A Healthy Skepticism

As a parent who doesn’t want his children to grow up too quickly, and who wants them to live healthier lives, I applaud Kraft Foods’ recent decision to change the way it advertises to kids. Marketing healthier foods, of course, is good. And anything that keeps tantrums to a minimum in supermarket aisles is always welcome. (Now if we could just ditch those impulse racks at the checkout. My kids don’t need the candy; I don’t need Us Weekly.)

Still, Kraft’s decision leaves me with a nagging voice in the back of my head that says, “Don’t let your guard down.” It sounds great, but it might just leave us with a false sense of security.

First, it was made largely in response to a broad attack on advertising to kids. And my feeling is, if we obsessively and blindly shield our children from the onslaught of marketing, they may be less prepared in the future to understand when they’re being sold to. Plus, if we put too much faith in companies—or legislators—to tackle this problem, we might find it easier to abdicate our own responsibility for teaching our children what’s good for them.

Not long ago, right around the time of the Kraft announcement, I was listening to a CD from my youth. (Well, actually, it was a reissued CD of an LP from my youth, but you get the idea.) The album was Free to Be You and Me. Readers of a certain ilk will recall the work as a collection of hippy-dippy, we-can-all-love-one-another empowerment. But mixed in with the songs and stories of equality and love was one bit I had forgotten, called “Housework.”

The skit featured Carol Channing warning children to be wary of the woman on TV who reminds us “how terribly urgent/It is to buy some brand of detergent/Or soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach/To help with the housework.” This woman, Channing sweetly explains, is an actress who is paid to look happy. The truth is, she says, “Your mommy hates housework. Your daddy hates housework. … And when you grow up, so will you.” (Got that one right, Carol.)

I didn’t realize it at the time—probably because the ultimate moral seemed to be about doing housework together—but this little bit provided quite a service later in life. As a member of Generation X, I’ve been acutely aware from an early age of people’s attempts to market to me, to the point of being skeptical about taking much of anything at the face value—the utterances of corporate America in particular.

Already, interest groups on both sides are digging in for what may be the Battle Royale of 2005. The food companies and advertising interests have come together to Fight for Their Right to Advertise, while groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the Fun-Food Police, I like to call them) are ready to counter that we should protect our children from the evils of food advertising—that they already see too many ads.

Yes, I cringe when I hear my 3-year-old humming McDonald’s five-note jingle, knowing he probably heard it on Playhouse Disney. But when I tell him we can’t go to McDonald’s all the time because it’s not good for him, he begins to understand that not everything he sees or hears on television is good for him. That’s part of the responsibility of being a parent. That’s not Kraft’s job.

I successfully avoided New Coke. I spent a good deal of the 1990s bemoaning Ticketmaster’s charges. And I pondered (until I saw a picture of myself from above) how anyone could be so vain as to want Rogaine. I don’t believe anything anyone over 30 says, including myself.

So bring it on, Kellogg’s, Kraft, General Mills, PepsiCo and anyone else who wants to join up. I’m confident in my ability to resist your temptations (well, except for Us Weekly), and I know I can teach my children to view your messages with a wary eye. After all, I’ve still got Carol Channing on my side. And TiVo.