It’s been a while since I ranted about advertising. Is this because I am not watching much television, because the current ad cycle is comparatively inoffensive, or…! Could it be that I have slipped into the mode of tamping down my ad-related wrath?
Surely it’s the latter, because just now, I saw an ad on Fandango that ties to a TV campaign that makes me grit my teeth. Yes. It’s that smug little punk of a Toyota kid, one “Nathan James,” the online ad tells me. Guess how interested I am in his “movie guide”? You’re right! Not. At. All.
Let me preface the rest of this rant by making clear that I am not laying blame for these ads on the hapless child actor who’s been cast as “Nathan James.” (I find the character so off-putting that it gives me pleasure to present him with quotation marks, which I think underscore his essential inauthenticity.) No. The blame lies squarely with Saatchi & Saatchi, who created the campaign for Toyota (and of course Toyota, for green-lighting it). The campaign launched back in October, this press release tells me, and because the release notes the campaign’s distribution strategy, I’m able to pinpoint the fact that I’ve caught these ads while watching Top Chef.
The campaign, for the Toyota Highlander, is called “Just because you’re a parent, doesn’t mean you have to be lame.” It’s aimed at parents of children 7-12. This is the age at which children apparently begin to absorb outside influences; their parents, once cool by default, are now subject to scrutiny, and more often than not, are found wanting. “The last thing they [the kids] want is to be picked up from school in the old family hauler.” The ads are calculated to kick the vulnerable parent who has been prostrated by the child’s initial stabs at independence, which of course come via rejection. It’s hard to be othered (shout out to yesterday’s workshop). But parents, I’ve got news for you: the Highlander is not going to fix the problem. (And I don’t see it as a problem per se: a kid has got to detach eventually, painful as that may be.)
The kneejerk vitriol I feel perusing this background material – and seeing the resulting ads – is predicated on a few things. One, I am not a parent. Two, when I become a parent, I guarantee you my child will not be my personal arbiter of what’s “cool.” Three, the opinion of my hypothetical 7-12 year old is irrelevant to me when it comes to decision-making on the purchase of durable goods. Basically, the kid can suck it.
This extrapolated top-down parenting is, I think, a product of my own upbringing (I credit my parents for my independence…and insofar as life lessons, here’s the theme song) as well as generational. My brother I’m sure will have something to say about this book he’s been reading, and the attitudinal cycle it purports to explain. Contemporary marketing is focused on co-creating the product/experience with consumers, and I think that’s also an attitude that’s informed how the generation ahead of me has parented its children. In contrast, I think choice can be overrated (there was great piece on the success of Trader Joe’s in I think Newsweek this fall that I can’t find online now).
A kid should certainly be empowered to make choices when the resources to be expended are hers, but when it comes to major purchases made with the parents’ resources, her opinion is tertiary at best. At least in my house. And god forbid I raise a child so materialistic as to give a crap. All of this is by way of saying that my dislike of this campaign says more about me than the campaign overall. I’m clearly not the target demographic.
Incidentally, I strongly dislike the Toyota Highlander and have since its launch, mostly because I see it as your run-of-the-mill family wagon, an impression Toyota’s redesign and the opinion of Saatchi & Saatchi spawn “Nathan James” has done nothing to dispel.