By Ralph Nader
Family is the foundation of our American society. In many ways, the family unit is one of the last bastions of decency holding out against encroaching corporate commoditization — the corporations can sell food, medicine, clothing, entertainment, even child and elder care, but they can’t provide the love, selflessness and generosity that close family members can provide one another. But if there was a way to commercialize all those generational, biological bonds, you can be sure that profit-hungry companies and clever marketers would discover it. In the holiday season, thoughts about family abound. But the advertisements that dominate all forms of commercial media aren’t about the benefits of family life, about how parents shape the character and personality of their children, about how turning off the screens and engaging in conversation is the cornerstone of human development. Advertisements aimed at children are meant to tantalize and sell the latest toys, gadgets and video games — many of which serve as electronic babysitters that feature violence and undermine parental authority.
Every holiday season, the commercial media relentlessly hype the big products of the season with “Holiday Shopping Guides” and “Hot Lists.” These lists feature toys and gadgets that are, inevitably, in “extremely limited quantities,” forcing parents to battle it out at early morning store openings to get the latest and greatest items. These “hot item lists” are released by the retailers themselves, such as Toys-R-Us, Walmart and Target. It’s not clear why many of these items are “hot,” aside from the fact that the chain stores that sell them say so. At one time, the big Christmas item was “Cabbage Patch Kids,” and then it was “Tickle Me Elmo,” then “Furby,” and then the “Nintendo Wii”. In 2012, Furby is back — a furry, owl-like electronic doll that talks. It was popular back in 1998 and sold millions in the late 90’s. Hasbro, the manufacturers of Furby, assumed that they could replicate the same big holiday rush sales with the same toy and the same marketing hype. According to Yahoo! Shine’s Holiday Gift Guide for parents, “Desperate parents are turning to Amazon.com, where some versions of the $54 toy are selling for $80 or more, and to eBay, where less-popular colors are selling for about $75. The hottest colors come with the highest prices: $1,000 to $2,500 for a single Furby.” One of the new features of the 2012 Furby is that is can interact with iPods and iPads — another electronic gadget that advertisers tell children they need to be hip.
The Furby hype is, of course, a retail trick, designed to fuel children’s desires for a new product. This translates into children nagging parents to acquire a new toy.
Spreading “joy with toys” is a major part of what the holidays in America have become — selling directly to children, without respect to limits, boundaries or even common decency. The result is young children are spending more time absorbing corporate marketing, resulting in shorter attention spans, reduced vocabularies, and less understanding of their local communities.
The only defense against the onslaught of commercializing childhood is for parents to become more aware of the “corporate week” — that is, their children spending more than 40 hours a week interacting with corporate products. These activities often involve idly sitting and absorbing entertainment with little to no historical or educational value. Children are spending less time reading, writing, studying, and having conversations with friends and family. The “corporate week” does not inspire critical thinking at a level beyond quick, Pavlovian responses. The potential impact on the developing psyche of young children of heavy exposure to the violence and crass humor found in entertainment is disturbing.
While completely shielding a child from the excesses of rampant commercialization isn’t easy in our corporate society, there are still ways to protect the essential blessings of childhood. For starters, parents can demand that marketer’s respect their children’s privacy and set limits as to where and how marketers can direct advertise to young children. (Some action has recently been made in this area. Beginning July 1, 2013, the FTC will enact new privacy laws to protect children under 13 from having their information collected online. Read the details here.) And then it’s up to the parents to turn off the TV, the computer, the cell phones and the iPads, put away the Furbys and the video games, and spend quality time with their children. This means eating family meals together and organizing family outings and activities with real educational and civic values. Consider, for instance, how many children are aware of the public workings of their town? Where does their drinking water come from? How does the local justice system operate? What is made there? For children, the local community is a vast and untapped resource of new information, new understandings, and new perspectives. Many local papers have a listing of community activities suitable for the whole family, such as nature walks, 5K races, book clubs, poetry readings, arts and crafts programs, film festivals, and more. (For D.C. residents, every Friday the Washington Post offers a huge listing of weekend cultural events taking place in the city.) By taking advantage of this nearby resource, making learning fun, and being more alert to the horde of corporate marketers that drive to infiltrate the walled boundaries of our family units, parents can provide better guidance and more enriching experiences for their children.