Growing up in a very typical American family, I was very used to the idea of tradition throughout my childhood. Of course, we had many different traditions that we practiced each year, but the ones I always looked forward to were the ones that fell right around the Christmas holidays. One of the best parts of Christmas Eve was when my parents and my brother and I would gather around the TV to watch A Christmas Story before we all went to sleep. This movie has always been special to me, but I started thinking about it for a different reason after we watched the clip from Tom Corbett, Space Cadet in class.
A Christmas Story was a movie made in 1983 that showcased a typical 1940s middle-class family and their trials and tribulations they experience at Christmas time one year. This film stood out to me for two different reasons that pertained to our class after reading Spigel and watching the short clips in class on Monday. First of all, looking back and realizing how young I was when I started watching this movie was startling. There is definitely adult humor incorporated into the film, and there are also some parts that include curse words. However, the fact that this film is broadcasted on TBS for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve and Christmas day makes me think I was not the only child being entertained by this movie during the holiday season.
The second reason I thought of A Christmas Story while watching the short clips is because there is a very similar scene to the one in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet where he is plainly advertising Kraft Dairy Fresh Caramels. The scene in A Christmas Story shows the main character getting very excited about receiving his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pen to decode a message at the end of the radio show. He ends up being disappointed when the message is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” This is another example of the very direct advertising technique used during the 1940s and 1950s. The product placement would have directly appealed to the younger generation since Ovaltine in primarily drank by younger children.
The original line of historical "American Girl" dolls.
When I was little, one of my favorite book series was the American Girl series. This collection of chapter books followed the lives of several young girls from different time periods and classes in American history – all hinging upon the common denominator of their titular national identity and exploring the story directly through the girls’ viewpoints. These books were created chiefly to advertise to children (more specifically girls) the line of character dolls upon which the American Girl company was originally built, in the same vein of such toy lines as Transformers and My Little Pony. Selling for upwards of a hundred dollars (and initially only available by mail-order) when you factor in toy accessories and doll dress-up, the American Girl dolls were expensive enough to require additional persuasion in the form of books, movies, and even games. After all, parental resistance in the face of cost to satisfying a child’s preference for a particular character or story tends to wane the more enamored the child becomes with the pageantry of a full product line.
Our discussion and reading of marketing toys directly to children made me consider advertisments that I was exposed to growing up. Almost all of these advertisements for toys, movies, and video games were directed at children and not at adults, a development that Gary Cross finds originated in the early twentieth century., citing a 1913 article in Toys and Novelties that advocated marketing to children “to cause their wonderment, their desire for ownership and their immediate pleas.” (52)
This marketing tenet seems to still hold true in advertising toward the very end of the 20th century, as exemplified by these advertisements between children’s programming on Nickelodeon in 1999, specifically the two Star Wars ads. I remember the first one specifically because it advertised the connection of two things very dear to my seven-year-old self: Star Wars and Legos. These advertisements were crafted specfically to run on a children’s network and are completely geared toward the imagination and playfulness of a child audience. There are no adults buying or giving toys to children, just children playing within the “Star Wars universe,” fulfilling their own desires to be a part of a galaxy far, far away.
Cross states that “toy companies recognized that in an era of growing permissiveness, children had influence of parent’s spending,” and cites this as a cause for marketing to shift towards children. Although this may be the origin of this idea, I believe that the increase in media consumption of American youth in the pass few decades has been the most significant factor in the use and success of advertisements geared directly toward children. The source of this clip shows this phenomenon, as the almost entirely youth-oriented Nickelodeon television network, a relatively new media development, enables advertisement blocks to directly target younger demographics. As mass media has spread throughout all facets of American life, advertisement has been able to capitalize on very precise niches that in ways that it couldn’t’ one hundred years ago.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.