For the first time ever, I’ve spotted a TV commercial that focuses on helping the helicopter parent. So let’s give Wal-Mart the credit it deserves for being the first to go after this upscale target market.
I’ve defined helicopter parents before. They’re the ones who take absolute control of the lives of their children, especially when it comes to school and progressing towards college or other post-secondary education. They’re the ones who are obsessed about getting in the “right” school, be it college, high school or kindergarten. They hold their kids back a year so they do better in school and high school sports; have their kids take one course in summer school to have a lighter load during the high school year; hire educational consultants; put their kids through rigorous SAT training; wrestle over the phone with admissions counselors; make their kids go to high school summer camps at prestigious universities; and hire people to write their kids’ college application form essays. There are even documented examples of parents going with their children to their first job interview.
And now one of Wal-Mart’s back-to-school TV commercials focuses on how the mass merchandiser can help the helicopter parent guide her child to a better elementary or middle school experience. As with all the lifestyle ads that Wal-Mart has done over the past few years, the focus is on the adult woman shopper. In the universe that Wal-Mart portrays in their lifestyle ads (as opposed to their ads about low prices), adult men are noticeably absent.
In this ad, shots of the mother shopping for back-to-school items are interspersed with shots of the mother helping the daughter to prepare for either a bake sale or other charitable project at the school or the girl’s campaign to be elected to a class office—I couldn’t really tell because the shots are all quite short to suggest a whirlwind of activity. In helping the daughter we see some appropriate actions for adults, such as helping to make something. But there are also some helicopter parent actions, the most obvious of which is a shot of the mother handing out flyers for something to other children at the school. Now that’s just not appropriate—it should be up to the kid to do his or her own canvassing at school (or anywhere else), especially to other children. It’s with a soft touch that Wal-Mart shows split- seconds of a parent providing a heavy helicopter touch.
Interestingly enough, the family in this case is African-American. Let’s analyze that creative decision by Wal-Mart. I haven’t seen any studies but I’m fairly confident that a helicopter parent is more likely to be upscale or rich than the non-helicopter parent, because the helicopter parent’s unhealthy interference into their children’s lives mostly manifests itself by buying primarily upscale goods and services. Additionally, the case histories in the media about helicopter parenting skewer decidedly to the wealthier among us.
In the United State, sadly, even almost 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, African-Americans still have on average less income and wealth and a lower percentage of them would be considered upscale or wealthy. So in a sense, even as the commercial quietly shows us that Wal-Mart can help in some basic helicoptering, it is aspirational for African-Americans, who, with rural white Americans, tend to symbolize the poor and lower middle class in this country in the mass media. To this group, the message is, at least in part, “You may not be able to afford to send your child to a $1,500 SAT prep course, but you can still support their school career.”
I’m not saying that Wal-Mart is advocating parental helicopterism. It is merely accepting it as a new norm and trying to appeal to that segment of the market, while seeking to expand the number of people who have a helicopter motive as their rationale for engaging in a commercial transaction at Wal-Mart