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Horrible Toy Commercial Accidentally Says Something Important About Nature

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The deception revealed | Photo: Toys R Us

A toy store ad making the viral rounds has raised the ire of quite a few nature-lovers, and for good reason. It's a nasty, mean-spirited piece of work that manages to make almost everyone involved look bad. And that mean-spiritedness has managed to penetrate the jaded exteriors of quite a few world-weary enviros, provoking some very pointed mockery and even anger.

The commercial portrays bored kids reacting gleefully when their scheduled "nature field trip" turns out, once they board the bus, to be a chance to rampage through the advertiser's chain toy store. The plot is crass, full of cheap shots and stereotypes. The ad insults kids, educators, environmentalists, viewers, and for that matter trees.

But insults thrown at the environment and education are nothing new. The news media bring us fresh evils every day, and most of the time they provoke nothing more heated than a sour stomach and a press release. Why has this ad gotten to us? I suspect part of the reason people in the environmentalist camp have gotten so angry at this sorry little bit of advertising is that its creators have hit us in a sore spot. We've got a problem with how we view "nature," and it's actually got very little to do with kids.

Here's the Toys R Us ad, in case you haven't seen it:

Synopsis: A busload of disadvantaged kids are loaded up onto a bus labeled "Meet The Trees Foundation." An actor posing as a "Ranger Brad" starts lecturing the kids about nature as the bus moves through city streets. His talk is boring and inaccessible. The camera focuses on one young man drifting off to sleep.

And then the reveal: the kids have been played. Brad tugs on his ranger shirt, which breaks away dramatically. He's wearing a polo shirt underneath with a toy store logo! The kids are going to Toys R Us and they can have any toy they want! Predictably, the kids explode in excitement. The store's doors open and a three-foot-tall stampede runs up and down the aisles. The ad text talks about how pleased the company is to make these deserving kids a bit happier than they were.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with making sure kids in less than ideal circumstances get toys, and if that had been the focus of this ad it would have been just one more bit of holiday shopping season glurge put out into the world wiith a corporate brand attached. But Toys R Us took it up a notch. They didn't just say "Toys R Us;" they said "Nature Emphatically R Not Us."

It's not surprising that environmental educators objected, as did a lot of parents. The ad went viral, though likely not in the manner its creators anticipated. Stephen Colbert's mockery of the ad may well have had its creators questioning the aphorism that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Toys R Us's ad prompted a "more in sorrow than in anger" letter of protest from the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), which read in part:

We can't imagine that your intended takeaway when developing the spot was that kids, particularly those from less privilege, should value consumerism over education and connecting with the natural world. While you may say that these were the real reactions of the kids, we question the method in which you presented the nature trip in order to get the "bored" responses, as it is our experience that children, particularly those from urban areas, are delighted at the chance to connect with nature and explore.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that Toys R Us's intended "takeaway" was precisely that kids should value consumerism over education, the natural world, exercise, respecting their parents, or for that matter sharing and cooperation. Ads aimed at children are notoriously manipulative; getting kids to nag their parents for toys until the parents relent is a tradition more than half a century old.

But NAAEE's right about the kids. It takes one hell of a boring adult to get an entire busload of kids uninterested in the natural world. Watch the ad: the kids are alert and focused on 'Ranger Brad" at first. It takes hard work to lose them.

So why did Toys R Us go with this idea? And why has the ad provoked a more hostile reaction from some environmentally concerned people than, say, proposed laws that would actually harm nature?

That's because Toys R Us' message, summed up by Colbert as "Nature sucks," resonates with an important demographic. And it isn't kids.

Two years ago, a meme that might well have served as direct inspiration for the Toys R Us ad made its way through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the other usual social media circuits. It was entitled "Name these Brands; Name these Plants." I've often seen it credited to a fellow named Jeff Gamble, but Gamble has said he merely found it and posted it on Facebook. If you know who drew this, let me know. [Update: A few people have let us know the image apparently appeared in issue number 84 of the fine anti-corporate publication Adbusters. Thank you.]

A precursor to the Toys R US ad | Image: Adbusters

Most adults could easily recognize all of the brands represented there visually; almost none could identify more than one or two of the leaves. That despite the fact that people making educated guesses about the leaves' identity had some advantage: some of the drawings have more than one correct answer, given the stylized artwork. The top center leaf could be a walnut or an ash, for instance. (One acceptable set of answers, left to right and top to bottom: maple; walnut; fir; white oak; birch; beech.)

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.

That's not just true of adults in general. It's also true of that subset of adults you'd least expect not to be in tune with the trees. Over the past five years or so, the mainstream environmental movement has increasingly turned away from Nature toward advocating for technology. That technology is seen as a way to save the planet, to be sure. Promoting technology to save the planet is an arguably laudable impulse. But when wilderness groups campaign in favor of transmission lines, when environmental news websites list Energy, Tech, Cities, and "Living" (a lifestyle section) as topic areas with no "Wildlife" section, when reporting on renewable energy's threats to wildlife prompts accusations that you're on the coal industry's payroll, then something has gone seriously wrong with the movement that once spoke up for the non-human world.

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.

It's just that it usually isn't kids telling us that.

Kids are usually willing to grant that an hour spent in the company of a weird bug, or a tidepool, or a colony of ground squirrels is time well spent. We may have forgotten that: they haven't yet. It takes years to grind it out of them.

You can even see this in the Toys R Us ad. After sitting on the fake nature bus and hearing a lecture on leaf shapes designed to be as boring as possible so that the ad writers could hammer viewers over the head with their point, and after being thrown into a warehouse full of brightly colored, battery-powered beeping things, what is it that gives a child one of the most rapt, absorbed expressions of any of the kids in the commercial?

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It even says "Science" on the side. | Photo: Toys R Us

A telescope, whose only purpose is to see the natural world better. Even in the face of manipulative actors trying their best to tell him that nature is unimportant and boring, at least one kid was entranced by a way to see that nature more clearly.

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