Friday, December 02, 2005

What Won't Kids Buy?

Kids, as one time comedian and noted fuddy-duddy Bill Cosby is wont to observe when anyone will listen, say the darndest things. A corollary to this pithy truism is that kids will also accept the darndest things. Or, to put it slightly less formally, children are credulous little fuckers. I know there’s a certain type who will claim that kids are unfailingly honest, especially to themselves – you can’t pull the wool over their eyes; but the dewy-eyed baby boomers who usually spout this claptrap also tend to go in for such improbable clich├ęs as the impossibility of keeping a good man down, or a bark being worse than a bite. Or, less formally again, they are quaintly deluded morons. No, children are not only deeply uncritical in their beliefs, but often deeply materialistic, too: happy to put up with any amount of twaddle so long as it either reifies or increases the chances of their ownership of some plasticky/sugar-laden nonsense.

“Now hold on there, Jon”, do I hear you say? “Can you back this cynical hyperbole up? Wasn’t the only time you spoke to a child this year to suggest it ask it’s daddy why mummy’s kisses are always so salty?” Well yes I can, and who’re you to doubt me anyway, you ass? This is of course my cue to entreat you to join me on a brief trip down memory lane. Follow me, be mindful of the potholes of nostalgia and sentimentality, and we’ll either find all the proof your heart desires or die trying, or something.

Those of you who have them should cast your minds back to about 1980, when American toy companies first cottoned on to the idea (i.e. stole it from the Japanese) that you could cross-promote a product with a cartoon show. Show and product ideally each become the raison d'etre for the other, and as evil marketing ploys go, it's a pretty damn clever one. Except for the fact that none of the shows in question ever made a lick of frikkin' sense - not that this appeared to matter to the gleeful imbeciles watching (i.e. me). Every single one of them was based on a silly, shaky premise which was unfolded in plots of an utterly implausible nature.

Now, before you go all power-of-the-imagination-harry-potter-kids-minds-are-magical-places on me, please consider this: shut up. I'm well aware of that stimulation of the imagination, unexplained mysteries and flights of fancy are all necessary parts of good kids' stories - of good stories period, in fact - but a recognisable basis in reality is required as a position to depart from. Not only did the cartoons in question lack such grounding, they lacked internal sense, and coherency, and relished in it. The toy company/network execs were not just operating on the grounds that their watchers/consumers were pituitary retards who would accept pretty much anything, they were throwing it in our faces with every episode. And we lapped it up, and we bought the toys, and were happy.

Chew on such examples as these: He-Man, the masculinely moniker'd hero of some planet where wearing furry underpants and little else was regarded as the height of good taste, was a muscle-bound blonde chap whose sidekick was a big green talking cat, and who hung around with a guy that revelled in the ownership of both the improbable name 'Man-at-Arms' and a moustache that would have made any of the Village People jealous. He-Man's alter-ego, Prince Adam, the identity he assumed to protect, uh... well, I'm not sure, given that everyone else on the planet used to gad about in furry undergarments, sporting their disturbingly large muscles and laser weaponry as well - Prince Adam was a muscle-bound blonde chap whose sidekick was a... you get the picture; despite this, everyone went around wondering who He-Man really was. Oh, and he regularly fought with a blue fellow who, though his head was merely a skull, did not let his handicap stop him from talking, eating, keeping his brain from dribbling out, etc. And He-Man was one of the more plausible cartoons.

The Transformers, robots in disguise, never refuelled. They never accidentally ran anyone over, or squished members of the public during their heated battles. And the bad guy, Megatron? The good robots feared him, for he had no known weaknesses - this despite the common knowledge that he could transform into a gun, but couldn't fire himself. Needless to say, he lost every battle, often simply because the good robots turned up and called him mean names. Especially interesting was the writers/execs' ploy of introducing a human father and son as characters; when asked, the crusty but kindly dad would tell his child that, yes, he could go and play with the Transformers (as they fought their terrible laser wars - vive responsible parenting). Naturally, the kids watching would ask the same question of their own parents, who need only oblige by sacrificing wads of cash rather than sending their offspring to enter into pitched combat against evil mechanoids.

And pushing credulity to the limit were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You'd think the name said enough, wouldn't you? But no: the turtles' nemesis was a giant whiny pink brain from another dimension that lived in a robot's stomach. And did we buy it? Did we what.

"But this was all years ago, when some of us, not pointing fingers, were young and stupid," you may claim. "Things must've changed by now." Well, yes, they have, but not for the better. In the interests of good (or at least vaguely amusing) blogging, I have spent a few mornings watching the crap channel 10 spews onto the TV screen, and if anything, kids' cartoons have become dumber; the marketing campaigns behind them, however, have become far, far more insidious. Take the Pokemon craze for instance: while nearly dead now, praise Jebus, it was at one time the most successful children's fad ever. The accompanying cartoon did not reflect this. It was not only badly made, it was repetitive and it was boring. Why was it so popular, then? The underlying conceit is that kids are encouraged to wander around the world unaccompanied by adults, catching wild and endangered animals, and then training them to fight one another - neat. The fact that all the adults in the cartoon actively encourage kids to collect Pokemon is a good pointer as to the products success, letting kids know that to buy, buy, buy has parental sanctioning, even if it's not from their own parents. And the steady, dull repetition in each episode reinforces the key concepts again and again: collect Pokemon, make them fight; collect Pokemon, make them fight.

This is taken further still by what my pre-adolescent cousins tell me is the latest big thing, Yu-Gi-Oh! I'm not entirely sure what a Yu-Gi-Oh! is, even after watching a few episodes (it sounds like a virulent toe infection); what I do know is that the marketing behind it is obviously being steered by Satan. The cartoon takes place in a world entirely and inexplicably devoid of adults - you don't need to ask them, just buy the game anyway, kids! - in which our hero, a big-eyed emo boy with bad hair and worse taste in jewellery, has to play a card game which, if you lose, will steal your soul. Every episode basically consists of the hero and his latest foe squaring off, tensely looking each other in the eye, and making their card-monsters fight each other in a game in which there are apparently no rules. There is no plot, none whatsoever; each show is exactly the same as the last. And the script consists largely of aphorisms along the lines of: "I believe in my cards", "I trust my cards", "I belive in myself, and the game", repeated over and over again. It's brain-washing 101, and presumably the toy company is laughing all the way to the bank, via hell.

If anything, TV programs like these render assertions along the lines of 'children have brilliant imaginations', 'children won't buy into insincerity' meaningless. Imagination and sincerity are wonderful things, but children are apparently happier with a mass-produced piece of garbage they can hold in their hand while they watch cartoon characters mouthing reinforcement at them. What won't kids buy? Not a damn thing.

Which is why I recommend clipping the next one you see around the earhole, just on principle.


Tim said...

Kids: capitalism's bitches.

Lisa said...

A "virulent toe infection" is a good definition, Jon; tho toe perhaps ought to be head.

Ben said...

Good to see you didn't can Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too much - that show was like crack for me.

And did my parents ever buy me any figurines? Heck no.

Anyway, kids suck and such. Etc.

I had to take my damn weiner kids to see the first Pokemon "film" - so I know your pain.

By damn weiner kids, I mean my adorable niece and nephew.

Eddie Maguire's love juices said...

I agree with all you spout Jon - where were the marketing tools for Wurzul Gummidge and Catweazel - they would'a been some freaky toys huh?

Jon said...

Ben: Guilty admission time - TNMT, along with NKOTB, were something of an addiction for me in primary school, too. Which doesn't invalidate my point. It was a silly concept that should never have worked, but did due to superlative marketing machine pushing its sewer-living heroes on innocent kiddies/wannabe ninjas. Much like NKOTB.

EMLJ: Damn skippy. Wurzul Gummidge would have been a good promotional vehicle for schools: shape up and fly straight, or end up being like this.

divinetrash said...

No, Jon, the TMNT worked for much more wholesome reasons than vicious, relentless merchandising. It was because the eponymous turtles were totally GNARLY and RADICAL, with kick arse weapons, and a SENSEI. Not to mention that they were characters you could totally relate to. I mean, being genetically altered by toxic waste and then fleeing to a sewer to spend your days munching on pizza and fighting criminals with such names as Shredder, Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady is something that most children will face at some point. Plus, kids enjoy cartoons in which they can learn the names of Italian master painters...

Jon said...

Good grief, I forgot about Rocksteady and Bebop! Thanks divinetrash. Now I'm going to spend the rest of the day giggling.