Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blog reading made easy and fun

So we just got back from a family car trip. At a rest stop on the way I picked up a cute little brochure called "Born To Be Wild: The Guide to Getting Kids Outdoors." I like to see what people are saying about nature, so I picked one up. The brochure is formatted like a magazine issue, with its large title and some article-headline sub-titles below.

This brochure is designed not (as it appears) to help people get their kids outdoors, but to make it seem both necessary and overwhelmingly difficult to do so (for reasons you will discover in a bit). It does this by the use of messages with larger unspoken (but carefully designed) messages wrapped around them. I find this interesting because stories nest. (I wondered whether these might be stories wrapped around stories, but I can't decide, so I decided to just write the post anyway.)

Let's start with the main title: The Guide to Getting Kids Outdoors. What is wrapped around that message? That kids don't want to go outdoors, of course. Because if they did, would parents have to "get" them there? What if the brochure was called The Guide to Getting Kids to Love Candy? Or The Guide to Getting Kids to Stay Up Past Their Bedtimes? Names of things rely on shared expectations of values like what is easy or hard, normal or abnormal, right or wrong. So if a brochure claims to explain how to "get" kids out in nature, its "extra" meaning, intentionally or not, is that kids have to be "got" into nature and will not "go" there readily or on their own. 

Diversion: I wish I could talk to the people who came up with all the "Reading is fun!" campaigns. Can you think of a slogan less likely to make kids want to read? You know what "reading is fun" means to any sane kid, right? That reading is not fun. That it is so very not-fun that adults feel they have to trick it up with exclamation marks and candy colors. Do parents think children can't see the titles that say "Ten Ways To Make Reading Fun For Your Kids?" Do parents think children can't understand what that means? If you want to convince somebody of something, pay attention to all the layers of meaning, not just the ones with the words in them.

Back to the helpful nature brochure. Now let me describe each sub-title on the cover of the brochure and the extra message wrapped around it.
  • Choosing the right activity. [Better not choose the wrong activity! You don't know which is the right one? That's bad.]
  • Camping made easy and fun. [Camping is not easy; camping is not fun. You have to work to make it that way. You don't know how to do that? Oh.]
  • Our favorite state parks. [Some state parks are great, but some are horrible. We know which are which. You don't? Better not go anywhere, then.]
  • Gearing up for adventure. [You cannot have an adventure without gear. You knew that, right? You don't have gear, you just have stuff? Oh. You'd better not have any adventures.]
At this point I opened the brochure and found some more helpful multi-layered advice. Some examples:
  • The number one rule: Look for camping spots that have a lot to do. [We know the rules, and you don't. I'll bet you don't know what the number two rule is either.]
  • Never been car camping with kids before? Don't sweat. [Car camping with kids is hard. You don't know how to do it. What? You don't even know what "car camping" is?]
  • A small backpacking-type tent will do, but a roomier tent is much better, especially if it rains. [Your tent is not good enough. I'll bet you don't even know if it's a "backpacking-type tent" or not. You are totally unprepared for camping.]
  • If camping, paddling and hiking are old hat with your crew, mix it up with some off-the-chart adventure that'll get the attention of even the most jaded kid. [Nature is boring. Nobody can stand to do anything "natural" more than once. Your kids will get sick of the whole thing very quickly.]
  • When backpacking with children, think diversionary tactics: tell stories, sing songs, and be prepared to bribe them with healthy treats when they get really tired. [Nature is really, really boring. You will have to trick and cajole and bribe your kids the whole way through. Do you really feel up to that?]
At this point I'm feeling pretty insulted, patronized and irritated by the "advice" in this brochure. Most of what could be seen as information is just everyday common sense. Bigger tents have more room in them than smaller tents. Two stove burners are better than one. People get wet in the rain. You need soap to wash your hands. Kids need more adult help before age eight than after. When a kid rides a bike, their legs need to be long enough to reach the pedals. And this gem: "The sea is nothing to be trifled with." I begin to wonder who produced this thing and how they thought it could possibly be helpful.

Finally I open the nested inner panel and find out where it came from. The large central section is a mini-catalog of camping equipment from a major outdoor equipment retailer (a fact impossible to discern on any more visible part of the brochure). Here is the description of the first item in the mini-catalog:
Angstrom pack. A fastpacking favorite. This hydration-compatible 30-liter pack features a zip rain cover to keep your gear dry during all-day treks when it's pouring.
And the messages wrapped around that:
You don't know what any of those words mean, do you? Look, you'd better just buy this, quick, and let us render you capable of camping. Otherwise, truly, speaking as an expert here, you have no hope. You do realize you will be walking through pouring rain for whole days at a time, don't you? You didn't know that? Oh boy. You really need this.
Now I understand why all the messages have other messages wrapped around them. The whole brochure is meant to convince me, the parent, of four things:
  1. Children hate nature.
  2. As a dutiful parent, I must drag them through it anyway for their own good.
  3. Being in nature with children is overwhelmingly difficult. I can't possibly do it on my own.
  4. I desperately need help pulling off this required but horrible parental duty. Who can help me? Oh! These nice people with these magically helpful supplies! Scientific supplies! Angstrom supplies! What saviors!
Do I think this advertising campaign is evil for placing this mostly-fake-advice brochure in highway rest stops where unsuspecting parents will think it comes from a park service? No (okay, mostly no). Do I think the major outdoor equipment retailer is evil for doing this? Not especially. The "you are lost without us" ploy is as old as the hills, and if one group is doing it so are many others.

Do I think consumers need to pay close attention to messages wrapped around messages, and stories wrapped around stories, in the "helpful" information we find placed around our world? Yes.

And by the way, I can help you do that. (Joking, joking :)

[P.S. In the first posted version of this post, for the first several hours, I named the "major outdoor equipment retailer." Later I took it out, mainly because I know nothing at all about them. For all I know they may do many wonderful things, and I decided I didn't want to rush to condemnation without some serious fact-checking. Or I could just take out the name. If you saw the post with the name in it: you are getting verrrry sleepy ... ]

[P.P.S. I understand that people need to sell things, I really do. But when the side effect of such "helpful" information reduces the likelihood that parents and kids will choose to step outside their house-car-mall bubbles, that's a sad, sad thing.]

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