Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).

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Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

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