What a coup for Google that it snagged the late Fred Rogers. In its new commercial for the Pixel 3, the company’s latest smartphone, the creator and star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” can be heard talking and singing about wonder.
The timing couldn’t be better. As tech companies face growing criticism for encouraging unhealthy screen use among kids, Google bought itself a beloved TV icon renowned for his integrity and laser focus on children’s well-being.
But it’s too bad for kids and families. Rogers was one of few children’s media personalities who refused to exploit kids for profit.
Even shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Teletubbies” generated millions by licensing characters to sell toys, clothing and junk food. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” refrained from marketing products to kids.
Google employs a range of exploitative practices in its efforts to win the tech war for kids’ attention.
Rogers, who died in 2003, spoke out against commercialization aimed at children. “The question is not,” he once said, “what can we sell the children and families who use ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?’ or even ‘What can we give them?’ but rather ‘Who are they?’ and ‘What do they bring to the television set?’”
Now Rogers is being used to push smartphones. Perhaps more insidious, the Pixel 3 barely appears in the new commercial. Instead, we are treated to a montage of children and families playing, reveling in nature and marveling at art and architecture. In much the same way Apple’s “Think Different” ads linked that company to iconic visionaries — Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi — Google’s video ad is all about tying its products to Rogers’ worldview.
It’s an incongruous match to say the least. Google employs a range of exploitative practices in its efforts to win the tech war for kids’ attention. A study released this week in the Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics found that 95% of the most downloaded apps designated as “designed for families” in the Google Play Store contain some form of embedded advertising.
Google has also come under fire for exploiting kids through YouTube, which is reportedly used by about 86% of children between the ages of 6 to 12. Children’s advocacy groups filed a complaint against YouTube with the Federal Trade Commission this year, citing numerous violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. According to the complaint, YouTube collects and uses personal information for all users — including children known to be under 13 — without informing parents or getting their consent.
YouTube is rife with ads that target children. In addition to commercials, as well as snippets of TV programs and movies marketing licensed characters, YouTube is home to a host of bizarrely popular videos of kids extolling the virtues of various toys as they remove them from packaging. These “unboxing videos” are made to look like user-generated content, but the most popular ones are paid advertisements.
The second-most-popular channel on YouTube is “Ryan ToysReview.” It features an engaging 7-year-old and his family having a grand old time with a host of commercially available toys. The channel has over 16.8 million subscribers, and brought in $11 million last year.
The child star now has his own brand of toys at Walmart. In a video that’s had close to 12 million views and ought to raise the ire of parents everywhere, Ryan persuades his mother and father to buy every single one of them. The video features a link to Walmart.com.
It’s clear why Google wants Rogers’ endorsement. The ad is consistent with the company’s attempts to market itself as a benign and even helpful friend to children.
Last year, following the lead of the oil and fast food industries, which routinely create corporate-sponsored teaching materials, Google rolled out a curriculum about internet safety for elementary school children that also happens to promote its brand.
Google paid an undisclosed, presumably large amount for Rogers’ voice, words and music. But it’s hard to understand why the heirs to his production company would compromise his integrity in this way. (The company has also reportedly signed new licensing deals for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”)
The company’s official statement seems terribly naïve. “The context of the ad and the use of wonder was really a use of media very much in line with how Rogers would have used technology — out in the real world, to discover, to explore,” explained Suzanne Masri, the director of marketing and communications for Fred Rogers Productions.
But that’s not how most kids spend their time with screen technologies today. They are much more likely to stream videos, play games, send texts or go on social media. Nor is it how tech companies make their money.
There’s no question that the ad is touching. But the purpose of a beautifully made commercial is the same as a poorly made one: to persuade us that our happiness depends on buying things that corporations sell.
Children don’t need smartphones to engage in any of the activities captured in Google’s commercial. What they need is time, space, silence, inspiration and caring adults, just as they did when Fred Rogers was alive.
Susan Linn is a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.” She and her puppets, Audrey Duck and Cat-a-lion, appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”