By Josh Golden, Director of Creative Strategy, PCI.
Intro to Advertising
My daughter was 3 years old. She had already made her way through the Disney princess canon on DVD and had learned that bookishness is odd (thanks, Beauty and the Beast!), stepparents are evil (thanks, Cinderella!), parents are expendable (thanks, well…every Disney movie!) and that, to get the guy, you should give up everything that makes you unique and become a finless, voiceless, idealization of silent beauty (thanks Little Mermaid!). I figured it was time to move onto something else – something that would teach her the strength of friendship, the value of pursuing a path, and the importance of home and family. And it just so happened that The Wizard of Oz was on television. So, I DVRed that puppy!
I had my trepidations. Hannah had never expressed any fear of Ursula or Maleficent. She took Scar in stride, but this was altogether different. This was live action and potentially pretty damn scary for a three-year-old. Throwing caution to the twister, I plopped my daughter in front of the television, gave her some yogurt raisins, and pressed “play.” I had things to do!
I waited upstairs for the shout. 20 minutes. Nothing. We weathered Mrs. Gulch. Half hour: Wicked Witch of the West. Fine. One hour: Surely the Wizard has made an appearance! Still quiet.
Then, from below, “Daddeeeeeey!” Finally! Those damned flying monkeys! They get you every time. “Daddeeeey!” I ran downstairs to calm my child and tell her that none of this is real. It’s all a fantasy. “Daddy, I don’t like this part,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s scary!” I quickly paused the DVR, and checked the frame. I would hate to have paused it on Margaret Hamilton’s frightful green face. I looked up. “Daddy, can we not watch this part?” I looked again. What part? It was paused on a commercial. “I don’t like this!”
And then it hit me: In her first three years of life, my daughter had never seen a commercial! She had seen DVDs, On-Demand, and Netflix – all ad-free. A commercial was an entirely new experience for her. And it was terrifying! The witch, wizard, and winged monkeys she took in stride. They all seemed organic to the otherworldly plot. But the young, attractive couple buying a Honda…? They were completely incongruous. They appeared out of nowhere – no bubble, no flash, no broomstick – and then disappeared just as quickly. I wonder if my daughter was waiting for them to show up again in Kansas for the happy reunion! “Oh, Auntie Em! Oh, Zeke! Oh, young, attractive Honda-buyers!” Didn’t happen.
And much like Dorothy Gale from Kansas, Hannah Golden from Virginia had her innocence shattered. Gone for her were the happy, simple, black and white days. She was thrust into a magical colorful world where munchkins, tin men, and Winkies mingle with Munchkins, Thin Mints, and Twinkies. My daughter had been initiated into the wonderful world of consumerism. So, I thought I might arm her with the tools to withstand the onslaught of advertising. Or at least understand it. So, I sat her down and explained commercials to her. “They’re trying to sell us something,” I said. And then, “For instance, what is this one trying to sell us?”
She considered this for a moment and then said, “A car!”
“But that’s silly. We already have a car.” My girl was getting it. Impervious to the savviest advertisers!
“Yes,” I offered, “But they want us to buy that car.”
“But we like our car.” She was stalwart – unbending. And so it went for refrigerators, soap, Lean Cuisine… You name it, Hannah wasn’t buying it. I was so proud of her. I was proud of myself. Put her in a focus group! Let her speak truth to power!
And then she turned five. She wanted a Wubble Bubble Ball. She wanted a My Little Pony Playset. She now wants Hair Stamps (?!) “And if we act now, we can get two for $9.99!” she said. We walked through Costco and she told me that we ought to buy Clorox because “it’ll get our whites whiter.” My little girl is a sucker like the rest of us…I am doomed.
Our susceptibility to marketing is innate. We want to be what we see. But it was revealing to watch non-marketing impact my daughter with equal strength. In her commercial-free world of old she came away not wanting to eat Doritos, but to be Dorothy. She dressed in gingham and carried a basket. This impression was not product placement or calculated by agencies, it was simply impressive. It was much more organic and innocent.
I (and my wallet) long for that innocent time when stories were just stories. But my daughter has taught me this: No matter how simple our start, we are primed to be carried away by the advertising tornado. We will be whisked off to a Technicolor land and sold hearts, brains, and courage. And once there – once we lose that innocence – we cannot go home again. What a world!