Commercial education

The theme for the Church’s annual World Communications Day, which will be celebrated May 20 this year, is “Children and Media: a Challenge for Education.” Pope Benedict XVI recently took the opportunity to call attention to the ways in which the media affects children.

In particular he pointed out that: “Any trend to produce programs and products -- including animated films and video games -- which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programs are directed at children and adolescents.”

The Holy Father’s words brought to mind a television commercial promoting Verizon’s new multimedia cell phone called enV. Although the product is designed for adults, because it was advertised during sports programming, the message will most definitely reach adolescents.

The designers of the enV ads evidently decided that if you are going to name a product after one of the seven deadly sins, you might as well use that theme for your advertising campaign. So during the commercial the names of the other seven deadly sins in old-fashioned lettering were superimposed over pictures of people committing the labeled offenses. I wondered as I watched if the audience understood the reference.

Even if they did, I am not sure what the message was. Were they promoting the seven deadly sins, or telling people to buy an enV so that their friends would envy them, or were they just trying to increase product name recognition in a crowded marketplace?

Whatever their marketing strategy, the commercial led me to think about the ways in which the seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, sloth, greed, anger, envy, and pride -- are encouraged in TV programming and commercials. Many of these presentations are meant to be humorous, but behind the humor there is a subtle message: sin is fun and its OK to engage in objectively immoral behavior if it gives you pleasure.

It would be nice if all these promotions of evil had warning labels flashed on the screen, sort of like the disclaimers pharmaceutical companies are obliged to add to their commercials where after making it appear that their new drug will not only solve all your health problems, but also make you handsome and popular, the makers are forced to remind you that the drug can also cause various reactions including dizziness, nausea, rapid heart beat, etc...

We have warning labels for almost every imaginable risk. My car has labels telling me not to put a child in the front seat. Plastic bags have warning notices telling me not to use them in a crib. Why not warning labels for moral risks? While the physical side effects and possible accidental injury are certainly serious risks, encouraging people to commit sin can have eternal consequences or at the least result in a lengthened stay in purgatory.

Of course, I don’t really expect the advertisers or programmers to put up such warning notices. I can’t foresee drug companies who market the pills for men with “that” problem telling consumers that if they use the pill for sexual activity outside marriage they should immediately make an act of contrition and see a priest at the first possible opportunity. Nor will restaurants who promise massive portions remind potential patrons that gluttony is a sin. So it is up to parents to add warning notices.

If we let television into our homes, it is easy to let the promotion of various objectively wrong behaviors slip by, particular since such promotions occur not only during programs that children shouldn’t be watching anyway, but also during sports programming, news, and objectively positive entertainment. Some parents solve the problem by eliminating the television entirely, but some find this too difficult, particularly for older children.

In order to counter such influences, parents might consider teaching their children to identify the moral content of commercials and programming by turning the project into a game, rather like the game we used to play on long drives. When I was a child, I would compete with my brother to try to find the letters of the alphabet in order in the license plates of cars we passed on the highway.

In the same way, parents could make a game of identifying the various sins and vices promoted in commercials and programs. They could print out a comprehensive list of various sins and vices. To the seven deadly ones already mentioned, one could add dishonesty, cruelty, selfishness, self pity, immodesty, covetousness, hypocrisy, presumption, imprudence, intemperance, and disobedience.

If adolescents are resistant to making a game of identifying sins and vices, a parent can simply point out the obvious evils as they appear on the screen. In this way they can sharpen their children’s discernment and encourage discussion of moral issues. In pointing out the sins and vices parents are not nagging their children about the children’s own failures, but focusing on objective evils. If the ads are particularly offensive, the family could discuss boycotting the products.

Of course all this requires parents to be present when their children are watching television and to accept their duty as primary educators of their children. This is a job parents cannot expect the schools or even the Church to do for them, and they most definitely cannot leave the task of moral education to the producers of television programming and commercials.

Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”