The concept of summer camp normally conjures up images of kayaks, campfires, s'mores and color wars. But at a new two-week day camp, children instead find story boards, video cameras, cut-up magazines and even the ingredients food stylists use to prepare prop ice cream cones.
The camp, called Club Media, is designed to teach children how to be more aware of the persuasion techniques used in marketing.
"We want them to be aware and empowered -- to be able to think about the media messages and have a conscious relationship with all media, not just a passive relationship," said Diane Samples, a director at Club Media, who worked in marketing and corporate communications for about nine years.
Club Media took place for the first time this month, with 28 10- to 12-year-old campers, at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT. Each day was split in half. During the mornings, instructors led sessions on topics ranging from tricky wording in cereal ads (cereal is part of a balanced breakfast, not a balanced breakfast on its own) to digital manipulation and distortion of body images. The goal, Samples said, was to encourage children to ask themselves important questions about media: Who created a message and why? What information has been left out that might be important to know? Can you believe what you see?
The afternoons were designated for group commercial production: some children brainstormed the theme for an ad agency pitch, while others acted in and filmed TV spots.
Samples ran the camp, which cost each child $565, with three other directors who have training and experience in media education: Amy Damico, Suzanne DeBrosse and Brian Farmer. Samples also founded Media Knowledge, a nonprofit organization that developed the program and also runs similar workshops and presentations for children, parents and teachers throughout the year. She said media literacy was mostly absent from school curriculums.
"I think it's a critical issue for kids of all ages," she added, "because they are exposed to media all the time, from the very youngest of ages, even before school."
To that end, she left the communications field to teach children, and those who interact with children the most, how to use their heads, rather than their hearts, when responding to the media.
"The more we can prepare our kids," said Yoram Samets, creative director at Kelliher Samets Volk in Burlington, Vt., who sent his 11-year-old son, Theo, to the camp, "the better off they'll be."
Samets said he thought Club Media could be a way for children to find a different perspective, learn how ads are created and possibly improve their communications skills.
"I think there's a total lack of integrity in communication," he said. "I'm the captain of propaganda. I fight with this every single day."
Barbara Russillo, president at Legale Legwear in New York, part of DML Marketing, agreed. She sent her 12-year-old son, Matt, to Club Media because he is interested in film.
"If it helps him in some career in film or advertising, it would be great," she said. "If it only helps him film his kids one day, what the heck? If it makes him a smarter consumer one day, that's good, too."
"I want Matt to be an independent thinker when it comes to media," she added. "I want him to formulate his own impressions rather than have media tell him how to think or feel."
Not everyone agrees with the tenets of media literacy, or thinks that Media Camp is necessary.
"Kids seem to be doing a fine job of it on their own, if you ask me," said Doug Zarkin, vice president for business development and client services at G-Whiz Entertainment in New York, part of the Grey Global Group, an agency that specializes in marketing to children, teen-agers and young adults and works for clients like Aeropostale and Warner Brothers.
"Next thing you know," he added, "kids will be going to camp to learn how to tie their shoes."
Zarkin, who has been working in advertising to the youth market for more than seven years, also said that principles and guidelines to regulate advertising to young people had been set up by organizations like the Children's Advertising Review Unit, known as CARU, which is part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and associated with the National Advertising Review Council.
He said, for example, that a commercial for a toy airplane could not feature an airplane flying on its own, if it could not actually fly; the hand of someone playing with it must be evident. Though he added: "Kids are not easily deceived, they're very savvy consumers."
"They're jaded," said Ron Vos, president at Hi Frequency Marketing in Carrboro, N.C., a youth marketing and entertainment agency that works for clients like MTV and Calvin Klein, referring to what he describes as Generation Y, 10- to 24-year-olds. "They grew up over the Internet, they're more media savvy."
"To really get in under their shield," he added, "you really have to be clever and creative and make them laugh and get them involved."
Perhaps media literacy programs like Club Media, which Samples hopes to run again next summer in Vermont as well as in Fairfield County, Conn., and Westchester County, N.Y., are going to make it even more complicated to market to youngsters.
"Put Madison Avenue on warning," Samples said, "a new generation of media savvy kids are about to hit the streets."
Allison Fass, The New York Times. August 31, 2000
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