Dealing with mass media farming propaganda

January 21, 2010

Im going to say this is hour 39 of the marathon. Photo by Diego Cupolo

I'm going to say this is hour 39 of the marathon. Photo by Diego Cupolo

This week at SpawnBetter, we tackle a question from reader Melanie, who’s getting a little tired of the way farming is represented on children’s programming.

“In between the cartoons they show on nickjr they have little bits they play instead of commercials, mostly little songs or games. However, when watching with my son the other day, a little video came on between shows about a turkey farm.

“The video seemed to portray the message that turkeys enjoy being on the farm (which is really just a gigantic metal shed), that heat lamps are ‘just like being under its mother’s wing, that eating and eating and eating all day so they can be ready for thanksgiving is what they love to do.’ It even showed images of the turkeys so packed in that warehouse that they couldn’t even move. It shows how fans in the warehouse keep them cool as they grow cause, uh, you know, they never get to leave that shed until they are sent to slaughter.

“Do they really need to expose young children to scenes of large factory farms that have been sugar coated to hide their cruelty?”

Thanks Melanie! In answer to your question, yes, they probably really do need to sugar coat things, or we’d see the agriculture industry collapse overnight! In a world where Sesame Street is sponsored by McDonalds (et tu, Grover?) and other networks run commercials during childrens programming, there are definitely a few layers of interests that need to get met before we even get to the needs of your child!

I asked the Council of Vegan Parents what they do to mitigate the propaganda, and they have a few strategies that might help:

Talk things through. Overwhelmingly the top response, several Council members gave some sample dialogues they’ve had with their kids after something ridiculous comes up on the screen.

I learn more and more with every week’s question, but the world of childrens programming is still pretty new for me, so I don’t know if the NickJr segment Melanie’s talking about is by Buck Howdy, but this conversation from Pippi seems like a good fit:

Kid: Mom look at all the turkeys!
Mom: Oh yes, how sad.
Kid: Why is that sad?
Mom: How would you feel if you were taken away from your mommy & daddy, locked in a big shed with no sunshine, no fresh air, no where to poo or pee, crammed in so tight you couldn’t move & fed something you didn’t like?
Kid: (sad look of confusion)
Mom: (Not wanting to add more details about how these turkeys came from parents who had to be hand manipulated to ejaculate & inseminate because of their gross genetic modification, or how humans are known to punch & kick these creatures ‘just for fun’, or how horrendous the conditions are during their transportation and inhumane slaughter, no need to continue….) I gently add that these turkeys are in that shed so that man (farmer) can make them fat to kill and sell for people to eat. Birds, including turkeys do not like to be locked inside. They like to be with their families, chasing bugs and digging in the dirt like the chickens and ducks and geese and swans we met at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.
Kid: (smiling) We don’t eat birds, do we mom?
Mom: (proud) nope!
Kid: Buck Howdy should let those turkey’s go.

Here’s another conversation from Celeste, after watching something on Sesame Street involving eggs:

“They were promoting eating them and made it look fun with music and brightly colored pictures. Of course the farm was pictured as the tradition small farm with only a few animals, which were outside and happy. When it came on, I thought it best to address it then and there.

“I talked about it simply since my son is only 3. Since we’ve talked about eggs before, I asked him what was inside the eggs. He replied excitedly “baby birds!” Then I asked him if we ate them, and he said no. He then added they would be sad if we ate them. The last part he came up with on his own, as I’ve determined sharing all the details of factory farming inappropriate for his age. I was proud he was able to make that connection on his own. As he gets older, we will continue to talk about it and tailor it to be age-appropriate.”

This seems like a common tactic among council members, but what about stuff that’s not on TV, or that your children see when you’re not around? How can you disarm these scenarios? Kari has some tips:

Keep the conversation going. Kari says she goes through a “disarming” process pretty much every day. She and her son substitute vegan food words (soy milk, veggie burger, etc) for meat and dairy words in books they read or songs they sing.

Be careful how you frame the issues though – it’s a complicated topic to get across in simple points, and as Kari notes, “It’s a fine line when talking to young children and trying to get across a non-maintream point without making people that do drink cow’s milk or eat meat look like evil doers… We try to arm our child with all the information about nutrition and treatment of animals that he can handle at each stage of his life and we try to do it in a way that doesn’t make non-vegan’s seem bad because we don’t think that will help and it’s not a part of our family values.”

Lastly, Kari keeps books like Victor the Vegetarian and That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarians, and All Living Things around to counteract some of the mainstream media spin.

All these strategies sound amazing, but I can’t miss out on a chance to quote from War Games: “Sometimes the only way to win is not to play.” And so:

Limit/control the exposure. Al is able to monitor everything his daughter watches, and limits her to one movie or program a day. Meanwhile, Julie’s family takes control in a different route by not owning a TV.

Of course, in this century “not owning a TV” usually means the opposite of the, well, I’m gonna say hippie connotations of a decade or more ago, and media consumption can be even greater through the use of DVDs, downloads, and internet streams. The difference here is that there’s usually fewer commercials, and you generally have a better idea of what you’re going to be exposed to, with the option to pre-screen.

Finally, Al has some tips on treating the disease instead of the symptoms:

Complain. Al mentioned that he’s thinking about writing a formal letter to Sesame Street, and I think it might do some good (along with raising public awareness of things like the McDonalds sponsorship, which I know surprised everyone I told,) but it’s important to pick your battles carefully. For an ongoing show like Sesame Street it’s possible that the messaging will be tweaked according to public input, but most cartoons are created a season at a time and then resold around the world for years, so once they’re created, they’re not likely to change until they go out of favour with the audience and then they simply disappear from the schedule.

A huge thank you to Council members Kari, Steph, Julie, Celeste, Al, and Pippi for helping out with this week’s question, and also to Melanie for asking it!

What about you? Is there a show that drives you crazy? Are you putting your kids on a TV diet? How are you handling the propaganda built into programming, the ads, and also through print, billboards, etc? Let us know in the comments!

(Photo by Diego Cupolo)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jendiggity January 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

My kid's not even born yet and I'm already thinking about the topic of television viewing A LOT. I've become hyper-aware of how often I see things on commercials and in TV programs/movies that would really bug me if the kid were watching. I'm already worried about having to constantly be setting the record straight between friends who think McDonald's is the best place ever and relatives who will inevitably make her feel like she's being deprived. I think heavily limiting and monitoring television viewing will be a must for us. I just hope the kid doesn't grow up feeling TOO sheltered.
P.S. Another great children's book with a pro-veg theme: Hubert the Pudge

jessicaatvegbooks February 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I love this topic. We don't watch much TV, but we're very selective about movies and books. When my daughter was 2, I remember being SHOCKED that the cow on a Sesame Street DVD was encouraging kids to drink her milk. It's hard enough to be a vegan kid without that kind of stuff messing with you!

Jacqueline February 2, 2010 at 8:37 am

The key is to be very selective of what you allow your children to watch in the first place. And then if there are issues you openly discuss them. I have also written places to voice my concerns. That never hurts.

Jacqueline February 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm

The key is to be very selective of what you allow your children to watch in the first place. And then if there are issues you openly discuss them. I have also written places to voice my concerns. That never hurts.

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