Oreos decides that a “Sesame Street” approach will sell cookies to adults

Adults read the New York Times.

While the Times does not release readership demographics segmented by age, it lets potential advertisers know that the median age of its readers is 52, meaning that exactly half of all readers are older than 52. By the way, that’s about 15 years older than the U.S. median age of 37.1.  The Times also tells us that 60% of its readers have gone to college. Very few children age 12 or under are academically gifted enough to handle college and among those 12 year olds who can do college work, a miniscule number have parents who insensitive enough to send them.

We can assume that any advertiser in the New York Times understands these demographics and is seeking to convince adults to buy its products or services. A full-page ad in the Times does not target children.

That makes the Oreo ad on the back page of the front section of today’s New York Times perhaps the most overt example ever of infantilization of American adults, the process by which American retailers and the mass media encourage adults to retain their immature or juvenile hobbies and entertainment habits of their childhood.

Oreo is the bakery product created by squeezing a thick sugar-water paste that Nabisco, its maker, calls “creme” between two round chocolate cookies.  For decades it has been one of the most, if not the most popular packaged cookie in the United States, and certainly the most advertised.

Today, Oreo spent tens of thousands of dollars to give New York Times readers a multi-panel cartoon version of a music video that can be found at its website. The video visualizes a peppy children’s song with animation, language and colors associated with pre-school education to re-imagine three tales: the three pigs plus generalized myths about vampires and great white sharks. Each story—and each verse of the song, which is sung with the child-like and child-loving joy of Raffi or Sherry Lewis—starts with the phrase “I wonder if I gave an Oreo to…”: first to the big bad wolf, then to a vampire and then to a shark. In all cases, the harmless-looking villains share the Oreo with their intended victims (pigs, a girl and baby seals) and everyone becomes friends.

Every element of style in sound, visuals or language in the video has been used before and almost always to communicate specifically to children. The same can be said for the print ad—every visual and language detail tells us that the ad is meant for children. The ad comes with a child’s mentality. It presents the colorful and happy world we often present to children. The primitive illustrations with the varying size of letters define a convention of children’s book design.  The basic idea—Oreos can make nasty people behave in a friendly manner—has the magical simplicity of a preschool child’s reasoning. There is no attempt to speak through the child to the parent. The ad simply speaks to children, mostly those under the age of eight.

But the audience who will see the ad in the Times is overwhelmingly adult. Oreos must think that this puerile approach will appeal to adults.

Oreos has broadcast series of TV commercials appealing to adults over the past few years.  In one, a father and son eat Oreos in the traditional way of licking the “creme” before devouring the cookies.  The TV spot may appeal to nostalgia for childhood—eat Oreos just like you used to as a kid—but it does so in an adult way: connect with your child by eating one of your favorite treats from childhood.  In another Oreo ad for adults, two slacker-looking 20-something males in a lifeboat on the ocean argue about the proper way to eat an Oreo. Humor for both children and adults can turn on the incongruous, but the situation is sophisticated enough to qualify as for adults.

By contrast, the “I wonder if I gave an Oreo…” print ad and online video treat the audience as children.  Publishing the print ad in adult media therefore infantilizes adults because it assumes that adults will respond to the same simple stimuli that attracts preschoolers.  If we assume that Nabisco has the best market research available, there must be a body of information that says that this approach will work. Nabisco is speaking to adults as if they were children because its marketing executives think we are children and respond to children’s entertainment.

I can just imagine that it’s bedtime and the chief executive officer of Nabisco brings me and my significant other a plate of Oreos and big glasses of milk.  We crunch on the cookies and sip from our plastic cups, while he gently reads us a bedtime story about the three pigs. No huffing and puffing, though, which is a good thing, since now I won’t have a nightmare about wolves (or vampires).  They really are our friends, at least as long as we keep feeding them Oreos.  I wonder if eating Oreos can reverse global warming?


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