For years, children in advertising were as heartwarming as a brood of puppies.
There was Mikey, the Life cereal kid, and the worshipful young sports fan who won the heart of "Mean" Joe Greene in the iconic 1979 Coca-Cola ad. Don't forget the endless parade of lovable tykes who crooned odes to Oscar Mayer bologna and wieners.
None of that will change. "What comes out of their mouths and what you see on their faces is so wonderful," says Rob Schapiro, senior vice president and creative director at Interpublic Group's Martin Agency.
But recently, children in advertising have been portrayed in a way that seems more Charles Addams than A.A. Milne. Rather than objects of adoration, they're now often an annoyance and a chore.
In a recent Netflix ad created by Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, two parents are easily diverted from watching what appear to be their baby's first steps by the arrival of a Neftlix envelope through the mail slot in the front door. The baby wanders offscreen and a thud is heard. "What's better than a movie in your mailbox?" the commercial asks.
In a recent commercial for PepsiCo's Diet Pepsi, created by Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide, a father ignores a baby's wailing in favor of watching a sporting event. "Sweetie? I'll be right there to help," he calls. "I'm on my way." Seconds later, we find that he has missed the delivery of his newborn child. To make up for it, he shares a sports-game moment with the swaddled infant.
Some of these ads clearly are puncturing sanctimonious attitudes about the responsibilities of parenting. Others are designed simply to get attention. "It is not intended at all to be mean," Richard Silverstein, co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein, says of the Netflix baby ad.
But critics aren't amused. Commercials depicting parental neglect promote "the sort of notion that parents are really worse than they have ever been, and not doing what they need to be doing," says Susan Nall Bales of FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit Washington think tank that researches American attitudes on social issues. "These kinds of ads, they pollute the public discourse."
The role of children in advertising began to evolve as society moved from the warm and fuzzy world of Disney to the more irreverent style of Nickelodeon. Childhood innocence has been in increasingly short supply with sexy moppets like Britney Spears gaining pop-cultural sway.
Kids no longer seem so huggable on Madison Avenue. Advertisers are "marketing the notion of kids as being a drag" and creating "this kind of sense of, 'Who cares what happens to them?' " says Susan Linn of Harvard University's Judge Baker Children's Center, who has studied the impact of marketing on children. "It's really just another example of how the advertising-and-marketing industry undermines the parent-child relationship," she says.
Marketers might struggle with how far to go. Kids are "immediate attention-getters," says Kathy Delaney, executive creative director at Interpublic's Deutsch. Still, she adds, "I don't think it's right to make kids look foolish or have violence surrounding them in commercials. I think that's just wrong."
The theme has been building. A recent ad for Sprint, crafted by Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, showed a girl in her early teens wearing out her family's patience by braiding everyone's hair and chattering incessantly until her cellphone plan's free minutes kicked in for the night. A Sprint spokeswoman says the ad uses tongue-in-cheek humor.
In at least one instance, a child strikes back. During a recent commercial for Berkshire Hathaway's Dairy Queen from Grey Global Group's True Grey, a father carrying his toddler in a harness teases the child that he is too young to partake in one of the ice-cream chain's creamy delights. The tot retorts with a kick to the groin and a head-butt.
Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. September 22, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.