At promptly 8 pm on Christmas Eve, my extended family and I participated in a tradition I’m certain is shared by many: gathering in front of the TV and watching A Christmas Story. The iconic film encapsulates Christmas in cinematic form.
Ralphie, with his Coke-bottle glasses and side-parted hair, is lovably nerdy, and one of my favorite scenes is the one in which he receives in the mail a secret decoder ring from the radio program Little Orphan Annie.
With palpable exuberance, Ralphie sits down in front of the radio, eager to receive Annie’s secret message. He animatedly jots down a series of numbers, for he believes “tonight’s message was really important.”
Ralphie escapes to the bathroom and, propelled by a frenetic energy, uses the decoder to convert those numbers to letters. Licking his lips in utter absorption and turning the decoder with his chubby thumbs, Ralphie manages to bust the code in spite of the furious knocking in the background, possibly thanks to his belief that his transcription is a matter of life and death (The narrator voices, “The fate of the planet may hang in the balance!”). Brimming with gusto and pride, he takes a close look at his hard work.
The message: Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.
Ralphie is shocked, disappointed, and angry. Goaded on by the radio announcer (“Remember, Annie is depending on you!”), he unwittingly inflated the significance of the message like a balloon, the popping of which is rather anticlimactic and disappointing: the dramatic, aggrandized buildup succeeded by the crushing letdown. He’s been hoodwinked by the advertising industry.
Poor Ralphie. The film juxtaposes Ralphie’s brief forays into adult territory (the curse words that slip from his mouth) with his endearing innocence (the fantasy sequences, his desperate desire for the Red Ryder). Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in his response to the Ovaltine advertisement: “A crummy commercial?! Son of a bitch!”
Ralphie: a boy naive enough to be duped by advertisers but a boy who expresses his disbelief with characteristically adult exasperation.
I Am He as You Are He
We’ve all endured a Ralphie-like experience, one in which we startlingly realize we’ve been had by advertisers. We all start out as Ralphies, but at some point, our consumer innocence is shattered, and we eventually transition from an optimistic buyer to a cynical (if realistic) one who scoffs at the unrealistic situations portrayed in TV commercials. Over time, those rose-colored glasses of childhood are replaced with clear, frequently polished lenses that examine every commercial, every print ad, every billboard with a skepticism born out of too many disappointment-inducing purchases.
Commercials in a Child’s Eyes
The innocent perspective children have regarding the inner workings of the world knows no bounds, and it certainly doesn’t know advertising.
It goes without saying that kids aren’t savvy to the cunning wiles and sly subterfuges employed by all those people who keep the cogs of the advertising industry churning. The discrepancy between the image so meticulously manufactured by the ad industry and reality is lost on them. (Though Holden Caulfield might deem that a good thing.) When seen through a child’s eyes, commercials promise cool, enviable toys and an all-around good time.
I remember seeing a commercial for a Barbie Dream Boat. It might have been this one, which watching now I realize is prototypical in its nineties-ness.
That quickly enunciated disclaimer at the end of the commercial is easy to miss: “Batteries, dolls, and fashions not included. Your parents put it together.”
What six-year-old me saw: a boat! Dolls! A blender!
What my parents (au fait with the manipulative tendencies of marketing) saw: an arduous assembly of a pink plastic contraption (screwdrivers most likely required). And yet another toy requiring batteries.
When my parents purchased the Barbie Dream Boat, I was bemused because it didn’t come with the Barbie dolls I saw in the commercial. I was convinced they didn’t purchase the right one. My mom told me that the Dream Boat doesn’t come with dolls and that I had to use my own dolls. I protested, and every protest probably began with the words, “But in the commercial…” A classic case of a naive six-year-old girl believing a commercial in its entirety, not solely in the product it was pushing.
That’s when the shift happens.
The shift happens when we realize the incongruity between ads and real life. It might be the product of one big deception or several small deceptions. It’s a real-life buildup and let down of Ralphie-esque proportions prompted by the disheartening disconnect between image and reality. It looks like this:
Here’s how adults look at ads:
- Forty-seven percent of adults trust TV commercials
- Forty-seven percent trust ads in magazines
- Forty-six percent trust ads in newspapers
- Forty-two percent trust ads on radio
I talked to my coworkers and gathered a few stories about childhood consumer experiences that left them disappointed and disillusioned, prompting them to start looking at ads in the above adult (read: skeptical) way and signifying a cruel awakening to the power of marketing manipulation. Here are all of the things that single-handedly slayed consumer innocence.
Guilty Party Number One: Toaster Strudels
Toaster Strudels on commercials look like heavenly pillows of puff pastry, filled with a gleaming, glistening fruit-like gel and picturesquely draped with smooth, snow-white frosting. In reality, it’s impossible to pipe the granular frosting so perfectly; it ends up looking like a sugary globule. And the fruit filling oozes out inconsistently, making for a crushingly disappointing breakfast. Who knew warm, flaky pockets of sucrose could be so skilled in the art of deception?
Guilty Party Number Two: Play-Doh
Play-Doh commercials always show young kids crafting objects of an impossible-to-replicate caliber. In reality, no amount of sculpting or building can replicate the culinary creations shown in the Play-Doh “Make a Meal” commercial:
The reality: a thick modeling compound resistant to the whims and creative vision of a five-year-old child and one that is utterly unforgiving of the grave sin of mixing colors. The Play-Doh Fun Factory is more accurately the Play-Doh Frustration Factory.
Guilty Party Number Three: Hot Wheels Racetracks
In the Hot Wheels commercials, those notorious miniature racecars shoot down tracks at breakneck speeds, effortlessly navigating a corkscrew or soaring through the air before landing in a perfect upright position.
The fact of the matter is that the speed is far from impressive, and the cars rarely travel around the track with such ease. (Also, note that the product in the above commercial comes only with three cars, when the track is clearly built for four.) The Hot Wheels racetrack was one, big vehicular downer.
Guilty Party Number Four: Gak
The commercials for Gak promise endless fun but a child can squish, stretch, and make farting noises with a blob of neon-colored congealed compound for only so long before things get boring. Also, Gak retains its elasticity for a tragically short time; even when kept in its star-shaped vat, it quickly transforms from an oozy, pliable putty to an arid, parched clump. And while the commercial makes offending adults with Gak seem like fun, when a a sizeable mass of it becomes embedded in the white carpet of your family room, the subsequent parental reaction is not that amusing.
Guilty Party Number Five: Power Wheels
Power Wheels are battery-powered cars for kids. There’s something alluringly adult-like in driving a car, so the Hot Wheels commercials enticed droves of eager-to-become-grown-ups kids.
And yet, kids spend more time sitting in the middle of the street in a stalled car than they do driving.
The Eternal Ralphie
I wish that I could say my internal Ralphie withered along with my dreams for the Barbie Dream Boat, but it seems like my consumerist naivete reemerges when I see a particularly compelling and creative ad campaign, challenging the skepticism spawned at the age of six and solidified with each empty advertising promise. Whether we were had by Ovaltine or a twenty-first century toy, the ad industry has deceived every single individual at one point. And while we become savvier with time, it still manages to dupe adults every now and then. Cue exasperation, disbelief, and disappointment.