In a furious attempt to lure buyers into the showroom, along with the usual bells & whistles (“Zero percent APR! Bonus cash back allowance! And then we’re going to Washington DC to take back the White House! Byaaaah!“) one of the Big Three American auto manufacturers recently introduced an added twist — if consumers would please just purchase one of their minivans, they will provide a drop-down DVD player free of charge.

This particular incentive package has a series of television ads, each with a similar theme. The scene opens with a group of unruly tweens, rough-housing and MySpacing it up with no regard for the adult authorities in their presence. That is, until the adult figure drops down the screen of a DVD player. Then, silence — blessed silence. The underlying message is clear and, just in case you missed it, the disembodied voiceover asks the rhetorical question all beleaguered adults were asking themselves as they watched the ad: Wouldn’t it be great if you had a DVD player everywhere you went?

The next, unspoken, message is just as clear — that way, you can get those kids to shut up already.

In fact, one of the ads features another disturbing voiceover: When they get what they want, you get what you want. In other words, children want/need the pervasive presence of entertainment to invade every moment of their lives. In exchange for numbing their minds into silence, we — the adults — get what we want: for those kids to stop being such an inconvenience, what with their talking and all.

Our family has used a portable DVD player during a couple of extended road trips — during the course of a five or six hour ride, we thought it would be a fun treat for our daughter to watch a couple of her favorite shows. But there is something troubling about the family who cannot endure even a ten minute ride to soccer practice without the anesthetic of DVDs. And, coming soon to an SUV near you, satellite TV…

I often deal with frustrated, heart-broken parents who have thrown up their hands in despair because of their distant, disconnected teenagers. Certainly, there are always unique and specific circumstances surrounding each family’s relational dynamics but, more often than not, the relationship patterns teenagers develop with their families are formed well before they reach their teen years. We can unknowingly form all kinds of unintended messages in our children’s minds: You must constantly be entertained. Silence is bad. Car rides are for SpongeBob, not conversations. We can only put up with each other if we’re not really engaged with each other.

I know I’m probably reading into this way too much, but having been a marketing major in college, I have some idea of the time, effort and money that companies pour into these ads. Whether the people who created these ads thought they were simply reflecting the attitudes of adults/parents out there (“We’re just giving them what they want”) or whether they’re trying to actively shape our opinions (“Let’s create a felt need in this consumer segment”), the underlying message is extremely sad.

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