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Lunchroom Politics or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gushers

A variety of the General Mills' Fruit Gushers. You always pick out the red and green anyway.

During my childhood, namely throughout 90s and early 2000s, kids’ snacks were evolving. As always, cheap and pre-processed goodies were easily available in every grocery store, strategically placed on lower shelves and in bright, eye-catching packaging. However, it seems that a new trend took hold, whereby advertisers and the companies producing these packaged snacks began to re-brand their products to appear healthier and more nutritional while still maintaining the appeal of ‘kets‘.

Of course, it’s fair to say that notable examples like General Mills’ Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Rollups, Fruit Gushers, and many more were and still are convenient filler items for packing children’s lunches or as a midday snack requiring no more effort than a quick trip back into the house. Despite their names, they are little more (or no less) than glorified and gelled candies.
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I watched the pilot for the original Transformers animated series, which premiered in September 1984. The name of the pilot was More Than Meets The Eye. In the episode we are transported “many millions of years” before the present (1984) to a planet called Cybertron. This is a technologically advanced planet populated by shafeshifting machines. The planet is being ravaged by a civil war being fought between two sides- the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Decepticons are said to be greedy, evil machines bent on total domination; the Autobots, on the other hand, seek only to stop the Decepticons and return peace to their beloved planet. The energy sources on Cybertron are depleted, so both sides leave the planet in search of alternative sources with which they can fuel their ongoing battle. They end up crash landing into a volcano on Earth, where they lay in wait for four million years until the Volcano erupts, somehow switching their power switches back on. The Decepticons regroup decide to mine Earth for all its energy supply, then return to Cybertron to create a weapon capable of dominating the universe. The Autobots take it upon themselves to stop the Decepticons, and protect life on Earth at all cost. With this, the stage is set for the rest of the series.

The Transformers animated series is basically the embodiment of Gary Cross’s argument that

The old view that children should learn from the past and prepare for the future is inevitably subverted in a consumer culture where memory and hope get lost in the blur of perpetual change. (course packet page 290)

The world which the Transformers inhabit, Cybertron, could be the pictorial representation of the word fantasy in the dictionary. It is a distant planet, tucked into some obscure corner of the universe. The beginning scene of the animated series’ pilot involves a period of “space travel” as an introduction- no doubt meant to communicate to children the remoteness of this faraway land- isolating them from their worldly surroundings while simultaneously engaging their focus with measured buildup. As we meet the Transformers, they are amazing marvels of engineering. Otherworldly aliens that, oddly enough, when shifted resemble vehicles we normally encounter here on Earth. The sight of a car speaking in the first scene, then later empathizing with his fallen comrade quickly remove all semblance of familiarity. These are not vehicles like we have on Earth- these are much cooler. As we shift scenes from battling on Cybertron to intergalactic space travel and later to mid space battle, the characters somehow end up on Earth. The scenes on Earth are deliberately staged in areas where humans would not inhabit: the desert, open ocean, a volcano. Even when humans appear in the series, they are tiny, thoughtless, impulsive beings. Their role on the show is much like a mouse or a dog would be portrayed on a present day sitcom- our function is to be weak, frightened lifeforms dependent upon the autobots for our salvation. There is no tie in towards learning from the past. Absolutely no mention of how children should prepare for the future (unless calling down forty foot robot guardians from space counts as a plan- pretty sure Newt Gingrich would approve). There are no lessons taught, to be quite honest. Even though the show takes place in our world, it strives to maintain its “other-worldliness” by reducing mankind and its achievements to a mere side-show- “ants” that the glorious Transformers may step on at their will. The show is about one thing and one thing alone- promoting the Transformers toys. The real world has no relevance here…

Are “Snacker” and “Lead Bottom” the real villains in Disney’s “Habit Heroes” exhibit?

Snacker, Lead Bottom, and Glutton of Disney's recently closed "Habit Heroes" exhibit

Last week yahoo posted an article in its news section addressing the recent closing of Disney’s “controversial fat fighting exhibit” entitled “Habit Heroes.” The exhibit was originally produced to raise awareness and “fight” childhood obesity. The exhibit included cleverly named super heroes “Will Power” and “Callie Stenics” to fight the not-so-cleverly named evil villains “Snacker,” “Lead Bottom” and “Glutton.” The yahoo article says that the criticism for this exhibits roots from its “potential to shame overweight children and misrepresent the causes of the global obesity crisis.”  The story uses the words of respected bariatric surgeon, Yoni Freedhoff, to argue that there is indeed a problem within the health realm of children but offensive games that bluntly make fun of and stereotype the personalities of overweight children is not the way to handle it and unfortunately it makes Disney the “schoolyard bully.” The article closes with health statistics for U.S children and the main causes addressing the closing of the exhibit, including a petition that was signed by 300 protestors before it’s closing that argued “the attraction and game feature negative stereotypical characters, traditionally used to torment overweight kids, and will potentially reinforce and strengthen a cycle of bullying, depression, disease, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts.”

The lecture from Wednesday’s class addressed candy and sweets and how they get into the hands of children.  Clearly, the problem of overindulgence in sweets and unhealthy food in the current generation of children is a problem considering the many statistics outlining the rise in childhood obesity. I agree with the above yahoo news article that the problem should be addressed but Disney failed to do it in a respectable and considerate way. All in all, I don’t believe the bad diet of many children is their own fault so why should Disney encourage others to see overweight children as ugly, disgusting and lazy, much like “Snacker” and “Lead Bottom”? As discussed in class, the chances of children these days to spend their money on candy is a lot less likely and ironically, it was mentioned that the institutions, such as schools, that stress most about concerns of childhood obesity are the places in which children are most likely to receive unhealthy food. If big companies, such as Disney and Blue Cross, are willing to spend millions of dollars on exhibits and programs that stress childhood obesity then maybe they should am their arguments at the adults that provide children with unhealthy and be both considerate and aware of the effects in will have on current children struggling with obesity. I believe it to be a hard situation to handle but hope that big companies will be more considerate of their affects next time they decide to open such a controversial exhibit.

They have recently canceled the site where you could see and read all the characters of Disney’s “Habit Heroes” exhibit but check out the bottom of this linked blog, The Weight Loss Rollercoaster, to check out a couple of the villain characteristics.


Sweetening Our Children’s Future

Junk food has become a hazard to the American diet. Many say that parents are setting their kids up for failure by allowing them to eat sugar packed processed foods. Poor diets and too much sugar have been known to cause a slue of problems to children’s health including obesity, diabetes, and, as some bloggers say, lowered IQ. With this becoming such a huge issue, much legislation is trying to be passed limiting food producers ability to advertise for junk food.

In Maren Stewart’s article “Sweetening Our Children’s Future: Addressing Junk Food Marketing,” she lays out how big of an issue this has become, the impact of marketing, and how American’s can help. She provides the statistics that one out of three American kids are overweight or obese. As far as junk food marketing goes, Maren states, that children who were exposed to junk food advertising consumed an average of 45% more than children who viewed other advertisements. She also gives suggestions like asking grocers for a candy-free check out line and talk with kids about food marketing and encourage them to make healthy choices instead of giving in to the cartoon or celebrity on the box.

Although we probably won’t see a change in junk food advertising anytime soon, these numbers put it into perspective just how huge of an issue this is on American children. Many people argue that it is not the government’s place to step in and tell Americans how to eat and what to eat or that there are more important issues for the government to address right now. Personally, I agree with Maren that this has become too large of a problem and intervention is needed. It is parents responsibility to make sure that their children live a healthy life and if they are not going to do that, there needs to be an outside force to step in. This issue has nothing to do with American freedoms, but rather saving our children from life threatening illnesses.

The World of Strawberry Shortcake


An illustration of the title character and her cat, Custard.

Strawberry Shortcake was created in the late 1970s by the American Greetings card company. As the character became a popular fad among young girls, the company expanded the Strawberry Shortcake product line to include dolls, posters, stationary, stickers, clothing, games, etc. Beginning in 1980 Strawberry Shortcake animated specials began to air on television, joining the controversial trend of program-length commercials designed to advertise such product lines to children. To examine the claims of Gary Cross (“Spinning Out of Control”) about the negative effects of program-length commercials or PLCs, I watched the first episode of the Strawberry Shortcake television series.

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Coca-Cola Soccer Kit

The year was 2001, and I was 9 years old. My dad had come across a pair of tickets to a home game for Honduras’s national football team against Mexico, and asked me whether I wanted to come along with him. I’ve heard that every man at some point during his life takes, as a wife, one sport. While he may be unfaithful at times by engaging in other sports, it is to this sport to which he will be permanently bound for the remainder of his life. My father’s sport was baseball. That probably explains why, unlike every other child in Honduras, I lacked any sort of familiarity on football and did not partake in the religious fervor that its fans tend to engage. That all changed on a chilly October day in 2001. Out of pure curiosity for the event my school friends had been ranting about for the last month or so, I agreed to go with my dad (mostly because I wanted to know what made football more interesting than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which despite my high praise had somehow failed to elicit anything more than a “whatever” from my friends). Once at the stadium, a wave of excitement drifted over me and I ran ahead of my dad so that I could see where the deafening noise was coming from. Then I saw it. The green pitch, the chanting fans, the waving flags. They say when you meet the love of your life time stops, and that’s true. I felt like I stood there for an entire lifetime before my dad snapped me out of it and walked me to our seats. There isn’t enough space in this post to describe how I felt during that game, but suffice to say Honduras won by three goals, and I had fallen in love for the first time in my life.

Following the game, and to advertise Honduras’s campaign towards reaching the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, Coca-Cola (the national team’s main sponsor) released a kit that included a soccer ball and the two small goals. You could not buy the ball in stores- it could only be purchased by redeeming 12 proof of purchase stamps from qualifying products. To promote the kit, Coca-Cola aired commercials showing the national team’s players doing tricks with the ball and scoring into the goals. The day after the game my friends (not a single one surprised at my overnight transition from indifferent to obsessed about football) and I consumed more Coca-Cola than should be humanly possible and redeemed our purchases to the nearest distribution center. Every week one of us would get to keep our new found treasure at their house, with possession changing hands on Fridays. Every Friday we would set up the goals on somebody’s street, place the ball in the center of our “field”, and a metamorphosis would occur. The walls around us turned to fans. The asphalt beneath us turned to beautiful grass. We were no longer children, but instead became our idols. Afterwards we refreshed ourselves with (big surprise!) ice-cold Coca-Colas.

Thinking back, this is a perfect illustration of the phenomena described by Howard Chudacoff in Children at Play:

Advertisers quickly learned that they could merge a “backstory” of fantasy with a product to create a meaningful relationship between product and child. The licensing from movies, television programs, and sports gave toys a very explicit significance… most children understood the product in a way that most adults did not. (Course Packet page 180)

In Honduras the vast majority of children (especially boys) loved Honduras’s national team, regardless of whether or not they liked football. It was a way we all bonded, came together, existed as one. There were no boys and girls, no kids and adults, no rich and poor. For 90 minutes, we were all just Honduran. Coca-Cola used that indescribable (at least to children) feeling of belonging, of unison, to advertise their product. By merging the national team and Coca-Cola products, the line between them became blurred. We saw Coca-Cola as the moment when a player made an extraordinary dribble, or as the feeling when all the crowd roared and danced when Honduras would score a goal. Coca-Cola became pure, unfiltered happiness. I saw anyone that chose Pepsi over Coca-Cola as hating the very core of being Honduran, of conspiring to deprive us all of the joy of qualifying for the World Cup. Many of my friends shared those sentiments. The kit Coca-Cola provided took it all a step further. After watching their commercials, we all wanted to use the same ball that the players used, and to score goals into the same posts that they did. We wanted to dribble the same, and shoot the same. We came to believe that the “magic” the players had was a product of the Coca-Cola ball itself. The ball and goals became mystical figures, items that when in our possession made our skill-set limitless. We were capable of any trick, could score any goal, and would eventually make our way into the national team to play alongside our idols. My parents and many adults did not and could not understand why we felt so strongly about these kits. How could they, after all? They were too old to play on the national team, so we figured they would never understand. Those days we existed for one ideal- “Joga Bonito”, play beautifully…

Coca-Cola Ball, courtesy of the Coca-Cola Store

Honduras National Team sponsored by, you guessed it, Coca-Cola. Courtesy of

Christmas: Capitalism At Its Best

Christmas shopping for most Americans

Growing up, I remember Christmas being the most exciting time of the year. As I’ve gotten older and have become responsible for purchasing gifts for other people myself, I have come to associate the holiday with frenzy and anxiety. Thorstein Veblen was undoubtedly correct to refer to Christmas as a time of vicarious consumption. Christmas is literally referred to as “the season of giving” and if you are not giving you may be seen as cheap or a scrooge. As we have learned in our readings, one of parents’ biggest fears is having bored children. Parents also want to ensure their children do not feel left out or disappointed. With the growing emphasis on the importance of material items in the U.S., parents feel obligated to stretch their wallets  at this time of year to ensure their children aren’t left out. This is because we have been socialized to believe that when you wake up on  Christmas morning, there should be a towering mountain of gifts under the tree with your name on them. The main goal for many children is bragging rights. They want to be able to go to school the next day and compare who got the better presents.

“When compared to the average family budget, the Christmas gift budget makes up 1.3% of all average family spending. It is more than what the average family will spend on reading materials ($110/year) and alcoholic beverages ($435/year) put together.”

In the article “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys”, Gary Cross says, “But in the nineteenth century these celebrations of indulgence were increasingly focused on the family, in parents pampering children. The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence” (59). Essentially, families are going out of their way to buy their children’s happiness. The blame can in many instances be placed on advertising. Companies make it a point, especially at this time of year, to advertise their most expensive, sought after products while basically telling viewers how much they need it. Children see their friends playing with the best new toy and many advertisements lead them to feel like they aren’t “cool” if they don’t have that great toy too. Advertisements only solidify parents’ fear that they will disappoint their children.