Parents have it rough, and this year perhaps more than most. Toy companies are marketing directly at kids, and the kids are responding, "Yes!" while parents' wallets are saying, "No!"

But who's to blame? The parents, for not setting good boundaries for their kids? The kids, for having low discernment skills? Or the advertisers, for putting on an irresistible show? Perhaps a little of all three.

I read an article yesterday about parents complaining to toy companies this Christmas. The organization leading the push-back is Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and they want ads to stop being aimed at kids. Let parents make the decisions, they say.

I like this idea, but even I want half of the toys on TV, and I'm 35. Maybe it's because I only had one Star Wars action figure as a kid: no spaceships, no detailed model of a far away planet, no accompanying action-figure troops, and certainly no special effects, like these kids had:

I'm still jealous, and this ad is from the 80's. Commercials have come a long, tempting, way since then, and kids are even more seduced now. Only the strongest could resist such an onslaught of allure. I want to say to the marketing minds behind this brilliance, "Stop sucking us in. Enough is enough. Help us to lead simple lives. Quit enticing me...er, my children!"

But my first responsibility is not to change the market. It's to curb my own desires and to teach discernment to my kids. My girls have to learn the difference between wants and needs, quality and junk, genuine interests and peer pressure. I can't protect them forever.

Now what about the advertisers? They certainly carry guilt, but how much? Well, just imagine how toy advertising would change if they cared more about our kids than about profit. We might be able to say, "Susie, if the advertiser says it's a good toy, then it's a good toy because he loves us and wants the best for you." Sort of a What Would Jesus Market? approach.

I must admit, Ad folks, I change the channel on most of your toy commercials. They're just too much and too often and too flashy. Yet, I try to give you the benefit of the doubt because what if you aren't thinking about the 1000s of other toys on the shelf, but only the one you're pushing because you swear it's good for my child's development and because you hope it will replace the more meaningless toys my kids already have?

I know if I were you, these are the toys I'd want to market. And I'd want to tell the kids AND the parents about them.

Readers, check out the article to hear what parents and advertisers are saying about toy ads this year. Or visit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and send a ready-made letter to the toy companies. Or, tell me what - if any - toy commercials should NOT be taken off the air.


Telling (most of) the truth

It's ironic how leery we are of marketers. We question their motives and accuse them of pushing agendas upon us, yet our own behavior imitates theirs every day.

Everyone stands for something, believes in something, supports something, and we frequently do whatever it takes to sell that something. Just consider the best foot a young man puts forward in trying to woo a pretty girl. It's not really him he's promoting - only the best of him that he wants her to see. Conference presenters, pastors, car salesmen, Mary Kay associates and Thai food fans do the same thing.

Of course, some of us may use more (or less) truth than others, but our intent is the same: to sell. Mouth closed or open, we tell others what we like and dislike, support and oppose, and in that telling we act very much like marketers.

I came across these two attention-grabbing political cartoons recently. They both sell ideas and also raise questions in me.

1. Do the cartoons tell the whole story about either the auto industry or Bush's presidency? If not, is there anything wrong with telling partial stories?

2. Do you tell whole stories or partial stories when you sell something?

3. What stands out to you visually and/or narratively that makes these cartoons compelling?

4. What compelling techniques have you used to convince someone?

Cartoons by David Fitzsimmons of the Arizona Daily Star and Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune.


Even if the economy tanks, I won't give up my...

My default position is frugality: Unless you actually need it to survive, you don't need it. Yet this doesn't align with my actual position. Why, just last night I savored an expensive square of dark chocolate and drank loose-leaf tea. Both wants.

Kevin Roberts calls them Lovemarks. I call them concessions, and sometimes allowances, and sometimes coping mechanisms. Regardless of how frugal I claim to be, I have wants that feel like needs.

1. What indulgence (want) will you hang onto even if the economy tanks?

2. Read the following post by Seth Godin. He blames marketing for spoiling us, but leaves room for Lovemarks, too.

"I had lunch (a big lunch) with a college student last week. An hour later, she got up and announced she was going to get a snack. Apparently, she was hungry.

By any traditional definition of the word, she wasn’t actually hungry. She didn’t need more fuel to power her through an afternoon of sitting around. No, she was bored. Or yearning for a feeling of fullness. Or eager for the fun of making something or the break in the routine that comes from eating it. Most likely, she wanted the psychic satisfaction that she associates with eating well-marketed snacks.

Marketers taught us this."


Chicken or the Egg?

In my rantings last week, I sentenced "Kingdom Under the Sea" to the knock-off pile. I was quickly reprimanded by an observant reader, and I need to make a correction.

The Christian Christmas catalog where I saw this children's video had put me in a foulish mood, not unlike the mood I get in when observing any kind of faux product: kitchen floor laminates, "pleather," Forever Lawns (see pic), and most of the home decorating items at Wal-Mart.

Without doing the necessary homework, I hastily accused the makers of "Kingdom Under the Sea" of stealing ideas from "Finding Nemo." While I don't really know which came first, I do know the following:

Kingdom's release date: 2000
Nemo's release date: 2003

Kingdom's conception date: ?
Nemo's conception date: 1994

Which came first? Did one pull ideas from the other or are the similarities coincidental? Probably coincidental. Regardless, the brain-children behind these two projects are innocent until proven guilty - and they are creative, too!

Check out David Mulhern's creative work on "Kingdom" here, and read an interview with Andrew Stanton, creator of "Finding Nemo," here. (Stanton's interview is about "WALL-E," but the "Nemo" date is there and the Q&A reveals how Stanton's Christian faith shapes his work.)

Can you blame me for making this assumption after pages of look-a-likes in the Christmas catalog? Well..., probably. My frustration should have raised a caution flag before publishing the post. Having said this, I still hope you will work hard to market products and shop for products that reflect God's infinite creativity and originality. And tell your friends:

"Say NO to faux!"


Great gifts faux this Christmas!

I just received a religious Christmas catalog in the mail and I need to vent. Perhaps you already know how I cringe at faux products. If not, you can read a few posts here. Fakes, posers, wannabes, simulations - none of these make sense to me, especially when it comes to Christianity and marketing.

My first complaint is about the products themselves and those who consume them, and the second is about the advertisers who promote them.

1. Buy pagan gifts "faux" your family this Christmas!

Item A: "Nemo finds Jesus." (OK, "Kingdom Under the Sea")

My rantings: What's wrong with the movie "Finding Nemo"? And why pick an orange clownfish and not any of the other millions of creatures in the sea? And why is the evil character in this take-off video series called Krakken? Granted, Kraken (with one fewer "k") has been around for several centuries as a giant marine creature who wrecks ships and all, but did someone just happen to watch "Pirates of the Caribbean" the night before and decide to go on a venture by adding a "k"? By the way, my seven year old just walked into my office and asked what I was doing. I told her and she said, "So, it's like somebody erased the words 'Finding Nemo' and wrote 'Kingdom Under the Sea'?" I'd say that's pretty close.

Item B: Bratz (No, wait, I mean God's Girlz. The "z" threw me off.)

My rantings: The package shown here says Sarah's Bible name means "Princess." Does knowing etymology make this toy more righteous? And how about the Christianese saying on her shirt, complete with Scripture reference? (Abigail, the guitar-playing God's Girl, has "Pick Jesus" on her top. Get it? Guitar...Pick Jesus...?) Supposedly, God's Girlz are "designed to encourage thoughtful play." Really? Give a kid any toy - Barbie, Bratz, God's Girlz, or even fashion-decorated wooden spoons - and they're going to play the same.

Item C: GoBible

My rantings: I have no problem with listening to the Bible on headphones, but besides the product design between the GoBible and the iPod being overly similar, you could save $100 by downloading the same content straight to your iPod. AND watch Pirates (or a better Johnny Depp movie like "Chocolat").

Item D: Guitar Praise

My rantings: So you don't want youth group kids singing the handful of questionable tunes on Guitar Hero. Great. But do you have to create completely separate content? Hasn't this been a criticism of CCM over the years? We know there's plenty of beneficial secular music and plenty of theologically shaky religious music out there. What would be wrong with a sacred/secular mix that would benefit and challenge listeners rather than cordon them off from the rest of the world? Besides, if youth leaders have been so willing to bring in the bad already, wouldn't they be even more willing to bring in the thoughtful?

Now you know a few items I won't be buying this Christmas. Please recognize how thoughtless these kitchy knock-offs are. As you do, I hope you'll give the companies your opinion by contacting them or at least by refraining from supporting them with your money.

Now for my second venting point.

2. Frank Lloyd Wright called - he wants his creativity back.

OK, I'm being a tad mean. But marketers, c'mon. If this is all you can do as an employee for the Kingdom, you need to enter another line of work. Creativity is a gift and ought to be used as a reflection of God's own creativity. When you mimic what's already been made, you commit two violations. First, you steal from another's work. That's bad enough. And second, you tell the world that Christians don't have an innovative bone in their bodies. Think about it: This type of activity declares that growth in the faith is best achieved by following whatever secular practices gather fans, and then adopting those practices. That isn't creativity. It's a statement that non-Christians have nothing good regarding content but everything good regarding form.

We need a new approach for sure.


Guinness and God: Part 2

As I began to say in my last post, our consumeristic hungers are related to the draw of God.

It's easy to think my endless shopping and borrowing and self-centeredness is because I'm somehow oriented toward evil. But I'm not. (At least I don't believe I am.) I commit evil, certainly. I am greedy, true. I affiliate with harmful practices every day which have significant repercussions on my neighbors, no doubt. But I'm not oriented toward evil.

Toward evil assumes evil is an end, as though evil has something I want. It assumes evil has desirable characteristics worth my time and energy and misbehavior. Yet, when we boil down our behaviors to find the motivations for doing them in the first place, we find good ends.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "A man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God." It's easy to see what he means. The man wants intimacy, physical touch, affirmation, relief from other troubles, etc., and these are good things only God can provide. He doesn't want to run with the devil. He wants to be loved. This reveals evil as a means, not evil as an end.

As consumers and as advertisers, we don't act stupidly and harmfully and selfishly and monetarily because we want to harm each other. Instead, we do these things because God promises to fulfill our deepest human needs and these promises have not yet been realized. What we want - what all of us want - is affirmation, security, justice, peace, intimacy, rewarding work, health, and so on. And we're desperate enough for them that we're willing to harm ourselves and others to get them.

This is why I think the Guinness ad fits here. We don't simply want to want God more. We want God already in the same way the refrigerator wants the Guinness! Our worship is rarely appropriate or honoring or selfless, but our evil acts reveal that we desperately want what God has, which is the good.

Try something this week. If you're a consumer, ask why you succumb to a certain unhealthy spending habit (I'm assuming you have at least one.) If you're an advertiser, ask why you agree to work on campaigns that don't further the good in this world. For each of you, is it because you're bent toward evil, or because doing evil helps you experience at least a fragment of something good?


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