Friday, June 11, 2010

Impressionable Minds

I don't watch TV, but I'm not so crazy as to ban my kids from it. Mostly we hang out on PBS, since it's one of two kids channels we get. I prefer it not because it's educational, but because it doesn't have commercials.

Dude, commercials are scary.

I never gave it much thought until I had kids. Commercials were mostly stupid—I could see through their little mind tricks and selling tactics no problem. I figured, for the most part, advertising didn't really work that well.

Then one day Dino Boy comes into the kitchen while I'm cooking dinner, and he says, "Mom?"

"Yes, honey?"

He sighs. "I think I need a Pillow Pet."

I stop, realizing he must have seen this on the other kid channel we have—the one riddled with infomercials. "Why do you think you need a Pillow Pet?"

"They are soft to sleep on, and good friends."

My jaw dropped. He was totally convinced! One commercial, and my kid had been brain washed into thinking he needed something he really didn't need at all. Something he'd never actually want. It scared me, how easy it was.

And it didn't stop there.

While Nick was mopping the floor: "Daddy, you need a Shark Steamer! They get all the germs out!"

While I was baking: "Mommy, eggs are hard to crack with your hands. They get all over. You should get an Egg Cracker like on TV."

When we were doing laundry: "We need Wonder Hangers! We need more room in our closet! Wonder Hangers help!"

Now, Dino Boy is only four, but I started wondering when this impressionability would wear off. Or is the human mind always this susceptible to the power of suggestion? I mean, there are lots of advertisements for adults...and it wouldn't be a huge industry if it didn't actually work.

Then I started thinking about my writing. Lots of people say, "I just tell the story, and it's up to the reader to decide what they think." I'm not saying we should all be out there moralizing, but I'm starting to wonder just how much of an impact we have as writers. Words, images, sounds—they are much more powerful than I think we sometimes give them credit for.

And I'm not talking just for kids, either, but even adults. Are we letting the media, advertisements, push us in directions we've been convinced we want, but we don't really? I wonder about myself sometimes. Do I wear mascara because I've been told it makes my eyes prettier? Do I love shoes because I'm told that's what girls love? Which opinions are my own, and which were fabricated by outside forces?

The lines blur more than I want to admit, but it's interesting to think about.


  1. hm - i bought my 6 yr old those stupid bending sticks b/c of a commercial.

    I know lets make our own commercials and do an experiment to see if we can "influence" people to like our books and do things we want them to do.

    we could take over the world! mwwwaaahhhhhaaaaa

  2. All those commercials sound awfully familiar...and it's sad that I've wanted to get some of those things. Darcy can even quote the commercials, and I'm getting scared. Social conditioning is frightening, too. If Darcy wants to play with bugs and snakes, I encourage her all the way. Princesses are way overrated.

  3. Interesting points. I'd say that all of us are influenced to some degree by social forces around us, which include advertisements.

    To paraphrase Don Draper from Mad Men, the ad industry flourishes because it sells people not just a product, but a perception of being okay--more germ-free, more beautiful, etc..

    I guess it's really up to each of us to figure out how much we've bought into the artificial standards created by advertisements. I mean, do I use a Mac because it really does "just work" or is it because of the cool commercials?

    There's a lot to think about here.

  4. The power of suggestion is out there, and it is indeed scary. But we're smarter than that... right?

    It's all in our personal knowledge/wisdom. Teach our children the influence of advertisements and show them how to really think about things before taking any kind of action.

    We have the awareness to differentiate between our own decisions and the influence of others. We just need to be taught how to recognise it. :)

    That's the direction I take when it comes to writing. If I've done my job, I've made my audience ponder what I've written and connect it to their own lives, use it to deepen their opinions on something, or open their minds to the possibility of something that never before occurred to them.

  5. So I read this post, left it, and then found it so intriguing that I had to come back and comment.

    When it comes to writing, I try not to "push" my beliefs on anyone else. But, I write children's books, and usually the books end with the main character learning from something and growing into a better person (or animal if my book is about animals) in some sort of way.

    As a human being, it would be incredibly difficult to not let our beliefs color the way we approach others. So, while I don't actively try to make people agree with me, I guess I am marketing to some degree. No, I don't have a commercial, but I still am trying to get my point across.

    I'm not sure yet how this relates to myself being affected by others. But this has all given me something to think about :)

  6. I think, as long as you're aware you can be influenced by society and question your surroundings, it's okay. I mean, yeah, we're influenced, obviously. But hopefully if we try to keep our eyes open, we'll see the influences that harm us and we'll stay away from them.

  7. They say children don't develop the critical faculty until about 8, so any "facts" presented on television are taken as actual facts. Of course, we do have to be careful of what kind of influences we surround ourselves with thereafter (and if we remember being teenagers, clearly we don't have the full critical faculty at 8!).

    When I do let my kids watch TV with commercials, I often flat-out tell them what they see on the commercial isn't true, that commercials are made to make us buy something, and we don't need that.

  8. I totally wanted to by my husband that old spice soap after watching the entertaining commercials with the guy on a horse, but I'm resisting because I WILL NOT BE BRAINWASHED by a a commercial. I still really want to buy it though.
    I try not to let my kids watch commercial television for the very reasons you stated and also because commercials are immoral and foul these days. They could be watching a nice kids show and then they're bombarded by sex, violence by the commercials - so annoying.

  9. Have you read the YA novel Feed by M.T. Anderson? It's about a futuristic society where people are implanted with marketing/communicating chips and are constantly "fed" advertisements based on their likes/dislikes etc. right into their brains. Basically, nobody really has to think for themselves. The story revolves around a group of teens, and one girl that wants to fight against it. I found it very thought provoking (and to be honest, a little scary).

  10. I heard, at a company-mandated drug training, that there wasn't a prescription drug problem in the USA until the ban on prescription drug commercials was lifted 12 years ago. Now kids see all the benefits of these drugs without paying attention to the quickly-read warnings.

    I am very careful about what I let my child watch right now even though he still can’t talk and I doubt he can understand... I will probably be freaking out when he can listen, talk, and operate the remote.

  11. Shelli, that's sounds slightly evil, but I think I'm in:)

    Michelle, it's interesting what each kids loves! I never wanted Ninja Girl to be into the pink/shiny stuff, but well, she is. Who am I to stop her?

    Feliza, I use Macs cuz they're pretty. There, I said it:)

    Tiana, I don't think we can help putting our thoughts in a book, even when we're not trying. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing—I don't think my stuff would sound "real" without it.

    Bethany, I hope we can see! But sometimes even when I try to break it down, it's hard to know.

    Jordan, that's interesting about age 8! I'm interested to see how Dino Boy grows and learns in the next 4 years:)

    Mary, I know! I feel the same way sometimes.

    Suzie, that sounds like a really interesting book! I'll have to check it out sometime:)

    Garret, very interesting. I'd like to see more on that.

  12. Interesting indeed. Sometimes I'm utterly suprised at some of the horrible (and quite suggestive) commercials put on network TV as early as 8 PM. When I have kids, I'll have to be very careful on letting them watch. Perhaps I'll just have them watch the kid-friendly networks. Assuming they're still that way when I do have kids...

    I also wonder if these commercials put some sort of subliminal message in them? Maybe I'm reading too many dystopian novels :P

  13. Just last week we (my neighbours and I) got into theorising about author responsibility. And then I blogged about it. It's a really thin line. Because you can try your best to tell a story, and people can still distort it.

    For example, my social worker neighbour thinks Twilight promotes domestic violence. I think it's just a book where a happy Mormon wife promotes the qualities she reveres in a husband.

  14. Hehe, Claire, it's true. And as a Mormon, I think Twilight's about a girl's very naive journey through first love.

  15. "So I read this post, left it, and then found it so intriguing that I had to come back and comment."

    Me, too!

    No time, but this is a great post, Natalie.

  16. This is something I have been thinking about for years. We really are implanted with thoughts and ideals from outside sources. I am with you on the PBS only channel in my house. I don't want the television teaching my child. That's my job. And I am always mindful of what I put into my books. Granted, there is a LITTLE romance, but nothing over the top, just enough =). And definitely no language issues there.

  17. OMG - My kids go on and on about those EXACT SAME COMMERCIALS. I have learned to hate the pillow pet one, because as soon as it's on, my house is filled with the shouts of three children trying to tell me which pillow pet they want. *plugs ears*

    I'm not sure about the shoe thing. I'm not into shoes, but my mom is, and my oldest daughter is. *shrug*

    Anyway, great post, Natalie! :)

  18. i've got a little sister, and its always a problem telling her no to whatever's on tv! but i think its true that a lot of the things we do are influenced by what the media tells us. we have to look beyond the products to see what our life is really like. its important to realize that just because someone tells us so does not mean its true. interesting post. my brain is buzzing!

  19. Thank you for this post! It's so honest and speaks to a problem I see as pervasive in our society. In college, I took a few communications classes where they discussed the effect of media on the masses. What really interested me was the effect on the individual: third person media effect - people recognize media affects other people, but don't notice the same thing in themselves.

    That really made me think about what I watched, read, even scanned on the freeway. Mindfulness is the only defense we have against this type of constant advertising.

    Although... I like being brainwashed about books, to be honest. Getting excited about a book based on a blurb or cool-o, neat-o book trailer = BEST FUN EVER.

  20. Katrina, third person media effect! Very interesting! Mindfulness is definitely key.

  21. I never asked for anything I saw in a commercial but I used to memorise add jingles as a kid. As I went shopping with mum I would sing each jingle as we selected the items from the shelf.
    I think that it was made clear to me early on that just because the t.v. said something doesn't make it real and so I considered ads just another kind of fiction to be enjoyed.
    As to the influence of writers, I don't think we have quite the lasting impact of short repetitive advertising. Maybe if our books had jingles they might but otherwise...
    This was a very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Cassandrajade, I love that idea. So, Natalie... what would your ninja jingle sound like?

  23. I think writers have a lot more power than they think they do. Words and images are powerful things. Everything we read/do/see affects us, changes us (even in a small way). I don't think there's really any getting away from that entirely. Though I do try to keep aware of how my opinions are changing and monitoring if that's what I really want and believe. But it's hard sometimes.

    We have a PVR and all the shows we watch are taped in advance. We fast-forward through ALL the commercials so I've effectively gotten away from their brainwashing.

    That's pretty scary about Dino Boy though.

  24. I think this is so interesting because I remember those commercials when I was a kid and after badgering my mom to get me one or two things I'd seen a thousand times and having them break or not do what they were supposed to, I became convinced that all things in infomercial type ads where happy people go on about how fabulous some wonder product is were a waste of money and or straight up lies. I still carry that with me today.

    So I guess what I'm saying is that that kind of experience goes both ways, because I'm sure that some of those wonder products really do work, but I can't believe in any of them.

    Which really backs up your original statement that you just can't control what kind of effect you have. People will always interpret what you say however they want.

    Great post!

  25. That is sad and crazy! This is why TV and commercials are evil, in general. Just get yourselves a DVR and you can get past all that.

    I suppose that doesn't really apply for little ones though, can't count on them skipping the ads if they're very young.

    Just make Nick take control and monitor their viewing 24/7.

  26. Not gonna lie, those stupid Wonder Hangers almost got me too. Then I Googled them and found out they're pretty much crap. Thank goodness for review sites! (Maybe you should teach Dino Boy about looking up reviews and ratings? Half kidding... :P)

    "The lines blur more than I want to admit, but it's interesting to think about."

    Definitely. And I think it's awesome that you want to apply this discussion to your own writing, particularly since you write for a younger audience (YA).

    That said, I think it's a balance. You have to tell your story. But you have to recognize that part of being a writer is having a readers, and readers will find meaning in your words. What can you live with and what can't you live with, in terms of their interpretations?

  27. I don't watch TV either, but I'm brainwashed everytime I go to the grocery store and look at food labels.

  28. My older son does the same thing! Scary, isn't it? Very thought provoking post. The power of suggestion/advertising is strong indeed.

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  30. Your post definitely gives me something to think about. I usually just skip over commercials, except for when I watch TV at the gym. Then it only gets difficult to ignore the commercials when advertisements for restaurants come on, because they always show these delicious meals in slow motion while I'm trying to exercise and be healthy.

  31. Commercials are scary!

    They've given my kids and me a chance to discuss propaganda techniques and the like--and now it's great to hear one of them say something like, "They're totally saying that to me think it's like X. I bet it's not."


  32. No opinion is yours. We've all been manipulated by the advertising industry, which is a fascinating industry. I remember watching Mad Men on AMC and a group of advertising execs were in a meeting. Someone blurted out the cliche "sex sells". Another exec responded, "says who?" That always stuck with me because we're lead to believe sex sells but that isn't true unless they make it so. We're so quick to agree with these ads that's what make them so fascinating.

  33. I agree, the power of commercials and the media in general can be completly underestimated, its hard to know which ideas are our own and which have been fabricated. Limiting the advertising you children see is a good idea, when they get a little older it might be an idea to let them see them and encourage them to question them? I did this with my oldest, she was made aware that commercials are blatent lies to make you buy things. I think it worked to some extent in that she often laughs, esp at the teenagers advertising anti-wrinkle creams!

  34. You're thinking like you've got a post-apoc book in the works. Welcome to the Club of Scary Predictors. The future is FUN.

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