Toy Joy or Consumption Junction? Critical Thinking for Holiday Fun

Nov. 15, 2012 This season, if we all choose to support media and marketing messages with positive worldviews instead of defaulting to ‘what’s out there’ we could call for a massive mindshift to start chiseling away toward change.

The thorny marketing response “If it didn’t sell, we wouldn’t produce it” is piercing my side this week as lists bombard my inbox with holiday hype-fests for kids’ products that I wish weren’t even in the marketplace much less being purchased.

So we’re going to make it easier for parents to step up and support “the good stuff” and do some wallet whacking to shift away from vapid values, appearance-based cues, gender stereotypes, and narrowcasting of kids, by highlighting green light/positive picks the rest of the month with gratitude for their existence in this season of Thanksgiving.

Whatever your hot button happens to be (eco moms railing against craptastic plastic, excessive screen time/sedentary toys versus outdoor imaginative play, sexualized hoochie-mama fashionista dollies, militainment or murder mayhem videogames) now’s the time to change the channel of media influence and use your purchasing power to raise the bar of humanity!

Let’s give a loud shoutout to organizations and media/marketing producers that are putting good things out into the world for boys and girls…Send us YOUR positive picks. Think of it as both an indie-Etsy-pbs-style marketplace for what we WISH were mass marketed…as well as mass market fun finds that are positive messages we can all embrace!

We’ll kick off the fun by featuring a brand new online venture we’ve been waiting for, called TowardTheStars.com, a curated marketplace sending healthier messages to girls via toys, media, and products that snap stereotypes into “Little Bits” to empower and excite imaginations so girls can soar. It’s emerging as a one-stop online hub already filtered for meaningful gifting, with categories like “supports a community, counters stereotypes, environmentally friendly, gender neutral” and they’re adding new vendors and buyers by the minute.

Rather than focus ‘just one post’ on Toward The Stars.com we’ll theme the rest of the month to positive picks and spotlight many of the vendors within their collective, from superheroes you’ve never heard about yet, like SuperToolLula an anti-bullying champion…to a future doctor onesie with a stethoscope (never too early to seed STEM for femme, with brain plasticity wide open for opportunity!)

I’ll start by shining the spotlight on sister orgs like Project Girl’s own Kelly Parks Snider, who authored Zilly, A Modern Day Fable celebrating the joys of originality…

…Toss in the newly funded Kickstarter campaign for Goldie Blox engineering fun for girls who love to build…

…Get kids (and parents) THINKING critically with Sophia the Wise philosophy apps +books for kids…Build storytelling minds merged with media magic by exploring the recycled lil’ monsters of Scrapkins, a great ‘maker style’ mashup of environmental repurposing and imaginative play…Remind people with daughters that A Mighty Girl has amazing roundups of books, clothing, music and more that flip the messages we’re seeing in mainstream media about girls…

…And deep dive into global worldviews enhanced by our friends at Reach and Teach.com, an online social justice company with unique and thoughtful books, games and fair trade values that go beyond the obvious to widen worlds, embrace families of all kinds, and impart informal learning that’s fun…Now it’s your turn…

What kind of toys and goods do YOU welcome in your home with open arms?

Let’s also spotlight cool interactives, apps, online games and worthy worlds that connect positive innovation with education.

Meanwhile, as commercials start cranking up the ‘nag factor’ and ‘buy it now’ urgency swirling and shouting with colorful 3D protrusions bouncing off the screen in consumption junction ‘must have’ mode…Take a moment to “teach your children well” and deconstruct the toy claims and hype, so kids can get grounded in ‘perception vs reality.’

To kick off our positive picks series with thankfulness and gratitude that there ARE people out there championing change, Shaping Youth proudly welcomes media literacy colleague Frank Baker as one of them.

It’s OUR job as parents to impart critical thinking skills to kids, and to reinforce our own ‘family values’ by voting with our wallets to support the good stuff and let the sludge sink to the bottom.

Please welcome Frank who shows us “how it’s done.” Enjoy!

Here Come The Toy Ads!

by Frank W. Baker
Media Literacy Consultant

It’s early fall as I write this, and already toy advertisers and marketers have their holiday ad plans in place. Their priority: the placement and positioning of their commercial spots on all of the networks that carry children’s programs.

Despite the fascination with new media, children and their parents still watch television — lots of it. It’s the job of the advertisers to know their demographic, and as technology advances and more and more social media data become available, it’s easier than ever to target the toy-minded audience. You can be sure marketers know which TV shows kids of various ages (and their parents) watch most often.

As Holiday 2012 approaches, parents and educators have another one of those “teachable moments.” Using toy commercials in the classroom is a great way to jump-start media literacy. Media literacy, as I’ve defined it, is about applying critical thinking/viewing skills to media messages. And one of the most powerful media messages is the persuasive television commercial.

When most of us watch television, we’ve turned off the thinking parts of our brains. It’s the job of educators to teach students how to turn on those “thinking parts” while we watch and develop critical thinking skills. And once kids begin to be discerning consumers of media, they can have a lot of fun deconstructing what they see.

Looking behind the scenes

Media literacy is also about understanding the production process, because most of us only see the finished media product — we rarely get to go behind the scenes to witness how a production moves from conception to completion. In my own teaching, I help young people comprehend and appreciate the tools (camera, lights, sound, special effects) and the techniques (camera angles, masculine/feminine colors, soft/loud music) used to make toy ads which appeal to their emotions.

Toy advertisers, like most all other advertisers, know that they must showcase their products in the best possible light. Sometimes that means using tricks and hoping unsuspecting viewers won’t notice. These finely crafted messages are some of the most persuasive and influential ads on television.

Several years ago, one of the most popular toys of the holiday season was Cinderella’s Magical Talking Vanity. I happened to be video recording one  Saturday morning when a new ad for the product was broadcast during children’s programming. During the commercial (which I play back during my media literacy workshops for unsuspecting participants) we see two little girls, both seated and standing next to the vanity.

At the conclusion of the ad, I ask my audiences to indicate how tall they think the vanity is, and they all believe it is taller than it actually is. To demonstrate this, I unfurl a poster I had made showing the actual height of the toy — much shorter than anyone had guess-timated. Then I replay the commercial and point out the brief second which reveals that the toy has been placed on a platform. The commercial is deceptive, but many viewers (and most young people) are unaware. They’ve not been taught how to watch with a critical eye and see through the spin. This is where media literacy comes in.

Buy Me That

In 1990, HBO, in a collaboration with Consumer Reports Television, aired the first of three half-hour specials about children and advertising, entitled Buy Me That. The programs helped pull back the curtain on many of the techniques and tricks used in TV commercials. These videos, now unfortunately out of circulation, became favorites with media educators, myself included.

In one of the more popular segments, the producers of Buy Me That showcase the remote-controlled toy Typhoon 2, which the announcer proclaims loudly, “zooms around that rocky maze” and “glides over water like a cushion on air.” After playing the first few seconds of this toy ad, I ask kids who would like to own the Typhoon 2, and all hands shoot up.

The producers of the Buy Me That documentary decided to field test the toy. They gave an actual Typhoon 2 toy to some kids to test outside. We see them on a basketball court trying to maneuver the toy, but increasingly it does not perform. Next, we see these same children try to launch the toy onto a pool of water, like they saw in the commercial, but alas it sinks. One of the children summarizes the experience and advertising when he says: “we tried it many times, but it failed” and “even though it looks good in the commercial, it’s just not good.”

This segment is eye-opening for the young people who participate in my media literacy workshops. I’ve demonstrated that toy ads (which they’ve believed up till now) cannot be trusted. This is a critical lesson all young people should receive, and not just at holiday time.

Extending the learning

Invariably, after seeing this segment, children want to share a time when they received a birthday or holiday toy that also failed to live up to their expectations. This is a perfect opportunity to engage them in a writing activity.

I ask, “Who could you write to, in order to complain about deceptive toy advertising?” They brainstorm. Typical answers include the President of the United States, the toy store, the toy company. It’s rare that anyone suggests complaining to the TV network or station that aired the commercial.

Then I’ll ask, “don’t broadcasters have an obligation to run advertising that is truthful and not deceptive?” A follow-up question asks students to do the research: who in Washington DC is responsible for deceptive advertising? (The Federal Trade Commission) Then we brainstorm about other things young people can do when they encounter deceptive or false advertising. (One idea: write and publish toy reviews on the internet. Another: make substitute ads showing what toys really do.)

Here’s my lesson plan for the Typhoon II, which includes a link to a 3-minute excerpt from Buy Me That, showing the Typhoon II segment.

The Critical Inquiry process

At the heart of media literacy is asking questions — and not just any questions. To become media literate, we have to pursue a line of inquiry that helps reveal who’s behind the message.

Questions to consider include:

  • who created the ad?
  • for what purpose?
  • using which techniques?
  • for what audiences?

It’s not rocket-science. But it is important.

It’s up to adults to overcome media illiteracy

Students who are not media literate will fall into the trap of believing everything they see, read and hear. Today’s teachers tell me that most of their students don’t question: If something is on TV (or the Internet) they believe it.

This is where parents and educators come in: it’s our job to use the media, and popular culture, as the hooks to teaching critical thinking (and those all important curriculum standards.)

If you want to know more about media literacy, I suggest you spend some time on the website of The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). On their site, you’ll find the Core Principles of Media Literacy and the Key Questionsstudents should consider when they encounter any media message. (NAMLE makes it easy to print these out and display.)

If you want to know more about toy advertising, surf over to my website page about How Toy Advertising Influences Kids. If everyone reading this would engage young people in media literacy education, we’d all be better because of it.

Frank W. Baker is the author of three books; the most recent “Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2012).

He maintains the nationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and conducts media literacy workshops at schools and districts across the US.

He is a consultant to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and blogs at He blogs at http://www.ncte-ama.blogspot.com. Baker lives in Columbia, SC and can be reached at [email protected].

A Few Positive Picks for Gifting Featured on Shaping Youth: Let’s Add to Them!

(Note: those in blue denote SY ongoing affiliations)

Pigtail Pals: TEE party and Positive Picks in Media/Mktg: Pigtail Pals, Redefining Girly

Reach and Teach: Global Goods That Do Good and Ten Under $10

New Moon Girl Media Magazine +Community Online and Girl Caught! New Moon Girls Slams Sexualization

STEM Toys: Innovate to Educate (Roominate, Little Bits, Goldie Blox and more)

Piggies and Paws: Kids’ Keepsakes for Life (handprints/footprints)

Storybird: Kids Online Story Community (create keepsakes/books-art)

When Kids Want to Use Their Own Money to Gift ($5 finds)

My Mommy Taught Me to Surf and My Daddy Taught Me to Surf (portion goes to Surfrider Fnd)

Best Childrens’ TV You’ve Never Seen: Ameba TV

The Perfect Gift for A Man: Reinventing Manhood/Inspire Foundation

Counter-Marketing Consumption Cues: Think Geek Gifting Fun

Wrapping Up the Gift of Time in a Media Package

Shaping Youth Through Philanthropic Gifting Fun

Kite Sisters: Stickers to Billboards The Take Back Beauty Project For Respect

How Can We Use Media to Gift…Without Buying? (fun/novelty gift picks) 

(See more in positive picks category)

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