Friday, December 28, 2007

Help! My Kid Might Think For Himself!!

There was a great column in the 12/26 edition of USA Today bemoaning the state of the toy industry. While much has been made of the zillions of lead-related recalls in 2007, Laura Vanderkam points to a different, slightly more disturbing trend. I call it the dumbing of the youngest generation. Ms. Vanderkam is more eloquent than I. But basically she writes about something which I, and a number of my colleagues, have been saying for years when we worked in the toy and game industry: toys and games are being developed and marketed to ensure that the educational benefit comes through stronger than anything else. Remember when a toy was good because it was fun? No longer. A generation of hysterical parents are looking for reassurance that the hours spent pumping Mozart into the womb through headphones applied to distended bellies was not all for naught. Toys that were once purely fun now promise "valuable color matching skills" or "counting" or "socialization". Some of these items even come with an endorsement from one child psychologist or another. Screw imagination. There's no guarantee that a kid's imagination will teach him or her anything valuable. The toy and game makers will supply the preapproved and pretested game play structure for the kids. Even classic toys we may remember from our childhoods are being remarketed with a retrofitted educational component.

The other problem in Toy Land is the rush to compete with video games. Since kids like video games, it must follow that they hate board games, right? This silly hypothesis has led to classic board games being modernized so that there is no tactile play experience. Computers tally up Monopoly money and dice are rolled with a push of a button rather than actually rolling them by hand.

On the USA Today website, a reader named mkletch called Ms. Vanderkam's article oversimplified and disagreed with the part about licensed Lego sets taking the imagination out of building. But I feel that it is mkletch who is incorrect. These sets are not disassembled to become part of a larger Lego set. They are assembled painstakingly according to the directions and then displayed like ships in a bottle. The only imagination that comes from these sets is trying to figure out the directions from the pictures. This will provide valuable training for the kids once they need to assemble furniture from IKEA.

Having a couple of kids of my own, I've spent a lot of time in the toy and game aisles of my local stores and have felt some comfort in seeing that despite all of the changes and modernizations in the category, one thing remains constant: batteries are still not included. The Energizer Bunny thumps on.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mother F*ing Nature

It didn't take today's New York Times article to tell me that the leaves are still clinging to the trees. I probably should have been done with the raking for the season by now but I'm still filling 30 lb. capacity bags from Home Depot with the leaves from my front yard. To date, I've filled around 60 of them with no end in sight. And the back yard? I still have 4 mountains of leaves to mulch or just rake into the woods. I was supposed to accomplish this today. The plan was to get up early and do it all before noon, when the kids returned from Hebrew School. I would also beat the snow, which was supposed to start at around 3.

Instead, I woke up to learn that Hebrew School was canceled because of poor road conditions. The snow had come early, making a mess of everything and keeping me from finishing the leaves. When it melts, the leaf piles will be wet and heavy. The lawn will be wrecked in those spots. And everything looks ugly because of the slushy snow blended with the leaves.

F you, mother nature.

Career Change

I used to have a quote on the wall of my office. It said something about copywriting being the hardest job in advertising because everyone thinks they can be a copywriter. Lots of people think they have great ideas for commercials. Lots of people think they can write better movies too, but few actually try. But the new media has made it easier for people to make and post their own commercials.

Last year, a car company (or was it Doritos?) sponsored a contest where a person could submit and idea and have their commercial shot and aired during the Super Bowl. More recently, an unsolicited ad for the iPhone made it to air. But what prompted me to write this was a contest I saw at my kitchen table.

Heinz has had a bunch of interesting marketing ideas in the past few years. There was the colored ketchup, the bottles with special tips for writing with ketchup, and even a contest where people could write funny saying for the labels. The other day, I was staring at the ketchup bottle on the table. The label announced a "Top This" contest, where anyone with a camera could submit a Heinz commercial and possibly win $57,000. That was the last straw.

What is it about advertising that makes it the most meddled-with career choice? I don't see anyone being an amateur checkout clerk or brain surgeon. Until now. So while I'll continue to write commercials because this is my job, I will also start pulling teeth because I think I can do a better job. I may also start selling real estate. Look out bus drivers, I feel like doing your job. And judging by the wacky weather over the past few months, I think I'll be a meteorologist. Anyone can do it, right?

Better yet, let's all do this: you do your job and I'll do mine. Believe me, my job isn't so glamorous anyway.