Is Sesame Street's New Partnership with PNC Bank Teaching Kids to Be Materialists?
Remember last year's controversy over Sesame Street buckling under the pressure of outraged parents and pulling Katy Perry's cleavage-revealing guest appearance? Thanks to their new corporate sponsors, PNC Bank and its "Grow Up Great" campaign, Sesame Street's producers might be getting another slew of complaint emails from parents and consumer advocates.
No, PNC execs aren't going to film a version of "Hot and Cold" in a yellow bustier. According to PSFK, PNC was one of the banks that accepted "$5 billion of taxpayer money and used some of those funds to carry out an acquisition during the recession." That sounds pretty shady, but PNC's not talking bank bailouts in their "Grow Up Great" campaign. Instead, they're teaching kids the much needed skill of financial literacy—something PNC's execs could probably use since they needed bailing out in the first place.
Overall, the campaign seems innocent, but David Sirota notes over at Salon that the lessons are teaching some pretty materialistic ideas.
First, children see Elmo trying to figure out where to spend his money. He ultimately sets his sights not on something practical or experiential, but on a colorful flashing orb. This "Stupendous Ball" is a perfect simulacrum of the kind of flashy-but-useless Sharper Image-esque gadget that today tricks consumers into so many impulse purchases—and yet, it is held up as a perfectly rational thing for Elmo to blow his cash on. Ultimately, Elmo gets a manual labor job from an ice cream man (who apparently doesn't care about child labor laws) in order to save up—and though he settles for "Fantastic Ball" rather than the more expensive "Stupendous Ball," the goal is the same: buying useless crap.
I think Sirota is being too sensitive here. Kids do need to learn that if you want something, you need to save for it—and what would he have Elmo buy? Most preschoolers aren't going to sympathize with a character who socks away money for retirement in a 401(k).
In fact, perhaps Sesame Street should be commended for avoiding an obvious and lucrative product placement opportunity. How much would McDonald's or Mattel have paid to have Elmo save up for one of their products rather than an unbranded "Fantastic Ball"?