Advertising Ambush at Generation Gap

ANDREW RATNER

November 21, 1992|By ANDREW RATNER

While thumbing through a 20-year-old comic book I'd unearthed in my basement, I came across an ad for G.I. Joe, probably the most famous doll for boys in the history of dolls for boys. Under a picture of the miniature soldier in full battle regalia was this jingle: ''G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe, on the land, on the sea, in the air.''

The pitch was so simple, so wholesome, so . . . ancient. No, they don't make children's advertising like that anymore.

The core theme for products pitched to young people nowadays is this: Be radical. Adults are stupid. Let's rock and roll. Adults are stupid. Don't be a nerd. Adults are stupid. Get the message?

In one recent snack product commercial on TV, a grade-school )) class erupts in a cookie party as soon as the oblivious teacher turns his back to continue his monotone lecture. In another spot for bear-shaped graham crackers, aimed at 3- and 4-year-olds, cartoony bruins gyrate around with electric guitars to an audience of pint-sized groupies like Guns N' Roses on tour. Still another treat is called ''Chips Ahoy Rockers,'' because the manufacturer wanted to take no chances in communicating the heavy-metal tie-in.

The trend isn't confined to cookies. Burger King filmed most of its latest ad campaign from a 45-degree angle to the floor, with a hip, baseball-cap-on-backward spokesman; what's good for MTV must be good for the burger business.

One network dubs its Saturday morning programming, ''Kid TV . . . Where kids rule.''

Even Barbie, whose popularity has spanned generations, came in for criticism recently when a new ''teen talk'' version of the doll was programmed to say, ''Math class is tough.'' That annoyed educators, who figured they have enough obstacles to winning over children toward math.

I have nothing against the products being sold, rock and roll, or even children taking over the world. But I think advertisers do a disservice to youngsters when they pitch their goods by driving a wedge to widen the natural generation gap. They prey on the youthful tendency to feel, or at least feign, indifference toward school and adults as a sign of ''cool.'' Surely, youngsters would be willing consumers of cookies, fast food, toys and cartoons even if marketers didn't emphasize that adults are idiots.

''Looking at Saturday morning television, the programs are better than they used to be, but the advertising is so much worse,'' says Peggy Charren. Her Action for Children's Television group has been a national watchdog for kids' TV for 25 years. ''All the ads look like the worst of MTV. What happened to the little [Keebler] elves who used to bake the cookies?''

With due respect to the new president-elect and vice president-elect, my suspicion is that blame for this development belongs where it does for most trends now -- with the baby boomers. The group that matured with the rallying cry, ''Don't trust anyone over 30,'' is now over 30 itself, and fashioning our nation's ad campaigns. If age warfare was good enough for them, it's good enough for the kids nowadays.

The generation that came of age in the '60s didn't invent youthful rebellion, which predates the invention of cigarettes and Brylcreem. But marketers today do seem more intent on emphasizing and accelerating that tendency to help make a buck.

Action for Children's Television recommends that parents steer their children toward videos and non-commercial TV. But that's easier in some areas of the Baltimore-Washington corridor than in others.

Most of metropolitan Baltimore has access to WETA, the Washington-area public television station which carries the most current and innovative children's programming.

Some of the Baltimore market -- including all of Harford County -- receives only Maryland Public Television, however. MPT offers fewer of these shows and devotes the bulk of each day to tedious Instructional TV -- the type of boring programming baby boomers would recall from their own school days. MPT hopes to offer more for 3- and 4-year-old viewers eventually.

American business should also rethink its responsibility to children, especially pre-schoolers. Wanting youngsters to be consumers from infancy is bad practice enough, but drumming an appeal into kids that they skip straight from the crib to adolescence is the real poison advertisers are injecting into virgin minds.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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