Toys “R” Us began airing their 2013 holiday campaign before trick or treaters even made it around the block. But an early start to holiday advertising isn’t really news and hardly caught our attention. Instead, it was the content of the TV commercial, created by the agency, The Escape Pod that took us by surprise.
The spot starts with a man telling the audience (presumably adults) that a group of kids are about to go on “the best fieldtrip they could wish for – and they don’t even know it.” Ranger Brad enthusiastically ushers a line of elementary schoolers onto a green bus, which reads “Meet the Trees Foundation” on its side. A moment later, he asks the students to play “name that leaf…” Cut to a close-up of a yawning little boy, next to a stone-faced classmate. And then the reveal: Ranger Brad rips off his ranger shirt to expose a Toys “R” Us shirt. “We’re not going to the forest today – we’re going to Toys “R” Us! You’re going to get to choose any toy you want!” Children cheer and triumphant music plays. The Toys “R” Us logo shines from the TV screens behind Ranger Brad, as if he’s (a scaled down) Steve Jobs revealing the iPhone.
In its short time on air, the spot has garnered attacks from predictable critics, The American Forest Foundation and The Sierra Club have penned astute reviews that suggest that this kind of nature-bashing is detrimental to the environmental movement. Raz Godelnik, the co-founder of Eco-Libris who also teaches courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development at Parsons The New School for Design and The University of Delaware’s Business School points out that Toys “R” Us seems to be promoting an unsustainable kind of holiday. Godelnik notes that the Toys “R” Us sustainability page is vacant. Numerous websites have suggested that holiday shoppers boycott Toys “R” Us and take a stand for forests, trees and everything green.
Most of these critics suggest that Toys “R” Us has pitted commercialism against environmentalism – and that’s hard to deny. We agree that the authentic, magical moment of a child getting a toy of their dream is surely a moment that feels like wish fulfillment. From our perspective, it’s not the fantasy of getting a favorite toy that bothers us. We find this ad troubling because it taps into an insight that it assumes to be authentic…The “torture test” featured in this ad suggests that the most boring situation imaginable – the one that allows for a moment of significant surprise – involves learning about nature. We don’t know if youth viewing this ad will actually get the joke (in fact, Ranger Brad seems like a particularly engaging ambassador of the outdoors). But perhaps Toys “R” Us believes that parents will.
And according to statistics from a myriad of sources, today’s children are less connected to nature than ever. In fact, at the same time that Toy R Us is airing it’s campaign poking fun at the forest, the U.S. Forest Service, with the help of the Ad Council, has been making an effort to promote the joys of “finding the forest.” On the same day that we saw Toys “R” Us imply the drudgery of detecting the difference between a field maple and an oak leaf, we heard a radio spot suggesting that a trip to the forest could be as fun as parents remembered it.
In very different ways, both spots convey the same message: many youth may not find the forests to be fun, and certainly don’t find them on their own. We suggest that brands and companies seek ways to change this story, not perpetuate it. And we propose looking for ways to make your messages align with, not fight against, the sustainable future that today’s children and parents want to achieve – even if they don’t always know how to do it.