The Medium is the Message

Lynn JataniaAs a family, we’re watching a lot less advertising these days – at least, I thought we were. That’s because most of our family watching is on Netflix, which has no commercials, and the few shows we watch on regular TV are recorded in advance and ads are skipped over. I can easily go months without being aware of what new movies are coming up, which new developments have occurred in the world of toothpaste, and what new packaging strides Coke and Pepsi have made.

I admit I was a little smug about how sheltered our kids were from mainstream advertising. But it seems that as we’ve become better at avoiding ads, advertisers have become better at finding new inroads. Our kids have secretly been watching plenty of ads, without us realizing it.

Take YouTube for example: each of our children has their own tablet – they were each allowed to purchase one with their own hard-earned birthday and Christmas money when they turned ten years old. They use these to play games, on their own or with family and friends, but also to watch YouTube videos. They’re watching Minecraft videos, slapstick prank videos, clips from Dancing With The Stars, or toy unboxing videos.

We monitor which channels they are watching and make sure it’s appropriate content. But one thing I didn’t think about: before almost every YouTube video there’s an ad, and the ads don’t always match the content – a YouTube channel about unboxing toys, for example, might be showing ads for adult-oriented movies, or a YouTube channel for a Minecraft gamer might be showing ads for a Game of Thrones-style TV series.

I didn’t realize how many of these ads the kids were seeing until recently: since YouTube videos are usually short, an hour’s screen time might mean they are seeing the same ad at least a dozen times. It’s to the point where they can quote them, re-enact them, and mock them to each other. At least when they are quoting ads, we can talk about the content and what we think about it.

But there’s no denying that the ads are getting into their heads and staying there.

And that’s not even the half of it. These days, many of the videos they see actually ARE ads – ads disguised as a fun story that seems to be about something else. Those Minecraft video gamers? They promote Minecraft add-ons as well as other video games kids might want to purchase, making them look like must-have fun. Those unboxing videos? Each one pushes the kids towards wanting a new toy – it’s like Saturday morning cartoons all over again. A comedy skit might obviously show a certain brand of phone or a kind of clothing that is key to the joke.

Our kids absorb this kind of endorsement without even realizing it is happening; more than once I’ve found them trying out a new app recommended by gamer Dan TDM or asking to go to the toy store to pick up something they saw online, without even thinking about why they want it or who gave them this idea. It’s something we both need to think about. I doubt we will be banning YouTube any time soon, but we also need to find a way to talk to the kids about what they are seeing, and how to approach it with a critical eye.

Do your kids watch YouTube? What kind of videos do they like? Do you talk to them about the content they are seeing and if it is selling as well as entertaining?