Critical thinking with kids: Seeing through consumer culture.

From the moment Max could read, car trips have included a persistent narrator of our visual surroundings. Whether he is informing us about the “best pizza in the world” or explaining that Jesus says we should go to that church in Alberta City, Max is constantly alerting us to the text in our lives. The billboards, the neon signs, the colorful posters, the pamphleted promises, the otherwordly candy wrappers- all those things I learned to ignore are brought back to my attention by a young man who takes life and words quite literally.

As usual, my reponse to something I don’t understand is to study it. So I decided to work with Max to decode the super-saturated milieu in which we find ourselves. Why bother? Well, because the mother who doesn’t want her son to hop into a car with someone who promises him a puppy or the moon also doesn’t want her son to spend his money or time on an ad that promises him a puppy or the moon. Both are damaging and dangerous.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover a resource called Admongo, a website where kids can get an “ad-ucation” by playing a game featuring make-believe products closely modeled on real ones, among them Choco Crunch’n Good cereal, Cleanology acne medication, Double Dunk sporting goods and the Smile Meals sold at Fast Chef restaurants.

“Advertising is all around you,” the home page declares in urging youngsters to always ask three questions: “Who is responsible for the ad? What is the ad actually saying? What does the ad want me to do?”

Since Admongo is sponsored by the FTC, it tends to assume that ads aren’t actively attempting to trick consumers into making unnecessary purchases. Of course, if ads were not capable of generating nonexistent demand for specious products, advertising would not be a billion dollar industry.

Flustered, I sat down with Max and framed our discussion in terms of facts and opinions. Generally, facts are statements which can be verified or tested. For example, if someone told you that Diana Ross was born in Wichita on May 7, 1945, you could search hospital records to find out if this statement is true. To gauge how much he understood, I showed him the photo below:

ALINA: “Max, is the text on this photo a fact?”

MAX: “Uh, not really because not everybody that homeschools looks like that.”

ALINA: “True, not everybody that homeschools looks like you.”

MAX: “And homeschooling isn’t always happy because sometimes I get frustrated.”

ALINA: “Me too.”

MAX: “So it’s more like an opinion and besides you can’t test it to see if it’s
true about everyone because there are too many different homeschoolers in
the world…..”

ALINA: “I agree. Whoever wrote this text wanted you to believe something.”

MAX: “Yeah, they wanted you to think you should homeschool.”

ALINA: “I agree. Do you think they gave good reasons for it?”

MAX: “No because it was tricky and untrue….”

The conversation could not have gone better if I had offered him a script. Then Max and I turned to some websites to see how companies advertise to kids online. We perused the following websites to see how ads target kids and try to convince them that a specific object will improve their lives: American Girl Collection, Hot Wheels, Barbie, Papa John’s Pizza, and Pokemon. We had plenty to discuss and observe.

We finished up our exploration by completing the fact-finding learning module (free and printable for you, of course).

Is That A Fact? Learning Module(PDF)

For more resources on how to discuss marketing and advertising with your kids and how to counteract the effects of mediated culture on your child’s development and character, check out the following:

Managing Superhero Play Tip Sheet (Media Smarts)
The Price of Happiness (Media Smarts)
Talking to Kids About Gender Stereotypes Tip Sheet (Media Smarts)
Evaluating Information Found on the World Wide Web (Webliminal)
Critical Thinking Skills for Web Literacy (Media Smarts)
The Language of Advertising (Linguarama)