The purpose of all commercials is to manipulate. That's salesmanship.
Yet those aimed at children are sometimes especially deceitful. These are the Saturday morning commercials on the networks and the weekday spots on independent stations that create false impressions and influence their malleable young audiences by using slick production techniques to exaggerate and hedge the truth. In a way, that's lying.
The evidence is on "Buy Me That! A Kids' Survival Guide to TV Advertising," a sensational half hour airing at 7:30 tonight on cable's HBO, with repeats on Monday and Dec. 14, 17, 19 and 23.
Encourage your kids to watch it. You couldn't give them a better holiday present.
The target audience is under 11. But just as the satire on "Sesame Street" is multileveled, so is the humor on this program sophisticated enough for adults. Schools, PTAs and libraries should buy "Buy Me That!" when it's released as a video in February by Films Inc. It's that valuable.
Here is a program that's not only greater fun than Ninja Turtles but also, more importantly, teaches some of the critical viewing skills long advocated by such TV activists as Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television, and Elizabeth Thoman, editor of Media & Values.
As Thoman said recently: "We have learned over the last 20 years to make different choices in the kind of food we eat. We have learned to read the labels and to question what's in the can and what kind of pesticide it's sprayed with. We need the same kind of awareness in the terms of the kind of media we ingest."
Produced for HBO by Consumer Reports Television, "Buy Me That!" examines the labels of kids' commercials with a microscope, using some of the techniques of commercials themselves to compare the reality with what advertisers seem to be promising through sophisticated imagery.
Supported by observations from bright, articulate children recruited from the New York area, a terrific young host named Jim Fyfe provides the answers to such questions as:
--"Do commercials use tricks?" Do they ever, by using the wizardry of Madison Avenue, in effect, to appropriate and exploit a child's greatest gift, his or her imagination.
The action commercial shows a toy engaged in fantastic maneuvers. Then Fyfe, with a mischievous gleam in his eye: "Let's see how many . . . stunts these Turbo Tricksters really do." Not many, according to his test.
Meanwhile, Fyfe irreverently compares a commercial for something called Guess Who?--in which cards bearing faces are shown actually talking--with the actual cards. He talks to the cards, and guess what about Guess Who? The cards don't talk back. Maybe they're camera shy.
--"How do they make food look so good?" Enter a food "makeup man," who substitutes glue for the milk in cereal, dips grapes in vegetable oil to make them shine and uses dishwashing liquid to make hot chocolate look bubbly.
And on and on it goes, from "celebrity sneakers" to the true meaning of "parts sold separately" (a la the planes, ocean and jungle in G.I. Joe spots) to commercials that use creative editing to make games look much easier to play than they really are.
Not left out, happily, are those commercials that entice kids into innocently making expensive "900" calls to lovable old Santa Claus and others. Testimony from a recovering kid addict: "I was addicted to 900 numbers. I couldn't stop calling them. I loved them so much." Far more than his parents loved them when they got the phone bill.
Six advertisers featured on "Buy Me That!" are cited in complaints that Action for Children's Television filed last week with the Federal Trade Commission. Action for Children's Television also has filed a complaint against AT&T; concerning commercials for "900" numbers, said Charren, the grande dame of kids' TV activists, from her Newton, Mass. office. She was a consultant for "Buy Me That!."
The idea for the program came from Joyce Newman, executive producer for Consumer Reports Television, herself a parent of three children under 11 and thus the object of intense lobbying for the toys and games advertised on TV.
"It was just after last Christmas," Newman said from her Mount Vernon, N.Y. office. "I was talking to Sheila Nevins (HBO vice president for documentaries and family programs), and I said, 'HBO should do this show.' "
Of course HBO.
It was the logical venue, not only because it had collaborated with Consumer Reports Television in the past, including a 1985 documentary on commercials titled "The 30-Second Seduction," which was aimed at adults, but also because HBO is a subscription-based system that does not run commercials itself. Unlike ABC, CBS, NBC and independent commercial stations--all of which would shrink at airing a program aggressively attacking their own advertisers--HBO could present "Buy Me That!" without fear of reprisal.
Deception in kids' commercials was hardly a revelation to Consumer Reports Television, whose parent firm, Consumers Union, publishes the nonprofit Penny Power magazine for children as a companion to its Consumer Reports magazine for adults.
"Over the years, Penny Power has gotten hundreds of letters from kids asking questions about the ads they'd seen," Newman said. Deceptive commercials are hard enough on adults, she said, "but they're especially difficult for kids, because they're so vulnerable."
And that is what drives the deceivers.
Of course, kids' commercials are only one narrow spoke in the media wheel. So we end this commercial for "Buy Me That!" with a warning from Thoman of Media & Values: "My big concern is the five-year-olds in 1989 who will begin to be adults in the year 2000. How will we prepare them to live their adult lives in a media-dominated society? We have only 10 years to help them gain the skills and learn the choices."