by Julia Steiny
Here’s a painfully-clear portrait of our post-moral culture: A recently-released advertisement uses real kids, not actors, to deliver the message that Nature is deadly dull and that over-priced, made-in-Elsewhere consumerist toys bring true joy.
The kick-off to Toys”R”Us’ holiday season is here on YouTube.
At this point, everyone over age 5 is onto advertising’s lies. So clever corporate America has created a new technique called “reality prank,” which sets up a situation that captures real people having genuine, heartfelt reactions. The non-actor responses are hugely compelling. In two such “prank” ads — see here and here — unsuspecting people are put in scary if not terrifying situations. The pranks provoke pricelessly big, honest reactions — for the purpose of selling TVs and beer, respectively. Apparently using people for corporate or personal gain is okay, as long as it’s entertaining.
Toys”R”Us uses a busload of urban kids. The set-up is a fake environmental organization called “Meet the Trees Foundation,” which is taking them on a field trip to the forest. Actually, the one aspect that didn’t seem real was the kids’ seeming boredom about taking the trip. I’ve never seen elementary students be anything but thrilled to be on a bus taking them just about anywhere other than school. Not sure how they did that.
“Ranger Brad,” an actor, leads the expedition. As the bus pulls away, he preps them to play arguably the most boring game ever conceived: Name that leaf. Students yawn, as I would. When a boy gamely ventures a wrong guess, he’s gently put down, a moment designed to boil the blood of environmental educators.
But the pain is quickly over. Time for the reveal:
Ranger Brad strips off his colorless, tree-hugger’s shirt, revealing a deep red, designerly version of a Toys”R”Us employee shirt. His voice loses its environmentalist piety and amps up to full pitchman: “We’re not going to the forest today,” — because who on earth would want to do that? — “we’re going to Toys”R”Us!” The kids scream and whoop. Brad seals the deal with: “You’ll play with all the toys and you can choose any toy you want!” For a poor urban kid, life doesn’t get any better.
From there, the advertiser has easy, downhill sledding. We see shot after darling shot of kids loose in a candy store, riding bikes, wide-eyed at games, thrilled over the possibilities. “I’m going to cry,” says a kid in the throes of overwhelm. “This is sooooooo cool,” bursts another. This rich sequence ends as a lovely girl takes a fluffy stuffed creature into her arms and melts with pleasure. Cue corporate logo and cut.
The message is that environmental education is not good or bad, but why bother? Clearly it bores the daylights out of the team who made the ad. Why they threw Mother Nature under the bus is a head-scratcher, except that corporate America can’t make a buck off kids and nature.
Educators, ecologists and some parents would argue passionately that teaching children about protecting the environment is critical to our survival. I would add that Nature has a spirit that could become a real friend to urban kids, if they only had more access and exposure to it. Like any friend, kids need to become familiar with nature’s spirit, over time. Without bells and whistles, it’s not obvious what entertainment can be gotten out of it. Nature only “works” as a toy when you’ve explored it and know its treasures, like European kids who attend forest kindergartens. They whoop and scream too, but over mud, imagination, twigs and tools — much more accessible to a low-income kid.
Making kids happy is an ancient and desirable pleasure. In moderation, it’s a good thing. But thrilling urban kids with a shiny consumer object starts to look like a quick first fix. Hyper-marketed toys, like movie-tie-in products, are interesting for a surprisingly short time. Many new parents have been sorely disappointed to see the child far more thrilled with the box than the toy itself. As the novelty recedes, new and fancier toys must take their place to keep the child amused and not, God forbid, bored. The trendy toy of the year resembles the beginning of an addiction more than a prop for a child’s imagination and exploration.
But what I got from this whole phenomenon of “reality pranks” is that it no longer matters whom you use, or what values you trash, in order to sell product. In a post-moral culture the common good can’t possibly compete with entertainment. If we use kids — or terrify adults — to make the dollar, that’s kind of clever, no? Environmental educators matter so little no one is going to fuss about dissing them.
Although, I’m not the only one to object. Petitions are circulating. But as of this writing not even 1,000 people have thumbs-downed the ad. However insulting, unhealthy and greedy the message, the unfortunate values asserted are not much rocking anyone’s world.
But I can tell you that Toys”R”Us has seen the last of my dollars.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.