"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 February 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Childproof Gap



Restrictions on children engaging

in "adult" activities perpetuate

both the myth that maturity can

be demarcated and a black market

in fake IDs, but what's to keep

an adult from behaving like a

child? Adulthood sucks - we

in-betweens probably know this

better than anyone, our lives

defined by cruel compromises of

adolescence and adulthood, the

nostalgia gap closing so fast

that Alzheimer's should be

welcomed as the next likely

evolutionary adaptation. The

privileges of adulthood pale in

comparison to half-priced movie

tickets and naptime, and aside

from a few overzealous ushers

and the unfortunate fact of new

media "open offices" - where

doors are used for desks, not

privacy - there's not much to

stop grown-ups from indulging in

(occasional) infantilism.


To be sure, advertisers have

noticed: Nissan's spooky

spokesman hovers eerily at the

edges of a campaign designed to

make car buyers as eager and

gullible as only 15-year-olds

can be; Star Wars appeals to our

pop-culture fugue state by

asking us to "see it again for

the very first time"; and

Disney's campaign to put mouse

ears on more mature heads

invokes a notion of fun as much

Dr. Moreau as Dr. Seuss. All

these campaigns would have us

believe that we put away our

childish things only so that no

one else can play with them, and

that the greatest benefit of

being of age is getting to act

far below it. It makes sense:

Maturity is the enemy of Young &

Rubicam. Never-Never Land is an

ideal test market, and adults

with the same desires as

children but with bigger

allowances make an advertiser's

job that much easier. You could

say it's like taking candy from

a baby, but it's more like

selling it to them.



Thus the national preoccupation

with preternaturally precocious

preteens is a function of

jealousy, not disgust. Getting

to find your outer adult at 13

takes all the mystery out of

finding your inner child at 30.

Despite our culture's active

encouragement of precocity, it's

hard not to resent actual

youngsters' success in making

adulthood look like child's

play. Adrian Lyne's Lolita may

be having trouble finding

distribution, but that's only

because we prefer our preteen

sex objects more animated and

less real; JonBenet Ramsey's

tragic appeal lay in her

wide-eyed resemblance more to

the Little Mermaid than to Miss




Flesh and blood little ladies and

perfect gentlemen show up our

hard-won maturity for what it

is: playacting. And if we're a

little threatened by their

ability to play Red Rover with

the generation gap, who can

blame us? Keeping kids from

growing up too fast also means

that we don't have to compete

with them - because it's not

certain that the grown-ups would

win. Schooled in Junior

Achievement, dressed in Baby

Gap, and armed with miniature

cell phones (and Baby Glocks,

for that matter), today's tots

are perhaps more prepared than

their parents were for the

peculiar challenges of the

modern workday. Just ask ABC,

whose use of two-week-old

preemies on All My Children

might seem like a hard-hearted

attempt to take advantage of a

soft spot. But hey - they got

paid scale. If the brain starts

developing in utero, is it ever

too young to start learning the

value of the dollar?



With American kids at higher risk

for violence than the children

of any other industrialized country,

social Darwinism doesn't even seem

like a choice. Relative to the

threat of death, growing pains

don't hurt much at all. And in the

context of hypercompetitiveness,

baby beauty pageants make as

much sense as Little League,

maybe more. Little League

assumes a level playing field,

whereas a beauty contest takes

as its starting point the roll

of the genetic dice down

heredity's slippery slope.


Besides, children aren't as

childlike as we like to think

they are - or as we'd like them

to be. At the outset of the

decade, it was easy to see MTV's

watery mix of videos and

lifestyle programming as true

kiddie porn, the visual jism

produced by networks jerking off

advertisers (an act known in the

business as "synergy"). Now it

looks like marketers might have

hung themselves from that thin

white rope. MTV's legacy of

packaging ads as entertainment

has resulted in a generation

that is more entertained by ads

than influenced by them. A

recent survey from USA Today

suggests that young people

aren't as impressionable as

either the PMRC or Chris Whittle

thought, showing, for example,

that while 99 percent of kids

surveyed know the Budweiser

Frogs, fewer than 10 percent

said the ads would influence

them to drink the Budweiser

brand. In this context, Channel

One's ads are the least of

parents' worries - kids probably

aren't paying attention to the

news portion of the show,




Still, the concern expressed

about overripe demographics

getting squeezed too hard

reflects not so much anxiety

that some ill-defined line

between youth and age has been

crossed, but realization that

that line has been transcended.

The Wall Street Journal's recent

series of articles on

"Generation Y" points as much to

the futility of defining a

demographic based on birthdate

as to its utility. It's not how

old you are, it's how you old

you act, and in the eyes of

television programmers and

advertisers, the only acts that

matter have to do with checkout

lines and credit cards. Age

doesn't matter if we're all

watching The Simpsons and

wearing Gap. The movement of age

brackets ever-outward, as adults

become more childlike and

children more grown-up, just

means there's a larger market

for both PDAs and pacifiers.

When we all want the same

things, age is no longer a

useful measure of either

vulnerability or desire. As we

become increasingly more defined

by the brands we consume,

doesn't it make more sense to

ask to see the date your Bud was

born on rather than a driver's


courtesy of Ann O'Tate


Ann O'Tate