offer of a Zoo book or a Top Secret Adventures that comes in the mail is to get you to sign up in the first place. They also know that signing up for a contest can mean giving away all your information.
Lessons for the Future: Whose Point of View Anyway?
Some of the things we have talked less about are questions that arise in movies and television shows about race, violence, relationships, perspective, opinions, and so forth. We’ve brought these things up with all media and especially with books, but less in regards to film and TV specifically. However, as the kids get older and have a better grasp on these things, we’ll deal with them more. One good resource for kids and adults is the PBS site Don’t Buy It. I wish they had a bit more updating, but there’s a lot of good activities, information and questions there in a kid friendly way.