My contemporaries and I should be called Generation Deregulation. Born in the early 1980's, we were the first to grow up immersed in TV programs designed to sell us stuff. G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Ninja Turtles—these were the shows that dominated our after school time and playground play. Cartoon-linked products (lunch boxes, toys, clothing, you name it) were staples. Ours was a media- and merchandise-saturated environment from the get-go. We didn’t know any other world.
It’s no accident that these same shows are being introduced today to a new generation of children and reintroduced to their nostalgic parents, including the film version of the 1980s cartoon The Smurfs that debuted last week. Most of my generation doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary about the plethora of products being marketed with the movie; I, for one, ate Smurf-berry Crunch for breakfast and told time on a Smurfs watch. But the marketing madness surrounding The Smurfs is extraordinary, and emblematic of the escalation of commercialism in children’s lives even from my own commercialized childhood.
The internet wasn’t at my fingertips as youngster, unlike today’s 6-year-old who can navigate to The Smurfs website and easily find available Smurfs paraphernalia by clicking to view the film’s “partners.” Once there, she’ll be enticed to build-a-Smurf at Build-A-Bear and “get Smurfy” with Suave Kids Body Wash. She’ll be drawn to FAO Swartz for the largest assortment of Smurfs toys, video games and backpacks, and to Kids Foot Locker where she could win a trip to “Smurf It Up in NYC.”
The Smurfs are beckoning in supermarket aisles, from Stauffer’s cookies to a revamped version of Post’s Smurf-berry Crunch. And the golden arches call to her repeatedly from toy-laden commercials, as a bizarre fast food version of green washing reminds her that when she chooses apple dippers with her Smurfs Happy Meal, she’ll be doing good for the environment.
If she actually sees The Smurfs movie, she’ll be exposed to product placement for Sony and other brands, not realizing—because she’s too young to understand—that it’s there to sell her on Sony products. Nor will she understand the intent of the commercials for Smurf vacations at Starwood Hotels & Resorts (but wow, will she want to go there!).
The twenty-somethings who grew up in the 80’s are the new generation of parents. For the sake of nostalgia, many of us will go see the new Smurfs and pick up some blue trinkets for kids. But we should think twice. Marketers are targeting children more aggressively than ever before, and we’re helping them do it. For the children in our lives, and children everywhere, we can’t continue to participate uncritically in a system that uses media to exploit kids. We need to fight for their right to a commercial-free childhood, even if that right was lost to us.