The House Hippo roams again

This fall, Concerned Children's Advertisers (CCA) will launch one of the most comprehensive children's media literacy programs Canada has ever seen.

This fall, Concerned Children’s Advertisers (CCA) will launch one of the most comprehensive children’s media literacy programs Canada has ever seen.

The ‘TV&ME’ program, which teaches kids how to deconstruct advertising and deal with the media with a more critical eye, comprises television ads, an interactive Web site and, probably most significantly, separate education kits for both parents and teachers. The campaign is aimed at kids in grades four, five and six.

‘Children have a huge comfort level with the media – they can program the VCR better than we can,’ says Cathy Loblaw, president and CEO of the CCA, a coalition of advertisers, broadcasters and manufacturers of children’s goods that has worked to ensure responsible marketing to children since 1990. ‘We have to make sure they are as informed about the media as they are comfortable with it.’

On average, Canadian children aged two to 11 watch 15.5 hours of television per week, while those 12 to 17 watch just over 14 hours per week. It has been estimated that most kids will have seen as many as 350,000 advertisements by the time they graduate from high school.

The ‘other prong’

In Canada, children’s advertising is regulated by the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children and the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which sets parameters on quantities and timing of commercials and regulates content. All ads directed at kids (up to 12 years old) must pass a pre-clearance hearing before they are approved for broadcast.

‘The mechanism is working well,’ says Linda Nagel, president and CEO of Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), administrator of the codes. ‘We get less than a handful of complaints about commercials for children – maybe two or three in the last eight years. It’s a sign the ad industry takes the code very seriously.’

In the last decade, concern about children’s media habits has shifted from the effects of advertising to worries about the cumulative effect of all the media combined. Admitting that there is little the ASC can do about foreign television advertising – never mind the Internet and some other media, Nagel says that media literacy is the ‘other prong’ in the defence of children’s interests along with regulation and the influences of parents and educators.

‘Children are exposed to content everywhere. Media literacy is a useful tool to critically evaluate all content – even beyond the media,’ she says.

Although in the U.S. there are broadcast rules in terms of minutes per hour for child-directed advertising, the actual content of the ads isn’t regulated by law (although several voluntary guidelines exist). ‘Any attempt at regulating content here would immediately be found in violation of the first amendment [of the U.S. constitution],’ says David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media. He adds that he favours the multi-year CCA media literacy program over more short-term U.S. efforts. ‘It’s more like teaching them to read – the U.S. way is more like inoculation,’ he says.

The Canadian approach, at least with the launch of the TV&ME campaign, is certainly one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching programs in North America. At this point, using donations of time, talent and production costs, CCA has already created more than 35 public service messages, addressing issues such as substance abuse, self-esteem, bullying and media literacy. CCA’s commercials generate about 300 million impressions with children and adults yearly. This new campaign will take the message to a higher level.

Return of the House Hippo

In 1997, media literacy was just one initiative among many, but with the introduction of TV&ME it will now be an ongoing campaign. Centred on ‘House Hippo,’ a commercial that challenges kids to take a hard look at what is real and what isn’t, the program has developed into a unique initiative for students, teachers and parents.

‘It’s an extensive program that gives educators the resources to be flexible and adjust to different levels and styles – all endorsed by the various teacher’s federations,’ says Loblaw. ‘The core message is deconstruction, understanding the technical side of the media – how things like camera angles influence and how the viewer brings in the meaning.’

The campaign integrates CCA public service messages, comprehensive school kits, parent guides and an interactive Web site (www.cca-kids.ca) to get the message across. ‘TV&ME will directly impact 789,300 children through parents and educators who have attended workshops alone,’ says Loblaw. The program is designed to deal with not only television advertising but also new media in general – including the Internet.

Although CCA already gets regular funding from many advertising, broadcast, production, manufacturing and government sources, the TV&ME initiative was jumpstarted with a $1 million gift from Corus Entertainment and will receive about $2 million in free air time. (In recognition, the education kits include an introductory letter from Corus on company letterhead and the Corus logo appears on the site.) The $500,000 in production costs for the award-winning ‘House Hippo’ commercial were also donated, as were the development and running of the Web site.

According to Loblaw, the initiative taken as a whole, ‘will provide children with opportunities to explore, discuss, and apply skills which will help them grow to be media and life wise.’

‘Like putting a filter on a cigarette’

While being media savvy may give kids a stronger shield against the media onslaught that is their daily lives, there are critics who believe that this is a form of surrender since it fails to address other, and perhaps worse, media habits children have.

‘The biggest problem is that children watch too much television. Advertising is just a small subset of that problem,’ says Michael Medved, film critic and nationally syndicated American radio talk show host. ‘Media literacy is like putting a filter on a cigarette – it may be a bit less deadly but the real challenge is breaking the addiction.’

Medved has authored a best-selling indictment of the entertainment industry entitled Hollywood vs. America and, along with his wife, is a noted children’s media advocate.

Admitting that media literacy is better than media illiteracy, Medved and many others feel that the real solution must include reducing overall consumption. Medved also notes that worrying about advertising may take some of the focus off the programming itself, which can have more advertising than ads themselves.

At first blush, Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, is suspicious of the TV&ME program. ‘I don’t think they are out to do some dirty deed, but it is a conflict of interest,’ he says, noting that CCA is funded by a mix of marketers and mass media outlets.

At the same time, Lasn, founder of Adbusters and author of Culture Jammers – which is more or less the anti-consumerist (and anti-advertising) manifesto – agrees that understanding media is probably one of the most important issues of our day.

Although not familiar with the CCA’s media literacy campaign, he questions whether the TV&ME program will go far enough. ‘There are other issues beyond properly reading what gets on air,’ says Lasn. ‘For example, when Adbusters tried to buy airtime for ‘Buy Nothing Day,’ broadcasters refused. Somehow, I doubt the issue of what doesn’t make it to air is covered in the CCA’s media literacy course.’

And he is right – while the education kit is comprehensive about viewing, it makes no mention of the selection and filtering that goes on before things make it to air.

While perhaps not perfect, the TV&ME program should increase media literacy among children and adolescents. ‘Research says children’s media habits are established early – that’s why we approach them this young,’ says Loblaw. It will certainly be a difficult message to ignore; the program is designed with the same ‘zip, zap and zing’ that ads use to sell things to kids, says Loblaw. ‘This is the way to reach them.’

And given the international nature of the current and future media world and the difficulties regulating it, media literacy has become even more important. ‘You can’t rest your laurels on the broadcast codes alone.’

The TV&ME program will be officially launched Sept. 12 at the Hopewell Avenue Public School in Ottawa.