A radical notion born
April 5, 2021 9:14 AM   Subscribe

A recent article examines the use of advertising tactics in Sesame Street. (Via Daniel Willingham).
posted by eotvos (34 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
The most frustrating thing to me about this is not that Sesame Street is using "advertising tactics" to teach young children, it's that we have known how effective advertising can be at seeding ideas in people's heads for a long, long time. What's really frustrating to me is that we seem to be only interested in using this kind of effective teaching method to teach people... literally total bullshit because advertising exists to try to convince you to buy something you don't actually necessarily need.

The frustrating thing is that our world is so backwards that advertisers figured out the best way to "teach" people but the only things they're interesting in "teaching" is absolutely horseshit that is intended to make you feel desperate enough to buy their product. Usually by emotionally manipulating people.

So good on Sesame Street, because educating people is where this kind of valuable information should be being used, not to sell people bullshit they don't actually need.

Point being it is absurd that this type of "education" was first discovered by advertisers and that we have to say they're "mimicking" advertisers, when the reality is that advertisers discovered effective teaching methods but have no interest in teaching facts, values, or anything worthwhile other than "buy our shit you troglodyte."
posted by deadaluspark at 9:40 AM on April 5 [46 favorites]


this episode is brought to you by the letter J
posted by BungaDunga at 10:46 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]


My favorite will always be Twelve. I will never, ever forget how to count to twelve thanks to this song, because even if I forgot, I could remember this catchy-ass song. Just over a minute, basically the same length of a standard advertisement.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:19 AM on April 5 [18 favorites]


Is there any place to read the article or a decent summary of it? the abstract is even more bare than some I've seen.
posted by skynxnex at 11:31 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]


Is there any place to read the article or a decent summary of it? the abstract is even more bare than some I've seen.
Hmm. Sorry about that. I see the full article and didn't realize that wasn't true for everyone. (I'm happy to send a copy, but that's not a scalable solution.) Sincere apologies.
posted by eotvos at 11:36 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


This dredged up memories of my brother and I watching Sesame Street as kids. Even back then we referred to the segments between the narrative bits as "the commercials". It's interesting to find out they're referred to as such even today!
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 11:43 AM on April 5 [5 favorites]


Like the Interwebs, television started out with the intention of informing and educating. It has mutated into a propaganda and indoctrination machine of the highest order. A sad reflection of what it could truly be interspersed with some true highlights in education and entertainment. I will refrain from listing as I sure people will have their own list/s...

In the UK the Open University was founded in 1969 with education for all. Elsewhere throughout the world radio and television provided opportunities for people who would have no access to education through lack of infrastructure to economic disparity. People who did not (do not) fit were excluded from higher education and the OU offered many the chance to escape the limitations life had imposed upon them.

We have not had 'TV' for some 20 years and seriously do not miss it. There is so much media available that their are insufficient hours left in a typical persons life to consume it all. When you step back like we have it tends to put things into stark relief. The 'education' segments in Sesame Street and other programs often border on the 'creepy Uncle wants to be friends with you' level. Pulling the plug on a cable contract which provides you with 200+ channels of 24/7 mind-numbing crap is what a lot of people need to do. There is a big world of education out there already which will restore critical thinking and open up endless opportunities.
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 11:43 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


I remember when Sesame Street first started. They were very open about using a form similar to TV adds - short, music, colorful, fast imagery - to present educational content. They aren’t ads, it’s a similar format. And it’s effective. I can tell you to wear your seatbelts (good message) or tell you to buy spam (bad message.) The first is educational and the second is an ad. Both work on similar principles. Who discovered it first? I don’t know. I do know Sesame Street is a good place for educational content. Throwing around the advertising label is just argumentum ad formium.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:45 AM on April 5 [11 favorites]


(I was able to get a copy of the article, thanks!) I'll probably read it more carefully later, but on a quick skim it seems interesting. I've assumed, as an adult, that this was largely able to work and be effective because Jim Henson had some so much Muppet-based advertising before, that bled into Sesame Street even though he was not one of the primary creators, as far as I know.

Sitting in my brain, of course, is how many products are now sold with Sesame Street branding (toothpaste, toys, pottytraining aids, water bottles, diapers, etcs). Which arguably none of them fall into their "negative" group "toys [hm! maybe], junk food, and unhealthy snacks".

But I do have a pretty negative taste in my mouth from both the HBO deal and their Super Bowl DoorDash ad (where the amount DoorDash was going to donate to "Sesame Workshop" was less than the cost of the ad). So yeah.
posted by skynxnex at 12:03 PM on April 5 [5 favorites]


My favorite will always be Twelve. I will never, ever forget how to count to twelve thanks to this song, because even if I forgot, I could remember this catchy-ass song.


Similar to the "Schoolhouse Rock" series of animations in the 1970s.

I'm 53 years old, and still know the Preamble to the US Constitution some 45 years after I first learned it, as a result of the effectiveness of those educational pieces. And when I count by threes, I still use their tune I learned back then.

(Which is probably more an argument for learning content set to a catchy jingle, more than anything else.)
posted by darkstar at 12:47 PM on April 5 [8 favorites]


Where's the line between advertisement and propaganda?
posted by grokus at 1:01 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


Advertising to children should be illegal again. In a one-tenth decent world it would be extremely restricted for adults as well, with most contemporary techniques rendered illegal. Still, even in shit-world we should have the decency and sense to not allow children to be targeted and manipulated by advertisers for capitalists' whims. Instead we get advertising everywhere, and in most places, if you bring up anti-advertising sentiment or regulation, people get all weird and defensive like admitting they're a human being who can also be manipulated by media is a fault rather than just a baseline existential reality to be aware of.
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:06 PM on April 5 [7 favorites]


I'm going to read the article by logging into the library site maintained by my university.
Not everyone has this option. Is there an open version out there?
posted by doctornemo at 1:12 PM on April 5


darkstar I'm 53 years old, and still know the Preamble to the US Constitution some 45 years after I first learned it

ok, I'm 53, and I can recite the Preamble to the Constitution to this day, because...Schoolhouse Rock!
posted by supermedusa at 1:23 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


I don't know, do you really want your kid to develop feelings of affection, love and reverence for letters of the alphabet? Or to have tumultuous and frankly psychedelically colorful images as the unconscious background as they read? Instead of, say, visualizing what the words are saying?

On Sesame Street, language isn't about the world, the world is about language, and even Christian Evangelicals don't adore the Word as deeply as Sesame Street does.
posted by jamjam at 1:47 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


The first muppets were created to violently advertise coffee.
posted by Splunge at 1:50 PM on April 5 [15 favorites]


Okay those coffee commercials are amazing. Thanks for the link, Splunge.
posted by deadaluspark at 2:09 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


I don't know, do you really want your kid to develop feelings of affection, love and reverence for letters of the alphabet? Or to have tumultuous and frankly psychedelically colorful images as the unconscious background as they read? Instead of, say, visualizing what the words are saying?

... Yes?

I mean, I think this comment was probably tongue-in-cheek, but yes, I want my kid to enjoy language for itself as well as for what it does, and I don't see a conflict between the two any more than I see knowing how food is cooked as ruining one's ability to enjoy a meal, or knowing how a machine works as spoiling its magic.

And I don't think anyone is too young to know that words on paper don't say only one thing.
posted by aws17576 at 2:17 PM on April 5 [8 favorites]


The first muppets were created to violently advertise coffee.


Holy cats! Early Kermit was a murderous sociopath! :-o

That's hilarious!
posted by darkstar at 2:43 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


onetwothree FOUR-FIVE! sixseveneight NINE-TEN! (eleven twelve)
doo do do do do do do do do...
posted by Meatbomb at 2:44 PM on April 5 [12 favorites]


tumultuous and frankly psychedelically colorful images

I am just going to cut and paste from my user page, my longstanding gratitude to Sesame Street (as an also 53'er who also knows the US Constitution preamble):

Q: What is the best thing you saw on television growing up?

A: The psychedelic animated shorts from Sesame Street are among the top 1 things:
12;
lost boy;
I remember;
That's About the Size of It, etc.

What makes these items so particularly excellent is not that they teach you how to identify clocks or phones, or to develop memory skills, or even to learn about funky dudes who can morph into living elephant / fountain / plastic homes: the mission critical bit is the subliminal message that when you grow up you should take LSD to make you a better person. Counting to 12 was great, but it was the "take LSD" part that I found the most valuable lesson from 1970s Sesame Street - muchos gracias Children's Television Workshop!

Protip for when the trip gets too intense: try to remember everything you passed, but when you go back make the first thing the last.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:55 PM on April 5 [17 favorites]


I, on the other hand, did not know the Constitution has a preamble until this thread.
posted by jamjam at 3:00 PM on April 5


But please reassure me that the preamble was not dancing around in front of the main body of the Constitution in the Sesame Street animation.
posted by jamjam at 3:04 PM on April 5


Here you go, jamjam! But it was "Schoolhouse Rock" and not Sesame Street, although it was a thing that was very much concurrent with 1970s SS, at least on my television.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:07 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


Sorry, last comment... holy shit, just watched that "Preamble" video for the first time in 40+ years, and the ending is a totally dystopian reversal of the whole setup. The 1970s really is an alien planet, the Man would not let you implant those sort of memes into a kid's brain these days.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:12 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


Aw dang...I just watched it again and now I'm in tears.

I swear, we got off to a really ugly start with the colonialism and genocide and slavery and racism and sexism. And it's a problem that still suffuses the country. We've still got such a long way to go to achieve social justice and equity. But it's still a very moving passage, in an aspirational sense.

And yeah, it's definitely propaganda for kids. The '70s were seriously messed up in a lot of ways. So are the 2020s, but I think we're making progress...
posted by darkstar at 3:17 PM on April 5


I don't know, do you really want your kid to develop feelings of affection, love and reverence for letters of the alphabet? Or to have tumultuous and frankly psychedelically colorful images as the unconscious background as they read?

As long as India Arie is involved, yes.

Although the true queen of the alphabet song is Patti Labelle.

I realize those aren't the ads, more like the halftime show.

Let's also talk about Elmo and celebrity endorsement.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:18 PM on April 5


The first muppets were created to violently advertise coffee.

Previously, if anyone else was curious. I had never seen this until now and didn't know how much I needed Eraserhead Sesame Street coffee commercials.
posted by oulipian at 3:18 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


The 1970s really is an alien planet

I was born in the 1980's and recently I have been watching TV's Taxi for the first time and holy shit is this absolutely correct.

Latka, viewed through a modern lens, its nothing short of insufferable, even moreso when they pair him against someone speaking a real foreign language. The guffaws he induces from this "liberal New York" audience, just oof.
posted by deadaluspark at 3:19 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


I don't know if you've seen much of the TV show MASH, but it was one of the top shows in the '70s and groundbreaking in terms of addressing some of the social issues of the day. But the amount of sexual assault creepiness engaged in by Hawkeye is cringe-inducing to watch now.

And my favorite TV show from my youth, Gilligan's Island (from the '60s), is in retrospect awash with racist and sexist tropes that are soul-crushing for me to watch today.
posted by darkstar at 3:23 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


Uno dos tres, cuaaaatro.
posted by aniola at 3:34 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


That looks like a fascinating study.

Justin Reich recently published a book on educational technology that included a few paragraphs that I keep thinking about. He points out that far-right fringe groups and conspiracy theory fans are able to “teach” effectively with tech, more so than most edtech platforms by maximizing social media’s design, which is all about persuasion, because apparently buying and selling everything from ads to ideas is what drives all human behavior according to Sillycon Valley, which does not understand humanity very well.

My kids loved Sesame Street and I still know many of the songs/earworms but the ad/ed slippage is troubling.
posted by zenzenobia at 3:53 PM on April 5


Let's also remember to thank the Pointer Sisters for those greatpinball number count songs.

They aren’t ads, it’s a similar format.

Yeah exactly. I guess (I can't read the article so maybe someone could tell me) is this one of those "If it looks like an ad it must be ad-like" comparisons? Or are they really saying that the Sesame Street/CTW people went into it being like "Yeah we're going to sell kids on the idea of understanding the sounds that letters make, and how to count! And we're going to use advertising to do it!"
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


Or are they really saying that the Sesame Street/CTW people went into it being like ...And we're going to use advertising to do it!"

Sorry if I'm missing the gist of the question...I can't read the article either, but I did listen to the audiobook Street Gang a few years back. The original concept of Sesame Street was that if kids were going to be stuck indoors with TV for a babysitter, then they could make a TV show that did whatever the rest of TV was doing so effectively but use if for good instead of evil. Wikipedia talks a bit about it, but I'm sure you can find any number of essays about it on the web.
posted by polecat at 1:38 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


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