‘Save the Lorax’ Wants Corporations
to Stop Treating Kids as Their Candy
Maybe it had to be a beloved character in a cautionary environmental tale, written by a celebrated author, the one that would finally break through. But the discussion about advertising and marketing directed at small children, which has already started sometime ago in Europe and elsewhere, had to get going in the U.S. too.
A movie adaptation of “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss premiering tomorrow, is so loaded with product placement and movie tie-ins that even some of those who can’t see anything wrong with pushing sugary drinks to kids who can hardly read, and Saturday-morning commercials about supposedly pro-environment SUVs, have said it may be a bit too much.
Seeing a clear opportunity to get some air time for its long-running push to restrict corporations trying to sell their wares directly to children, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, known as CCFC, has launched “Save the Lorax!” which aims at countering at least some of the already in progress cross-promotion onslaught.
In Europe, there are many differences concerning the ethics of advertising for children. Sweden has banned them for those under 12, while France sees ads as a kind of preparation for life in a consumer society. The U.K. bans commercials that may harm physically or mentally children, or take advantage of their ‘natural credulity and sense of loyalty’. Greece prohibits ads for war toys and for toys in general between 7 am and 10 pm.
Out of the 15 European Union countries, only France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. do not consider advertising aimed at children as harmful, and Spain alone considers a ban on advertisement undemocratic. But research done by agencies has confirmed that children’s personal preferences can be targeted by TV advertisers. As the ads provide kids with arguments why they should want a particular thing, parents are put under pressure to either comply or refuse such demands.
At the end of the day, it’s up to parents to protect their kids from invasive marketing. Research has shown that young children have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and reality in ads, or even between advertising and regular TV programming. Children don’t begin to understand that ads are not always true until they’re eight, and that can distort their view of the world.
DEMANDING MORE BRANDING
Published in the 1970s, Dr. Seuss’s classic book, The Lorax, has been a kind of introduction for many children to the plight of Earth’s dwindling natural resources and increased damage to the environment caused by our lifestyle. Its underlying message of reducing consumption and promoting conservation is then at complete odds with the 70-plus promotional tie-ins the new movie has received.
Even before its official launch in theaters, a commercial for a famous automobile brand, for example, intertwines scenes of the car with the Lorax, who clearly seems to endorse it. Perhaps forty years ago, some adults still had doubts what kind of the impact of burning fuel would have on the air we all breathe, but now, only children may still imagine the world that way. And those who stand to profit from it, of course.
Even comedian Stephen Colbert, in the typical fashion of his blowhard character, found it fit to do a Dr. Seuss-like play with words about the “Loraxian stuff,” ending with a not so bad tirade: “thick as the thick ironies of the Lorax and Seuss hawking big SUVs.”
Not all seems hopeless about the Lorax, though. When a class of fourth graders in Brookline, Massachusetts, saw that the movie promotion from Universal Studios lacked enough of an environmental message, they launched the “Lorax Petition Project” on Change.org to add conservation tips to the advertising campaign.
The petition gained more than 50,000 signatures, forcing Universal to change ‘The Lorax’ Webpage to reflect the class’s demands, even using the Truffala tree image for a button and linking it to the Green Tips Random House page. Partnerships with Scholastic, Whole Foods and Seventh Generation followed, as did an AdCouncil USDA Forest Service “get outside” public service announcement.
It may all be a bit cynical from the part of Universal, which stands to profit even from such initiatives. Hollywood as a whole has been doing commercial tie-ins for years, and nothing indicates that the trend is going to be reversed anytime soon. But it’s a positive step and at least those students have something to tell their own children some day.
It remains to be seen, though, what will have the everlasting effect on our culture, if the perception that something has to be done about marketing based on children’s literature and sense of wonder, or the bitter taste that another emblem of childhood idealism and innocence towards the world has been forever corrupted.
POWER OF A VENTRILOQUIST
The CCFC is the child of Harvard-educated psychiatrist and award-winning ventriloquist Susan Linn which corporations as big as Kellogg and Hasbro have learned to fear, either because of Kellogg’s use of a cartoon character on its nutrient-challenged food products, or Hasbro trying to launch a line of exploitive dolls for underage children.
The group’s determination, and sense of duty, was at full display too when Scholastic went into a “partnership” with the coal industry to distribute propaganda-disguised as educational materials about sources of energy. Again, with the instrumental help of Change.org, the CCFC collected 56 thousand signatures to force the home of Clifford the Red Dog and Harry Potter to shelve the plan.
The latest campaign denouncing the use of Dr. Seuss’s appeal to children to push merchandising is part of the group’s efforts to call attention to the unregulated, unrestricted and profit-driven advertising industry, and the potential danger it may represent to the mental and physical health of our youth.
The entertainment industry, using cutting-edge technology, advances at a mind-boggling pace, with TVs, computers, smartphones, tablets, and street displays all loaded with messages designed to induce ever more consumption. Society simply can’t keep up with it and has a limited scope of tools to monitor and flag their activities. Plus, bureaucracy and powerful interests work against laws from being swiftly approved and enforced, that would curb excesses.
WE KNOW YOUR CHILDREN
The result is a large segment of the population sitting on the receiving end of a massive flood of ads, whose long-term impact no one is really sure about. While adults may know a thing or two about the vagaries of the antiquated concept of “truth in advertising,” children have no idea and tend to take everything in at face value.
In the era when social network sites sell its customers’ personal histories to advertisers, and phone apps can secretly copy entire address books and even family photos of the users, issues of individual privacy and choice to opt-out from mechanisms that can keep track of your most intimate habits on line are finally getting the attention from regulators, at least in Europe.
But when it comes to advertising that targets children, we may be still in a pre-childhood phase. That’s partially because there’s not even unanimity about what’s the best way to approach the matter. And there are many who have no problem advocating for lax regulation and for the ‘let the market decide’ mentality, despite of being, in fact, paid for by the industry to voice their ‘opinion.’
Even curbing TV advertising campaigns and movie tie-ins may not do the trick, according to Reg Bailey, chief executive of a U.K.’s group, Mothers’ Union, that published a report into the commercialization and sexualization of young children.
For him and others, the biggest villain is direct marketing through the Internet, which would render an advertising ban ineffective. The report coincided with a Unicef study, warning about the materialism had come to dominate family life, as parents “pointlessly” amass goods for their children to compensate for long working hours.
Unicef went as far as to suggest that the obsession with consumer goods was an underlying cause of last year’s riots and looting in England. But the Mothers group believes that it’s the online behavior, which bypasses parental influence, that is the hardest to track. The pressure that “comes from advertising around Web search engines,” says Bailey.
WHOSE LIFE IT IS ANYWAY?
Even an old civic organization such as Peace Pledge Union, founded in the U.K. at the dawn of WWII, published its own observations about children and advertising. The brief post considered the issue under an ethics point of view, and traces a quick summary of what’s been done and what’s not about the issue in Europe.
Referring to Spain’s opposition to a ban in advertising based on its possible adverse effects on freedom of expression, the PPU concluded that even that it does not ‘potentially kill children, the question remains what particular freedom would be lost, and what disadvantage incurred, if children were not exposed from an early age to TV ads directed at them for the commercial gain of companies.’
What is certain is that such companies will only withdraw their advertising muscle from kids, in order to appease their concerned parents, if there’s a serious and concerted effort from society as a whole to set limits of what’s acceptable and what’s merely their desire to increase profits.
So, it’s again up to parents, and their natural allies, educators, ethical organizations, interested elected officials, and few others who have the children’s moral and social well-being in mind, to change the beat and demand a different kind of music to be played by corporations. Not one of these single parts is enough to be heard, but the sum of them can give pause even to a giant such as the Universal Studios, for instance.
It’s impossible to anticipate what kind of box office record “The Lorax” will break on its opening weekend. It’s much clearer, however, what percentage of the potential millions the movie may make that’s expected to fund children’s causes or educational projects. Perhaps in an ideal world, one thing would be conditioned, tied-in to the other.
It’s a pragmatic approach, one that may sacrifice even the integrity of a classic work of children’s literature such as this latest adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ work, in the order to get something out of it. A compromised solution that would set a monetary value as a compensatory device for what’s being sacrificed in the first place.
We’re not so sure about that, though. It’d be hard to factor the exact value of money gained in exchange of our personal involvement in such an important issue concerning our children. As the CCFC and the fourth-graders of Brookline showed, individual responsibility can not be delegated. Above all, what kind of example would be set with such a coach-potato, cellphoning-in, text-messaging, I’m too busy to cook attitude?
As the mustachio-one himself would put it, “They loved living here. But I can’t let them stay. They’ll have to find food. And I hope that they may.” That being said, the Lorax sent them away.