(AA) ++ Uncle Sam's TV Dinner 8th June 1996

esperanto (lingvoj@lds.co.uk)
Sun, 9 Jun 1996 02:51:31 +0200


The bowling alley has spread the globe as the Friday night out for the
young urban middle classes. But back home in the US it is experiencing
trouble which reflects more deeply on a trend in US culture visible since
the 1950s. True more Americans are bowling than ever before - more than
voted in 1994 - but what is perhaps significant is that league membership
has dropped by some 40% in the last decade. Bowling itself is becoming a
serial activity - an individual activity rather than a collective, communal
past time.
Collective organisations are on the way out in America. Over the last two
decades groups like the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts have seen membership
fall by one third, women's clubs have gone down by 25-60% and on the men's
side the Elks, the Moose and the Eagles have seen similar trends.
And yet at the same time some organisations have seen great increases in
membership. The American Association of Retired Persons and many
environmental groups have seen growth mushroom but the organisations that
are enjoying membership growth seem to be enjoying just that: membership growth.
'The rule,' according to Robert Putnam in an article in The Economists
The World in 1996, 'seems to be this: organisations in which membership
means moving a pen are booming but groups in which membership means meeting
others are withering'. This also affects the political world with collective
forms of participation down by some 40-50%. It is well know, for example,
that education functions best when all concerned parties are involved, crime
is lower in areas where there is a sense of community but it has also been
shown that folk who are active in their communities are more tolerant, more
trusting and live longer healthier lives.
The drop off is not universally even; it is apparently greater among the
economically more comfortable than those who have borne the brunt of
economic liberalism and there also seems a greater tendency for women to be
affected but with those who are at home more affected than those who work
outside it - so it seems hard to pin the blame on any perceived feminist
So where is the blame? Perhaps the best clue is in the timing of it all.
The trend seems to have affected the post WW2 generations. Those born in the
first four decades of the century are far less affected and still show high
levels of civic engagement and social trust but, 'their children and
grandchildren raised in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, however, have been
struck by a mysterious 'anti-civic' x-ray' and there is no sign that the gap
narrows as they approach middle age - as the older generation leave us they
are seemingly unlikely to be replaced and the loss of trust and social
cohesion threatens to deepen.
One cannot infer from all this any conclusions other than those based on
circumstantial evidence but clearly here the cathode ray tube must be high
on the suspect list. This year the average US adult will spend more than
four hours a day in front of the box. The average pre-teen viewer will spend
more time watching TV than all other activities considered together and it
has been shown that heavy TV addiction of this nature is a prime factor in
producing lack of civic cohesion. So what effect is this having on the young
and who are the main winners of the captive audience?


In 10 years obesity in US kids has doubled. A study by the National
Centre for Health Statistics put the number of kids affected at 1 in 5 and
gave a figure of 1 in 3 for their parents. William Dietz at the New England
Medical Centre in Boston Massachusetts draws a direct link to the TV, 'TV
gives them the feeling that they can eat as much as they wish'. Kids are the
final frontier for the marketing men. 4-12 year olds in the US have $14.3
billion in annual purchasing power (1991 figure) which was 100% up on the
same figure for 1980 and this omits their influence on their parents
disposable income put at a further $128 billion. And of course kids are a
dream of vulnerability. Barbara Caplan should know. She is the vice
president of the marketing company Yakelovitch Partners: 'Faced with
advertising adults are circumspect,' she says, 'Children; they watch TV and
simply say to themselves: that's great'.
Further statistics from Yakelovitch reveal that 45% have their own
receiver in their bedroom and 79% say that munching whilst viewing is their
favourite activity. According to Consumer Report the average child sees
about 40,000 ads per year so that by the end of high school the figure is
touching the half million mark, 'apart from sleep', says Bruce Watkins of
Michigan University, 'TV is the activity children devote most time to'.

Saturday morning is reserved for kids to 'zap' between the four main TV
stations - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. They are exposed mainly to cartoons
depicting friendly characters in lively scenarios. Mixed in are the ads. Out
of these, in one period of observation, well over half were for food. Of
these only 9% were considered to be for products that could be considered,
'reasonably healthy' - that is cereals low in added sugar and milk and ice
cream low on fat and salt. Otherwise we had chocolate bars, fast food
sandwiches, sweets, sugary fruit juices, crisps and biscuits. A diet of fat,
salt, sugar and chemical additives. Ironically during the same period of
observation there was one public service announcement exhorting folk to eat
healthy food.
The latter was produced by consumer associations who are fighting a
battle against the food industry. The main one is Action for Children's TV
(ACT) which is aiming for a limitation on ads directed at the under 8s -
limitations that Reagan had swept aside. Bush brought back a limit of 10 and
a half minutes in the hour.
But the attempts to deal legislatively with the problem in this way seem
doomed before they come in. The advertising industry is, more and more,
ensuring that it is the heroes of the fiction themselves who eat the junk
food. Ninja Turtles eat Burger Kings, Pizzas and drink Pepsi Cola. This is
no fluke. Firm contracts have been signed.
Really it began with ET the extraterrestrial character who ceaselessly
munched on Reese's Pieces. In 3 months sales went up by 66%. Burger King
gave you Gremlins and Pizza Hut brought you Back to the Future. Home Alone
features no less than 31 different brands. Figures estimate that Hollywood
made 50 million in 1990 - 3 times the 1986 figure. The last five years have
seen the trend accentuate. One company that deals with this type of
advertising - Silver Screen Placements Inc. - proclaims, 'Imagine the impact
on your client when they see one of their favourite stars use your product
in a film or TV broadcast, your product thus becomes an integral part of the
show carrying both the subliminal message with implicit recognition...'
Also of course there is the gravy train for the stars when they appear in
the ads. Pepsi has recently employed Agassi as many know. Also recently the
Flintstones were with Cocoa Pebbles, Garfield sold Pizzas and Burt Simpson
worked for Butterfinger ice cream.

The impact of publicity is far reaching as far as age is concerned. James
MacNeal at Texas A&M University claims his studies, 'show there is a state
of awareness of brand names which could exist well before the first
birthday. As a consequence of this by the time the kid is 18, 20 or 24
months old it already perceives brand names as objects'.
Is there anywhere safe where these guys won't go? School? No. Free
teaching kits go out in this field. One such - Life Learning Systems - sends
out advertising material, 'with an educational goal'. The envelope says
'open immediately. This envelope contains a free teaching programme centred
on maths, social science and artistic languages'. When you open it you get a
game called 'Count your Chips' whose first activity is to become a
'chipematician'. Life Learning Systems - who claim 300 clients - promote
themselves thus: 'Children spend 40% of their waking day in a classroom
where traditional publicity cannot reach them. Henceforth you can get into
their school by means of our teaching materials designed specially to answer
to your sales needs'. 74 other businesses are operating in this field and
schools, strapped for cash, find resistance difficult.
Wherever they are, US kids seem to be exposed to the spectacle in this
way and the level of competence of those producing the ads is becoming more
clinical with psycho analysts and neuro psychologists playing heavily on
children's emotional weaknesses. A specialist working for Saatchi and
Saatchi decrypted a McDonalds ad like this: 'A young girl of six runs away
from home. McDonalds clown persuades her to change her mind. This advert
plays beautifully on the attachment/separation dialectic, very prominent in
young people... The aim is to make the child live this experience via the
product... These emotional drives are the same for every child regardless of
period or culture.' McDonalds is already doing a study in China. Experts are
analysing what young Chinese children do with their disposable income and
what influence they have on their parents. The cycle seems set to start
again. The saliva is already beginning to drip...

The information in this section has been drawn from Le Monde Diplomatique

Neil Birrell