Happiness: Now Available in a Box?

Advertisements ask us to consider products and services and decide whether we need or want them. But do you ever find yourself evaluating the ad itself? Fred Rogers often sang, “You’ve got to look carefully, listen carefully.” Fred lived that advice, and the stories in the Fred Rogers Archive give us insight into how Fred’s observations of the world informed his work. One of my favorite stories comes from a time when Fred read an advertisement with a critical eye and questioned its message.

During the drive to his daily morning swim, Fred saw a truck with an advertisement for some sort of instant food. The ad read, “Happiness now available in a box.” Fred was offended by the ad and fumed over it on his way to the pool.

Why was Fred so troubled by the slogan on the truck? Because its message directly opposed what he was trying to communicate through his work—that emotions cannot be bought but are natural and human.

When Fred arrived at the pool he spoke to the locker room attendant, Jeff, about the advertisement. He asked Jeff, “Do you think we could ever find happiness in a box?” Jeff said, “No, but we can find it right here.” Grateful for Jeff’s words, Fred left the conversation feeling uplifted. Consumerism had not won over Jeff’s heart.

Throughout his career, Fred had strong opinions on advertising, especially advertising aimed at children. In numerous magazine and newspaper articles Fred explained why television commercials can damage children’s healthy development:

  • Commercials can make children distrustful; an ad often makes a product seem more durable and of higher quality than it actually is.
  • Commercials can cause strain between parents and children; children beg for a toy that their parents may not be able to afford.
  • Commercials can make children feel that they will not be socially accepted unless they have a particular toy.

These are the dangers that can come from poorly written advertisements. But advertising is not inherently bad. Fred once spoke to a group of advertisers that he respected because he felt they worked to offer their best to families and children.

In December 1972, Fred delivered a speech to the Pittsburgh Advertising Club, now named the Pittsburgh Advertising Federation. Fred readily accepted the invitation to speak to the Ad Club. He was surprised at himself for accepting so quickly, so he took a step back and contemplated why. He came to realize that he felt a kinship with the members of the Ad Club. They were all Pittsburghers who took pride in their work and strove to communicate in the most effective ways possible. Fred said, “In the best sense of the word, ADVERTISING is COMMUNICATION and that’s what my work is too: FAMILY COMMUNICATION.” Fred respected the members of the Ad Club because they cared about their work and the messages they were delivering to children and families.

Fred was convinced that all of the advertisers had work of which they were very proud, and probably some work which they would want to go back and do differently. Fred used this speech as an opportunity to talk about good and bad commercials he had seen. He mentioned the “consistent good taste of the Joseph Horne Company commercials which encourage children to use their own resources—even at Christmas!” Toys, he said, should encourage children to use their imaginations rather than dictate how the children should play.

Then Fred gave an example of a television commercial that he felt was harmful for children—a commercial for a crying baby doll. The little girl in the commercial told the doll not to cry. Fred found it inappropriate because it went directly against the work he had been trying to do with children—to encourage them to express their emotions in honest ways. He said if he had been writing the commercial the little girl would have said, “’Go ahead and cry dolly; I’m here to take care of you.’” Fred then praised the members of the Ad Club for using mass media to communicate in ways that contributed to the healthy development of children.

It would be interesting to see how Fred would edit the many television commercials we see today. I think he would encourage us to look beyond the product being advertised and question the message behind the commercial. Good advertising should not just get us to the store, but should allow us to question and judge before buying.

 

Emily Uhrin is the Fred Rogers Center Archivist. Photo courtesy of The Lynn Johnson Collection: Ohio University Libraries. Photo: Fred Rogers talks at the pool with Jeff.

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