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Kids As Consumers: A Look At

A Retail Giant’s Ad Campaign

Image by Jay Reed and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.

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America’s Corporations Produce Effective Marketing Strategies That Indoctrinate Youth Into The Culture Of Consumerism And Strengthen Racial Stereotypes


By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 20, 2013 — Everyone intuits, on some level, that corporations are disingenuous in their appeal to target audiences; that the sounds and images cobbled together in contemporary advertisements which offer happy “doubles” of the consumers, are not a sign of community but a ploy to commodify.  Yet, this realization may not fully register until one decodes the mechanics of marketing through the lens of critical theory. Then one is able to truly see the opportunistic logic of advertising.  

Consider the following illustrations. Throughout the summer, Target aired a commercial which seemed like a neutered version of a music video by Illya Kuryaki and The Valderramas called “Ula Ula.” The music video from Argentina is a postmodern fusion of ethnic identities, historical periods and artistic styles. Musicians and dancers float between frames in a sexy performance of travel and relation, epitomized by a circle, the hula-hoop and subject of the song.

This video is reconstituted in Target’s commercial through a fairly banal set of relations. In Target’s “Summer Up” ad, the Valderramas’ chorus loops in Spanish as a rainbow of kids teem out of an elementary school. The ad cuts to a Latina mom and daughter capering merrily through an Alice in Wonderland world of merchandise. They cruise home in a bug filled with fun goods to accessorize their backyard party. The yard bursts alive with water play, kids glide across a Slip n’ Slide, and a fit dad mows the lawn. Finally, the viewer floats above a picnic table decked out with vibrantly colored, plastic serving pieces and the camera pans across the guests in a multi-cultural celebration of dinnerware.

Another permutation of Target’s summer commercial campaign musically features that paean to childhood from the ‘80s, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” It isn’t the actual song, but a surreal, juvenile-Muzak version in which the driving tune is simulated by xylophones and recorders — without lyrics, of course. In this Target commercial, two multiracial children toss random school supplies into a cart as they playfully enact the late-summer ritual of school shopping. A pair of disembodied hands steers the cart and adjudicates the errand as the children cajole them into the purchase of many items. We witness an animated high five, a mock-tussle over a toy, a sister dutifully stoops to tie her brother’s shoes, and the symbolic swiping of a credit card concludes the drama. Viewers in their 40s easily conjure Cheryl James and Sandy Denton’s throaty command to, “push it real good,” which seems repugnantly incongruous with the Kid-Bop imagery but, at the same time, it creates the desired decontextualized urban-vibe.

How would we analyze these examples from a critical perspective? Drawing on the historian Rosalind Williams’ essay The Dream World of Mass Consumption, a study of proto-marketing methods utilized at the exposition of 1900, this is a kind of racism in which realism is subordinated to a commercial fantasy. In Williams’ account, early images of cultures of the world were co-opted and transformed into fantasies which translated more easily into products. Similarly, the Target commercials represent an appropriation and artificial rendition of identity, a take on what Target wants to conceptualize as Latino-ness and African American-ness (modifiers drawn from the work of the cultural critic, Jerry Herron), remixed through suggestive sounds and transitory liminal blips. This version of identity gels with the economic ends of advertising: it avoids complexity and contestation and converts advertising into profits.

Furthermore, viewed through the lens of an argument leveled by the educational theorist Henry Giroux in Disturbing Pleasures, these images are not offered in the spirit of difference and dialogue as they ostensibly appear. This is because the stereotypic cut-outs cannot stand in for the real lives they are meant to represent, and presence in retail space is not an acceptable substitute for inclusivity. The figures in the commercials perform a simplified account of identity recognizable through a collage of references that retool kids and their parents only into types of buyers, rather than respecting their individual tastes and differences and the possibility that they don’t give a damn about shopping at Target.

It should be stated that the methods described here utilized by Target are not new, nor are they any worse than those employed by other companies (Kmart’s advertisement “My School Bus is My Limo” comes most immediately to mind). I am critiquing Target’s summer campaign as one illustration of ethnic and racial identity used as a theater prop and children as heralds of prosaic messages of materialism.

Again, drawing upon the always optimistic scholarship of Henry Giroux, kids are going to have to be able to imagine themselves as something more significant than shoppers, and the possibility for civic contribution as more vital than the purchase of a fall wardrobe. The representation of kids as equal under the commercial code is a perverse nod to diversity.

Stacy Graber is an assistant professor of English. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.
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