This week's blog post is by WDP co-host Matt Rocco, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with Professor Foster (his “Brown Mom” wife), and their daughter Viva, who evidently loves some godforsaken plush thing called a “Stretchkin.”
I'm going to begin this be saying that my child watches very little TV in a day. Less than an hour. And she didn't watch any until she was 1. I'm beginning it this way so my wife won't make me stop blogging.
Now I'll begin again. It started with “Teddy Tanks.”
“Daddy,” my daughter shouted from the living room, “I want a Teddy Tank! I need it!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, until the next night, when I was watching the execrable “Max & Ruby” show on Nick, Jr. with her, and saw it, a commercial for a toy by “As Seen On TV, Inc.” called “Teddy Tank.” It's a Teddy Bear WITH A FISH TANK IN ITS STOMACH. I'm not kidding. Is there any greater idea for a child's toy than cutting open something meant to be cuddled with in bed and stuffing it with a glass sphere full of water, fish slime, poop, and animals? Seriously. Why not a dollhouse full of cockroaches? Or perhaps a potty full of eels?
“I don't think you need a Teddy Tank, Sweetie, that's gross.”
“OK, Daddy, how about a Stretchkin?”
“Yes, Daddy. Kids Love Stretchkins!”
That one stopped me dead. “Kids Love Stretchkins” was certainly not her own verbiage. She had to have been quoting ad copy. My God, my baby was being brainwashed into wanting to purchase things, not through sly ways like cartoons about Disney Princesses who meet other Disney Princesses, but by good old-fashioned Don Draper-style sloganeering and TV ads!
Stretchkins, it should be noted, are also an unholy mess of a toy. Stuffed animals with elastic arms and legs with shoes and gloves for hands and feet. It's for the child who wants to wear a Stretch Armstrong corpse on their body to the public square as a warning to all other Stretch Armstrongs who might want to mess with them. A better slogan might be, “Kids Love Stretckins for 5 Minutes, Then Get Annoyed and Throw Them in a Tangled Heap.”
It happened again later in the week, when my daughter told me (outside, away from the TV), that what we REALLY needed to have fun were “Juggle Bubbles,” some kind of bubble material where the bubbles won't break. (Presumably they just grow and grow until the National Guard is called in to stop them.) That's when my 2-year-old recited an entire rhyming quatrain of ad speak: “They bounce, they float, they fly. They magically fill the sky. And when they land, they don't pop in your hand.”
She can barely remember to wipe herself, but she can memorize four lines of script? Somebody call Chicago Shakespeare for me, please.
So, I looked up some of the toys she'd been mentioning. Terrifyingly, Stretchkins seem to actually be backed directly by Viacom – the company behind Nick Jr. programming.
All the “As Seen on TV” toys seem like rejected idea from an episode of “Shark Tank.” There's “Lumi-Doh,” glowing clay for kids who love to... sculpt in the dark? (Hello? Is it me you're looking for?) “Flashlight Friends,” light up dolls for kids who hate sleep. “J-Animals,” skinned stuffed animals whose carcasses fit on your head. “HideAway Pets” (we used to call them “Popples” in the 80s), stuffed animals you can jam into themselves into an recursive blob of stuffing.
Now that I list it, most “As Seen on TV” toys involve mutilating stuffed animals in some way.
And remember, “As Seen on TV” toys can be bought directly over the phone, or at Wal-Mart – so you have multiple ways of destroying the nation's economy and ensuring slave wages for American workers. Plus, you get a rank Teddy Bear with seafood inside of it!
I can't pretend that I, and my entire generation, weren't the biggest marks of TV advertising towards kids in the history of the boob tube. The 1980s were the “Golden Age of Deregulation” when President Reagan and FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler opened the door for the half-hour toy commercial – cartoons based on toys, featuring commercials for the toys, and commercials for comic books starring the toys. (In the words of Jem, “Showtime, Synergy!”) G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, He-Man – they contained just enough character development and plot to make you REALLY want your parents to buy you the new line of figures, vehicles, and playsets that came out annually. “Look, men, it's Cobra's new emperor, Serpentor, on his Air Chariot! Only Sgt. Slaughter and his Triple-T Tank can stop him! Yo, Joe!”
What's terrifying is how well it WORKED. Between the half-hour toy commercials and the fact that we never got drafted, Gen X (or whatever we are) never stopped wanting the toys! I can name a dozen of my friends whose basements are still stuffed with toys from M.A.S.K., Star Wars, Bravestar, Cops, Wheeled Warriors, and Go Bots (OK, just kidding, nobody liked Go Bots.), and we still buy them today. I've told my wife I'll only move to the suburbs if I can have a room for all my G.I. Joe toys, including the 6-foot-5-inch-long U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier from 1985 (with Admiral Keel-Haul action figure and voice-changing p.a. system!)
I've never felt more like I was in a Twilight Zone episode than when Viva told me she needed those horrible TV toys, and even pointed out which ones were “for girls” and which were “for boys.” I was chilled to the bone, and I realize now that her freedom from slavish consumerism, her ability to think critically, and the health of my own pocketbook, hinge on breaking the spell of advertisers as well as any modern American parent is capable of doing.
This is why one should monitor one's child's TV watching. It's also an excellent argument for throwing your TV set out the window. It certainly calls for long and repeated talks with your kids about how they don't need everything they are told they need by smiling children and exploding fonts between episodes of Max & Ruby and Bubble Guppies.
After Viva has ended her current Max & Ruby jag, I think all Nick Jr. shows and their insidious commercials are off the DVR. In the meantime I'm fast forwarding the commercials. I don't think Disney Jr. does cheap “As Seen on TV” ads, just endless banging of the drum for their princess merch, and the occasional Chuck E. Cheese spot. (And, really, who doesn't like Chuck E. Cheese? Singing robots, video games, sugary pizza, and a mouse mascot probably housing a guy on prison work release.)
I won't pretend I'll miss Ruby and her Little Brother Max, either. Ruby is bossy, controlling, and condescending. Max is a complete dullard, and the fact that he's rewarded every week for his mono-syllabic neanderthal schtick drives me up a wall. And don't get me started on SpongeBob. It's been on for 20 years and I don't get the appeal. It's gross, loud, unfunny, and the guy's shirtsleeves don't even connect to the rest of his shirt. Seriously, look at it, once you've seen it, it cannot be unseen. But I digress.
Unless I want my child to be like me in 35 years, trolling ebay for replacement part for her crumbling toys, I need to turn off that TV and have talks with her.
After all, replacement fish bowls for a smelly four-decade-old mutilated stuffed bear won't be cheap.
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