As Read Across America day was being kicked off at the New York Public Library by The Lorax stars Zac Efron and Danny DeVito, I was home watching Stephen Colbert's funny spin on the number of product placements -- over 70-- embedded in the movie. As an author and avid reader I'm first in line for anything we can do to get kids reading, but wonder if The Lorax, under the canopy of earth hugging greenness, has crossed the line. Don't get me wrong, many of the products are ones I would happily use for my family, the problem is that they are embedded in a cartoon aimed at young kids. Kids who don't yet have the savvy or skill to understand they are being hustled. Kids who will turn around and torture you to buy whatever the gummy-goo-gizmos their favorite cartoon characters are selling.
It's not only movies that a smart parent needs to be wary of, marketers trying to influence little Alice to influence you to buy products like Pebbles cereal or a Happy Meal or Hasbro's Littlest Pet Shop have found a haven on the Internet. While children's television commercial time is strictly regulated, no such constraints bind these brands online. To hustle their products they've created interactive sites that appear to children like games and fun contests.
What's a parent to do? Sit down at the computer and mouse around at home to give your kids concrete examples of product placements and tricky sites. Teach them about cookies (no, not the chocolate-chip variety) and how crafty marketers use them to monitor their Internet usage and target them directly. Point out sidebars that are ads on websites and how often the content is promoting the products. Show them examples of photo-shopped models. Teach them about reliable sources. As they grow, take them by the hand and go to your local public library. Yes, that building in the real world. (Yes, the place that the celebs were using to celebrate Read Across America timed to the release of The Lorax on Dr. Seuss's birthday). Go there. Ask if a librarian or media specialist can sit down with you and your child and talk about credible sources: about scholarly research with citations, edited news sources, and the difference between opinion pieces and fact pieces, between real journalism and blogger news.
In my latest book, Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Happy Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank, I advocate teaching kids how to separate their needs from their wants and to decode the messages the media uses to sell them junk -- junk they probably don't need anyway. Not only will this will save you money, it's the first step in teaching them how to be critical thinkers and savvy consumers.
So, on Read Across America day, we need to remember that in addition to teaching our children to love reading, we also need to teach them HOW to read to between the lines in order to understand what the slick market makers and product placers are selling them.
Read Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Happy Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank (An NAL/Penguin release March 6)