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. Read more
From the age of six to eleven, huge portions of my thoughts and energies were devoted to becoming a Pokemon master. What is a Pokemon master, you ask? Its a child who despises any thought of outdoor activity and socialization through physical play. Its a child who is addicted to air conditioning, electronic media, and fast food. Its a child who pouts and cries whenever anything interferes with the routine of going to McDonalds after school, watching Pokemon after that, and playing the Pokemon Gameboy game after that. Oh yeah, and its a child who has collected all 150 original Pokemon cards, including the hollographic editions.
Pokemon Master-This is what dedicating your life to collecting toys makes out of you.
Pokemon’s success revolved around the phrase, “Gotta Catch ’em All!” Replace the “Catch” with “Buy” and, in essence, the phrase pretty much means the same thing. Pokemakers urged kids that the only way they were going to achieve that sacred status as Pokemon master, they were gonna have to consume, consume, and consume some more. Japan created a product that hypnotized children into abandoning their dogs, baseballs, and, in extreme cases, their studies. Kids began riding a vicious cycle that starts with ownership of one or several Pokemon cards, then a few packs, then, literally, a room with a mountain of trading cards. Pretty similar to tobacco addiction, right? But the reason a Pokemon master cannot finish a mile is only because of poor diet and lack of daily physical activity, not smoker’s lung. This all goes back to parents and what they allow their kids to do. There are consequences that go along with over-indulgence, and parents can either ignore them, or take the time to observe their children and notice that Pokemon masters are actually chubby, spoiled, brain-fried by-products of a consumerist culture. With me, it started with the gameboy game, then a few cards, then, somehow, weekly trips to McDonalds. Its weird how, when you’re talking about kids, unhealthy food and unhealthy media consumption always seem to go hand in hand. Its as if once parents give up on regulating one aspect of their child’s indulgence, its easier to give up the next thing (if McDonalds isn’t the first thing, its usually the next thing).
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…
Barbie was a huge part of my childhood, like many other girls. The doll, launched in 1959 and beloved ever since, comes with many different variations of skin color, career, and clothing options. It is widely available in toy stores and even grocery stores. My journey with Barbie began quite simply. My mother got me a Barbie doll when I was 4 or 5. For Christmas and my next birthday, I asked for a few modest accessories so that I could enjoy a few different adventures with my Barbie. Next, I began seeing commercials featuring the rest of Barbie’s family: Ken, Skipper, and Kelly. Of course, I had to have them all. How could I let Barbie live her life alone?! Pretty soon, Barbie needed a van to get around with her new family, but Ken didn’t like the van, so he needed his own Jeep. When Barbie’s first movie came out, I needed a whole new set of Barbies to live out the Rapunzel story. My old dolls already had a life I couldn’t take them away from. My parents and other family members gladly obliged my Barbie fantasies for years, but the final straw came when I got the Barbie Hotel. It cost over $100, had an elevator, and working telephones. I had never considered Barbie needing a hotel until a slew of commercials came out telling me I needed it. After that, my mom said I would have to make do with what I already had. She was sick of me seeing new commercials every day and deciding I had to have the latest item. Although Barbie does not classify as a PLC (program length commercial), I think the popularity of the Barbie movies, and the heavy advertising (a Barbie commercial ran during every kid-related show I watched, and it was usually more than one) would lead to the same effects as a PLC. It did for me. The article we read was titled “Spinning out of Control”, and that’s exactly what happened during my childhood. I started with one doll, and ended with a van, jeep, VW Beetle, 2 houses, a boat, a hotel, over 20 different dolls, and enough clothes and accessories to fill a real closet. It was never enough. That’s the type of environment PLCs and heavily advertised toys create.
A picture of the Barbie Hotel, the final item of my Barbie Collection
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.
Ah, Sanrio. The company behind Hello Kitty and all those other Japanese kawaii characters. Everyone knows who Hello Kitty is, however I may have had a slightly different experience with Sanrio characters because I spent every summer of my childhood in Hawaii. Hawaii has a very large Japanese population, and Sanrio is a very Japanese phenomenon which became wildly popular among children in America, but especially children in Hawaii. I, like all other children in Hawaii, owned numerous items covered with images of these characters. I remember loving my Keroppi lunch container and taking it to school with me every day, using my Hello Kitty chopsticks and plastic-ware often at dinner, wearing my Pochacco shirt to summer camp, writing in my Little Twin Stars notebook, and drinking out of my Chococat mug. Every drugstore in Hawaii has an entire aisle devoted to Sanrio characters. I remember whenever I would go with my mom to the store, I would spend the entire time walking down the Sanrio aisle and begging my mom to buy me a toy or some new item with a Sanrio character printed on it. There was an entire Sanrio store in every mall and I would visit it with every mall excursion. Even when I got older, I still looked upon the Sanrio characters with a smile because they reminded me of summer and my childhood.
Sanrio products similar to ones I owned in the 90's
According to Sanrio’s website, the company “was founded in 1960’s Japan by Shintaro Tsuji, whose simple dream of bringing smiles to people’s faces, grew into the brand’s ‘small gift, big smile’ philosophy”. An online company history of Sanrio states that the company launched the Hello Kitty character in 1974, originally aimed toward girls too young for barbies or similar toys. This spread beyond the intended age group partially because it tapped into the Japanese ‘kawaii’ trend, the obsession with cuteness. They sell anything from tiny toys, erasers, and candies to big things like suitcases, golf clubs and TVs, all with an image of a character and the brand-name pasted on each item. In 1976 the company set up a base in San Jose CA as a result of growing popularity in the U.S. and set up licensing agreements which brought Sanrio characters into toys included in McDonalds children’s meals. In 1988 Sanrio came out with its first boy character, Keroppi the frog, whose success caused the creation of new gender-neutral characters to bring boys into the market. In the early 90’s, two theme parks were built to keep up with the craze: Puroland and Harmonyland. Sanrio also created TV shows in the 90’s based on Hello Kitty and friends.
I never knew the friendship stories behind the characters, and I never watched the TV shows that accompanied them, but I still loved the characters anyhow. Sanrio characters play into the idea of the PLC, or “program-length commercial” mentioned in the Spinning Out of Control (Gary Cross) reading. Cross says, “These programs were ‘originally conceived as a vehicle from providing product exposure to the child audience’” (295). by providing an extensive story and extra characters around the Hello Kitty trend, the TV series surrounding Sanrio characters served just to market more toys and items with the brand to children. Cross also talks about the problem this causes for parents: “PLCs stacked the deck against parents by manipulating young children into wanting a particular toy while ostensibly entertaining them” (296). The Sanrio characters also show the idea of how toymakers “also shaped little girls’ play around licensed characters and fairytale story lines” (299). In these characters and storylines, most of the time characters “worked together for the common good and did so in a world largely free of adult authority” (300). The Sanrio characters seem to follow the trend of Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, Herself the Elf, and other ‘friendship’ characters of this kind of formula.
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.
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.