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Gripes ‘R’ Us

Those of us who produce and distribute media, products and marketing campaigns targeted at children face far greater public scrutiny than do our counterparts who aim for an older demo. This is as it should be--kids are more impressionable. Psychologists tell us they are less equipped to filter media through real-world experiences, and consequently may not make healthy, reality-based choices. (The kids, not the psychologists.)
January 3, 2002

Those of us who produce and distribute media, products and marketing campaigns targeted at children face far greater public scrutiny than do our counterparts who aim for an older demo. This is as it should be–kids are more impressionable. Psychologists tell us they are less equipped to filter media through real-world experiences, and consequently may not make healthy, reality-based choices. (The kids, not the psychologists.)

So we in the kids business get more than our fair share of complaint letters. I must admit that I have been impressed with the sincerity and thoughtfulness of most complaints. But never mind those. It’s far more instructive to share some of the other kind. (Sort of like how reading graffiti can be instructive.)

Regarding a well-known series DIC produced about heroes who combat supernatural evil, we once received a letter from a self-proclaimed witch. She was offended that our heroes imprisoned an evil witch. (Never mind that the vast majority of children’s literature portrays witches as inherently wicked.) I responded by pointing out that compelling storytelling requires a powerful antagonist, and that in this particular episode, ours happened to be a wicked witch–an extremely familiar icon to kids–and that we had no desire to cast aspersions on any witch who wasn’t evil in intent. (If you’re out there, please stand up and raise your warts.) I took her lack of further response to mean she was satisfied, and I’m certain that it was merely coincidence that copious amounts of hair began growing on my palms shortly thereafter.

Another classic came from a professional trade organization of dentists that wrote in reference to a skit in a live-action series. Our ‘star’ was an anthropomorphic human tongue–an actor dressed in a giant tongue suit–enacting scenes inside an enormous prop mouth. (Therein lies the danger of cartoon producers switching to live action.) In one scene, the mouth’s owner is visiting the dentist, and we had some fun with the tongue trying to avoid getting stuck with a giant novocaine needle. The complaint: we were suggesting to kids that it might be uncomfortable or unpleasant to go to the dentist. Might be? Exactly which part of having your teeth drilled is fun? I really wanted to respond by offering–purely as a gesture of goodwill, mind you–to treat each of them to a sauna, massage and root canal.

My favorite letter campaign, however, was in regards to a well-known series featuring an environmental superhero. We got a complaint from an organization representing one city’s municipal sewage workers objecting to the fact that one of our ‘eco-villians’ was named Sly Sludge. Sludge, they hastened to point out, was a very positive and environmentally sound substance. Yes, I had finally come face to face with the dreaded sludge lobby.

I responded as politely as I possibly could, explaining that all our episodes had been completed and delivered into syndication, but that we would contemplate a name change should further episodes be produced. Next thing I knew, I was being bombarded with complaint letters from municipal sewage organizations from cities around the country, all quoting from my response letter. A veritable conspiracy of sludge. I made one more attempt at polite response, followed by more complaint letters from more municipalities. I had two choices: capitulate–and likely be awarded a ‘key to the sewer’ of every city in the U.S.–or…stand firm in…er…sludge.

I sent a third response to all who had written me and closed with the following: ‘I would respectfully request that you respect our expertise on how television impacts children–just as we so thoroughly respect your expertise on how to process sewage.’ That was the end of the letters. And thank God my house was on a septic system.

(Any good witches, giddy dentists and disgruntled sewage workers out there may address complaints to me care of KidScreen. I could use some material for my next column.)

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