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We're All Babies Now
November 20, 2012
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Children are cute when they play pretend in grown-up clothes. Set aside any disturbing truths that might be revealed by what the kids choose to imitate of their adult companions' behavior and enjoy the scene for its adorable innocence. We will find a couple of dynamics at play here on the strictly visual level:

First, we have the well-researched evolutionary attributes of mammals, through which the young possess distinct physical features that the adults are hard-wired to respond to in a caring, protective manner. These are chiefly disproportionately large eyes in a disproportionately large head, with small nose and mouth that further accentuate those irresistible "baby blues." We are pre-set to rescue any such appealing little creature in need, whether or not it is related to us. The fact that "all babies look alike" is a survival mechanism of the species. We are inclined to think kids are cute no matter what they are doing or whose they are.

Then there is juxtaposition - the surprising or jarring placement of elements not typically considered to go together. My "Couch Potato" image is an example of this. It is a technique used to great effect by Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte to create dreamlike, disturbing images. A child's figure and face in floppy grown-up clothing is more silly than surreal, and our response is mirth, but the perceptual process is similar. When things that don't generally go together are put together, or when things that do go together are combined in unusual or disproportionate ways, that is juxtaposition and it usually gets our attention.

Couch Potato, Collage by Zelda Gatuskin

Kids are cute. Kids dressing up in grown-up clothes are cute. Even when child actors are hired to make an ad in which they are shown playing dress-up and talking about the Mommy and Daddy things that the ad is intended to sell to Mommy and Daddy (or to the child who will lobby Mommy and Daddy), we can still imagine young children playing this game of their own volition and smile at their cuteness. Using cute kids (or pets) seems a harmless gimmick to keep our eyes on the screen.

The baby stock-trader character is a different matter. There is nothing either natural or believable about the baby talking cogently about anything, let along stocks. We know the baby is real (cute) but the voice is dubbed and the image is manipulated digitally to sync the words of a male actor to the baby's mouth movements. The juxtaposition here requires a combination of visual and aural elements. We look at the baby, which stimulates our instinct to nurture and protect, while at the same time we hear the adult male voice. Creepy.

Let's look at the subtext of this ad series:
1. It suggests that the electronic trading service is so simple that even a baby can use it (which by extension implies that the consumer is not much smarter than a baby).
2. It makes the product seem innocent and harmless.
3. It suggests that anyone who might try to prevent you from using the product is a Mean Mommy and should be ignored. In short: Baby knows best. And if Madison Avenue can get you to surrender your critical judgment to an animated baby, then you are ripe to buy into just about anything they can pitch your way. Score!

Now, what has been the natural evolution of the baby who speaks with an adult voice? Duh - grown-ups who talk like children. A recent ad campaign that comes to mind features office workers teasing and cajoling each other like children and with children's voices in order to get to eat the latest greatest fast food concoction. One should infer it is not really food an adult would want. Possibly the ad is targeted at preteens and teenagers to play off their anxieties/aspirations going into adulthood while at the same time reinforcing childish cravings and lack of inhibitions. Let's face it, a mature ability to delay gratification is not what advertisers want of us. This ad campaign, and one that preceded it in which young parents are so agog at a new soft drink that they fill the kitchen with cases of soda while ignoring their children, represent a blatant effort to de-condition grown-up reasoning and inhibit its cultivation in those currently approaching adulthood.

Look at the whole of the advertising landscape on TV, not just product by product, and you will see a growing trend toward turning babies into grownups and grownups into babies, toward generally softening up our impulse control and critical decision-making ability. What could be better for the sellers of things we don't need or can't afford and/or that may be downright bad for us than to enable all of our most childish qualities while empowering actual children to have a say, by depicting them as having a say, in purchasing decisions?

Look, we all know that if something is an easy sell because it's needed, it works, and everyone knows about it - like a broom - you don't have to put a lot of effort into advertising it. Advertising is intended to befuddle, startle, stimulate, agitate - anything to get your attention and create a need/desire where there was none before. But there are deeply troubling aspects to the blurring of babyhood and adulthood in our mass media culture, not the least of which is this: Children need the protection and care of adults; much of what is shown on TV is not appropriate for certain age groups; it is therefore not healthy or helpful to short-circuit the rationality and authority of those adults responsible for supervising the screen time of children.

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Copyright © 2012 Zelda Gatuskin

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