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Wiring the Kids

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5    by Christopher Martin and Bettina Fabos

F or those who regret that they missed out on the development of radio, film, and television as mass media, pay attention: we’re now in the midst of an ideological campaign to make the Internet the next medium you’ll never be able to live without. From its limited initial applications in higher education and industry, the Internet is now being pushed as a broad-based consumer product for home and school.

This article looks at one significant strategy of the Internet mass medium push -- TV ads that sell the Internet as essential technology for young children and teenagers. By pitching the Internet to the youngest consumers, the computer communications industry stands to gain an entire generation advocating school and household Net connections. Thus, the industry gains entree into the schoolroom (making the Internet the logical successor to the film strip, overhead projector, VCR, and even the text book) and the home (adding an Internet connection to the children’s telephone, video game system, and stereo as requisite middle-class child edutainment and teen rite-of-passage technology).

Beginning in late 1995 and continuing through 1998, an onslaught of television advertisements from companies such as MCI, Microsoft, WebTV, AT&T, and Oracle have extolled an Internet utopia that solves a multitude of social problems associated with youth. In this new and improved world, school children expertly surf the Web and have live chats with Russian astronauts in space; teenage puppy love becomes innocent, safe, and educational; and children who once were lulled into a vegetative state by the flicker of old world TV are now in front of home Internet viewing centers, attentively bathed in the blue light of learning.

What follows is an analysis of the high-profile Internet advertisements of 1995 through early 1998, all of which portrayed the Internet and its many costly computer accessories as necessities for the future of children. In linking Internet technology to the well-being of children, the ads both adopted and advanced political discourse to create a nationwide technological mobilization for a new socio-economic regime that has been alternately called the Information Age or Information Society. Not coincidentally, just as these ads were impacting the public consciousness, President Clinton’s February 6, 1997 State of the Union address -- carried for the first time over the Internet -- embraced a national goal in which "every eight-year-old must be able to read, [and] every 12-year-old must be able to log onto the Internet."

"There are no genders. There is no age.
There are no infirmities." -- an MCI commercial

Advertising the New Medium on the Old Medium
Since the early 1980s, with the advent of personal computers and the Intel microprocessing chip, computer advertising on television has employed a long line of strategies to broaden the computer’s appeal and target both corporate and home buyers. The predominant goals of the early computer advertisements were to humanize the new microcomputers, stress their convenience, and build brand name recognition. As with the introduction of other home and office appliances such as microwave ovens, electric coffee makers, and photocopy machines, the familiar refrain of these early television commercials was that computers made life easier, less cluttered (even with an additional appliance) and simply better.

The rise of the Internet in the early 1990s created a swell of interest in computers. E-mail, Usenet, and the World Wide Web transformed computers from mainly stand-alone information and data processors to communication media. The first major television commercial campaigns about the Internet echoed the tone of earlier computer advertisements in stressing user-friendliness and convenience, but by the end of 1994, television ads began to give computers and the Internet a broader, communicative role. Moreover, the placement of computer/Internet ads in the television schedule broadened, from mostly morning and weekend news programs, to sporting events and top prime time shows such as The X-Files and ER. The number of computer-related spots doubled for prime-time shows between 1992 and 1994, and more than tripled for National Football League telecasts during the same period. In 1995, a media director for a California ad agency that handles high-tech clients explained the demographic shift: "The earliest adopters in the home market were probably those who worked at home. Now we’re finding that the whole family is using computers. We target moms, dads, even kids as influencers. There are 3-year-olds using computers now." In industry terms, the Internet was the much-awaited "Killer App" — a computer application that could capture the interest of more than just the expected users, and sell computer technology to a much wider audience.

The wave of television Internet ads beginning in 1995 made its way into children’s hearts by promising fun, "cool" activities at school and home via the Net. The ads allayed the fears of parents and teachers by pitching the Internet alternately as teacher, babysitter, chaperone, and -- for any remaining naysayers -- the socioeconomic equalizer of children and teenagers worldwide.

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