The commercials begin roughly the same — forest sounds, a child’s voice, anthropomorphized animals — and I brace myself for the shame that is about befall us all. It’s the “Discover the Forest Campaign” brought to you by the USDA Forest Service and the Ad Council, and although I agree with the basic message (mainly: kids are happier outside in nature), the selling tactics are not that dissimilar to 1950s magazine ads that made women wonder if their lips were too thin, their roasts too dry. Only, we’re not shaming wives anymore; now we’re shaming mothers.
The worst begins with the voice of a banana slug. He’s interrupted a young boy, who sounds like he is 11 years old, practicing piano, and he reminds him that he should be outside instead. Aside from the fact that this makes piano teachers’ hearts collectively break, the underlying message is even worse. The slug tells the boy that he is his “sense of adventure” and it’s been a long time since they’ve had fun.
“You’re right, I should get out,” the boy says, and then he calls out to his mom. Not a neighborhood friend, but his mom. Because, you know, his entertainment is her responsibility.
In the extended version, the boy even says, “Mom took me to the forest last year,” after the slug says that forest misses him. Eventually, the boy decides that, yes, he wants to catch frogs, climb trees and play in puddles. So he assertively tells his mom that they (they!) need to get out of the house. He even says that the slug in his hand is his sense of adventure. Get it? It’s in his hands. Except, it’s not really. He needs his mom to take him outside to catch frogs.
If we read between the lines, the mom was probably busy doing something else. Maybe she was making dinner. Maybe she was running a home business. Maybe she was cleaning closets. Maybe she was tired. It doesn’t matter. Now her not-a-toddler son with the banana slug in his hand has shown her what a horrible mother she is for doing anything else besides taking him outside.
Well, at least she doesn’t have him parked in front of the video games. In another version of the PSAs, a dad comes home and finds that all of his children are speaking like robots because they’ve been on electronics all day. No one says it is Mom’s fault, but if it’s the same mom from the other ad, we can draw our own conclusions: she must have been too busy doing something else to take her kids outside.
According to the Discover the Forest website, the campaign “aims to inspire tweens (aged 8-12) and their parents to reconnect with nature, experiencing it first-hand.” The fact that these ads usually air during school hours, however, tells us that the real target audience is moms, and they are designed to play on our emotions about our children and ourselves as parents.
To be fair, the campaign has some ads that aren’t this annoying. I enjoy the one where forest animals are preparing to amaze kids as they come into the forest. I also like the one where a dad watches his son see a Redwood tree for the first time.
But then there is the one that depicts two kids talking about their weekend. One of them played video games. The other went to the forest and wows his now-dejected friend with stories of seeing real frogs and stars. And there’s the one where a classroom is astounded by “Jill’s” show-and-tell about spending time in nature. Apparently no other parents have taken their kids to do that. So, basically, some kids have a really cool weekend, and the others, the ones with the lame shame-and-tells, are going to tell their parents about it when they get home.
The message here is clear: if you’re not adequately entertaining your kids all weekend, they will go to school and be embarrassed at show-and-tell, and you will be exposed as the sub-par parent that you are.
This one always makes me laugh. In 2014, I took my children to Washington, D.C., for a week. They toured the Pentagon and the White House. They saw President Obama give a speech. They saw the President of France. They pet the Obama family’s dogs. And when my youngest son got back to school, here’s what he shared at first grade show-and-tell: “This morning, I found a piece of my dog’s fur on my jacket.”
Someday I hope we will look back on these messages and realize how ridiculous the supposed standards were. Someday I also hope kids go outside without first asking their moms to take them. Until then, sometimes it feels like we can’t win, and there will always be PSAs making us believe that if we just try harder, we will.