Original Photo: David Hilowitz, CC BY 2.0
“But won’t somebody think of the children?”
The phrase “pearl clutching” has come to mean something along the lines of “moralized horror at commonplace things.” The idea was originally to conjure (in a pretty sexist way, actually) an image of a wealthy white woman who is shocked—just shocked—that you would violate her (generally prudish) morals by discussing something salacious (usually sex), but the meaning has relaxed a little over time. Despite all that attempt at description, if you really wanted to understand pearl clutching all you’d really need to do is visit this site.
Titled “Hard-Hitting Nature Valley Ad Shows The Terrifying Side Of Kids Addicted To Technology,” it features a three-minute commercial spot by a granola company (not like, a hippie company—I mean a company that actually sells granola) that reaches full-on Reefer Madness levels of scaremongering in order to promote… something about getting out into nature or something. I gotta admit, I rage-quit a number of times.
It begins with middle-aged suburbanites interviewing their aged parents about what they did as children—things like chase a hula hoop down a street with a stick or whatever people did before they invented fun—and then they interview those same suburbanites’ kids about what they do for fun. And the Horror. The HORROR. They spend most of their time watching videos and playing video games and on the internet. THE HORROR.
I really don’t even have time to go into everything wrong with this line of thinking, and you probably don’t have time to read all of it, so I’ll focus on two main things: the rose-coloured-glasses cherry-picking nonsense about the “good old days” and the truly intense hypocrisy of being aghast at a lifestyle you literally created.
When asked what they “did for fun” as kids, the older two generations list things like “blueberry picking,” “growing watermelons,” “going fishing and nearly getting eaten by a bear” (not actually a quote), and “going out to the field and playing baseball.” Happy piano music plays in the background. Great nostalgia ensues. And then they cut to a kid and ask him the same thing, and the music stops. They might as well start playing the theme from the shower scene in Psycho, because his answer is (Shock! Horror!) “playing video games.”
There are little girls who send texts and emails, a kid who does a lot of binge-watching. There’s this enthusiastic kid with orange hair talking about how their favourite thing in the world is “watching videos and playing video games.”
I think this is meant to alarm people. I mean that’s what the rhetoric of the video suggests. That’s what the title of the post is referring to when it uses the words “hard hitting.” When they show the kids’ responses to their parents and grandparents the music switches to kind of ominous strings, and their responses are very specifically edited to make things sound just awful. You’ve got the grandparent who seems a little befuddled by the “mind-boggling” changes in the world of his grandsons, and it’s put into a context that makes him sound really disapproving. You’ve got parents talking about the coming future as “a really different environment” as though “different” were automatically synonymous with “bad.” You’ve got the choice quote from the mother who “feels a little sad” that her kid is “missing out on what’s out there.” Then the happy piano starts up again and the slogan “Nature has always been a part of childhood” “Let’s make sure it doesn’t stop with us” comes up on the screen. What this has to do with granola I have no idea, except maybe that they have the word nature in the name of their sugar-laden junk food.
So let’s talk about the cherry-picking. The basic premise of the ad is that in the “good old days” kids played “in nature” and that it’s far superior to “kids these days” who just sit inside and play video games all day.
What a load of poppycock.
There have always been the kids who don’t go out “into nature.” Before televisions screens and the internet, there were books, and there were plenty of kids who did nothing but stay inside all day and read them. I should know, I was one of them. If you’d given me the choice between a weekend alone (in a building with plumbing) and a stack of fiction, I’d have taken that over camping in a heartbeat (and I still would). Oh sure, I left the house too—usually to go to the library to get more books. And I’d go over to my friends houses and play video games (though we’re talking Nintendo and SNES, not XBox One and PS4), too. But I was never a “lets go play some baseball” kid. I’ve never gone blueberry picking, which sounds like one of those pay-to-labour scams to me, and I’ve never nearly been eaten by a bear while fishing. I used to garden (when I lived somewhere that had outdoor property—hello, privilege, nice to see you again, how’ve you been?) and I can tell you it’s a lot of positive things—hard work, mentally stimulating, eventually rewarding—but “fun” isn’t one of them. For me, fun was about either escaping the boring reality of the world, passing the time with friends, or both.
And that’s what these kids are doing.
Sure, some of them are playing video games by themselves, but you can bet the majority of them are playing them with friends, either in person or online. What are the little girls doing who’re emailing and texting? They’re talking to each other. They’re hanging out. Who cares if it’s in the back yard or in the virtual realm? What is the kid doing who watches a lot of videos? He’s interacting with culture in the dominant paradigm of his generation. Why do we have to signal virtue with outdoorsy-ness? Why didn’t they interview grandparents whose childhoods were spent with their noses in books? Because it doesn’t sell “nature” (and therefore doesn’t sell nature-themed granola).
And then there’s the hypocrisy.
Seeing these suburban parents aghast that their kids aren’t spending time outdoors just makes me want to kick someone. You want to construct a phony narrative, there’s one right there: the idea that you can get into nature in suburbia, one of the most intensely manicured landscapes on the surface of the planet. “Go out and play, Jimmy. No I can’t drive you to the park, that’s a fifteen-minute drive, daddy’s busy.”
But that’s the ploy of the commercial: demonize your children’s perfectly natural behaviour, imply it’s suburban parents’ fault, and then sell those parents sugary granola bars as the solution.
Remember: “natural” = “good,” folks.
So that’s my rant on the topic for today. The Nature Valley ad is a craven, intensely dishonest three-minutes of pearl-clutching scaremongering about the supposed “dangers” of raising kids around technology, designed to create fear and guilt to stimulate the purchasing of “natural = good” fallacy junk food.
I’m pasting the ad below. Let me know if you can get through all three minutes without rage quitting.
Happy Monday, everyone.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.