Kids and Kommercialism – The Boob Tube, pt 1

I wanted to return to the topic of “kids and kommercialism” that I discussed in a number of earlier posts (cf, hereherehere), and in particular to talk a bit more about some ways of addressing problems associated with the pervasive marketing aimed at kids.

Regarding the way our kids are bombarded with ads and marketing, there are two major aspects to be considered, two areas where action might most easily be taken. One is the amount of marketing – of products, and also of values and behaviours – to which kids are exposed. The other concerns the impact of these marketing messages on our kids.

Crucial to the issue of impact is not only the nature of the ad/marketing message, but also kids’ ability to make sense of – and resist or have some perspective on – these messages. Here, I am thinking not only of the most obvious and commonly discussed form of such messages, commercials and ads, particularly on TV, but also the less frequently considered marketing messages aimed at kids, such as the packaging of toys and other products, signage in malls and stores, magazines aimed at kids, product placement in films and so on, not to mention the “new media” marketing they are subjected to through mobile phones and FaceBook or myspace pages, etc.

But I want to begin this discussion with some ideas about limiting the amount of marketing to which our kids are subjected, particularly when it comes to TV. Limiting exposure to marketing is especially important with younger children. Research (discussed in previous posts) has shown that young children are unable to distinguish between ads and reality, and take the messages of ads at face value.

When I was a kid, my dad threw out our television set, making me an object of pity (and a certain amount of derision) in the neighbourhood. (I suspect my dad was motivated more by disgust with the presidential administration of the time than by concerns about advertising, but still…) While doing without TV entirely has a definite appeal, it is clearly the road less traveled, and can be quite difficult if you do have kids. Fortunately, these days less extreme options are available to parents who want to limit or eliminate their children’s exposure to ads on TV. For years, my son’s TV watching was limited almost exclusively to DVDs – including DVDs of popular TV shows, which we would get from our local library and watch together.

Current technology provides a number of other solutions to the problem of TV ads. I don’t think we can rely on our kids to fast-forward consistently through ads on TV shows that have been recorded on TiVo or a digital video recorder (DVR) system (such as those that come with some cable subscriptions), but ad-free copies of current episodes of TV shows are available through various sources.

For instance, on The Pirate Bay and other BitTorrent sites, you can get access to downloadable copies of episodes of current TV shows, recorded from the broadcast but with the ads stripped out, often within scant hours of the broadcast. Also available are episodes of older TV shows and previous seasons, generally ripped from DVD releases. (Fair warning: These may be – generally are – in violation of copyright and it is possible that downloading and viewing them might be illegal where you are.)

The iTunes Store provides a legal way of getting (for a price) episodes of current and past TV shows. New web services like hulu and Joost are another way to watch TV without those annoying ads, and many (US) television networks now offer streaming TV viewing for many shows – although some of these online TV shows do come with a couple of ads, usually at the beginning and middle, and there are of course other forms of marketing on the sites. Unfortunately, many of these legal options for online viewing of TV shows currently only work for people in the United States.

Anyone with decent broadband access can download enough TV in the course of a day to provide a reasonable amount of viewing in the evening. Obviously, it will be time-shifted – you may be a day or more behind (DVDs are generally at least a season behind) – and you will have to watch them on your computer or via some computer-to-TV solution (of which there are many simple ones, such as Apple TV), but those seem like a relatively small price to pay for getting to watch episodes of House or The Big Bang Theory commercial free.

At the end of the day, TV is a business. Most broadcast TV has always been an ad/marketing-based business – a business whose real product was its audiences, you, the viewers – who it “sold” to the companies purchasing ad time. Most legitimate access to a TV show is going to have to be paid for one way or another – either through ads, or cable subscriptions, or iTunes fees or something similar – unless it is a form of loss leader, seen as an investment in building an audience for the show, in which case it is essentially an ad for itself, or for its network or producer.

TV shows that are easily available online, predictably, are mostly ones popular with the sorts of people who spend a lot of time online – and in the case of the pirated TV available for download, people who would record and edit TV shows and then upload them to a pirate site (as a community service!). Thus, there is less to appeal to younger children – but for them there is usually plenty of stuff available through the library, and they will be less likely than older kids to feel peer-pressure about being up-to-date with popular TV shows. And probably shouldn’t be watching TV anyway.

As for ads on the websites that stream TV shows, it’s possible to eliminate much, even most, of this marketing material by using the Firefox web browser (which you should be using anyway – more secure and open source) with commonly available “ad-blocking” plug-ins (eg, Adblock Plus).

Coming Up: Why not throw out the TV? – I Want My EmpTV – How to Train Your Kid to Resist Ads – Resources on Children and the Media

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