Exposing the Cartoon Consumerism Industrial Complex

 Earlier this year I had the privilege to begin writing the High Voltage column in Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine. If you’re not familiar with it, Clubhouse is Focus’ mag for 8- to 12-year-olds. Each issue is packed with games, inspirational stories and faith-infused content to help young ones grow in their Christian convictions—and have tons of fun along the way.

High Voltage is Clubhouse’s monthly media discernment column where we respond to kids’ letters asking about popular culture stuff. I spent quite a bit of time going through a big stack of letters yesterday (shockingly, there are children out there who still know how to write a letter!), and one theme kept popping up over and over: the intersection of cartoons, computers and consumerism.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A 10-year-old girl in Hanover, Penn., asked, “What do you think of Ever After High?” I wasn’t actually familiar with Ever After High, but after a bit of research, I discovered it’s a series of very short videos related to Mattel’s Monster High doll franchise.

But the lavish website for the franchise offers much more than just videos and the obligatory, not-so-subliminal encouragement to purchase Monster High Doll paraphernalia. In addition, young fans will find video games, character bios, a chance to design a personalized Ever After High dorm room, features to customize your online character with the points you’ve earned on games elsewhere on the site (after you’ve created a user profile, of course) and, as they say on TV, much, much more.

From a kids’ perspective, it’s an integrated entertainment wonderland that bridges the gap between real toys and virtual worlds. From my parental perspective, though, it looked more like one of the most elaborate marketing schemes I’d seen in a while.

But as it turns out, this scheme isn’t particularly unique.

“Do you think the new show Max Steel on Disney XD is good for me because I’m a Christian?” a 13-year-old from California asked. Ten minutes of online sleuthing later, I’d found a carbon copy of the marketing plan I saw with Ever After High, albeit decidedly more boy friendly. Along with games and character bios, there was also “cool” stuff like technical readouts for vehicles and weapons.

Oh, and links to buy the toys, of course.

And the letters just kept coming. Letters asking about Cartoon Network’s LEGO-based show Ninjago. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Pokémon X&Y. In each case, there’s a show. And there’s a product. And there’s an immersive online world just waiting to engage—and perhaps enmesh—young minds ever more deeply in these series and in their associated products, enticing young fans to consume ever-increasing quantities of both.

 Obviously, merchandising tie-ins to pop culture franchises are nothing new. I remember pining away for Star Wars figures and a Millennium Falcon for Christmas way back in 1977. And even before that, I recall how excited I was to get a Six Million Dollar Man action figure and the unbelievably cool Bionic Transport and Repair Station to make sure my plastic Steve Austin stayed bionically robust. (I just checked on eBay, and for a pretty penny, I can now relive that experience if I want to.)

The ’80s, of course, pushed the cartoon-marketing connection to new heights with the likes of Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man, not to mention the first iterations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony. In that decade, it started getting harder to figure out what was marketing what. Were the shows pushing the products? Or were the products pushing the shows? The overarching answer was simply yes.

All of those marketing dynamics are still in play today. What’s changed in the last decade or so, though, is the addition of that online milieu cementing it all together. It’s not just about playing with the toys or watching the shows anymore. These days, elaborate and engrossing Internet sites for such shows have become the connective marketing tissue that holds it all together … powerfully and synergistically reinforcing children’s urges to spend both time and money engaged in the imaginary worlds placed before them.

Given the immersive nature of children’s franchises in the 21st century, the chief challenge we parents face involves setting appropriate boundaries and limits. And I’m not just talking screen-time limits (a subject we address here fairly regularly). There also need to be limits on the impulses to go buy all that cool stuff forever being put in front of kids online and on TV.

As a dad who sometimes likes to please his kids more than he enjoys instilling the sometimes painful disciplines of saving and disengaging, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that disentangling from these franchises’ elaborate worlds can be hard to do. But in our house—on our best days, at least—we try to establish screen-time boundaries as well as limits with a franchise as a whole.

My son, Henry, for example, has been increasingly interested in Pokémon in all its iterations: the trading cards, the TV show and the multitude of online info about both. Increasingly, we’ve felt the need not only to turn off the TV and the computer, but to set limits on all things Pokémon and do something else completely different (like, say, going outside to play or reading).

Simultaneously, my wife and I have also been working to critique the franchise’s worldview with Henry, comparing and contrasting where it values the same things we do, and where its ideas are at odds with a Christian understanding. And on still another level, we’re working to help him recognize and understand that many of the messages he sees are calculated efforts to get him to spend his allowance. In the last few weeks, that’s led to conversations about greed and contentment, thankfulness and asking God to help us wait for what we really want.

In short, then, we’re striving to help our kids navigate the vast quantity of marketing aimed at them in the form of what we might be tempted to see as just a toy or a TV show. Obviously, it’s a lot more than just either of those things. Intentional parental engagement isn’t easy. And we don’t always get it completely right. But we’re committed to connecting even more meaningfully with our children than the many toy marketers out there are trying very hard to do … through every means and medium at their disposal.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

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