Toys R Us Throws Mother Nature Under the Bus In Prankvertising

Nov. 8, 2013 Update! Colbert gives a ‘Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger in his Nov. 6 edition, Forbes adds a resource roundup of the backlash among moms, (though I’d add it’s not a gender issue as dads are equally ticked) C&NN’s Suz Lipman adds her voice/views, and Ad Land calls out “concern trolls,” thoughts?

Nov. 4, 2013 “Don’t bite the hook,” is my mantra for using media with mindfulness whenever I’m triggered to toss a shoe at some screen or media messenger in utter frustration, like the Iraqi journalist of Bush days goneby.

When I saw the new Toys R Us nature-bashing “badvertising” my circumspect radar blipped into the red zone…I stuffed my visceral reaction, put my best yoga deep breathing to work and and chose to “hold” in stillness with what has now become a weird sort of ‘warrior one’ pose for deconstructing cruddy cues sent to kids.

In this attention economy, ad agencies are scrambling to eke out any semblance of relevance amidst fast forwarding media flyovers, diluted multi-platform audiences, and gimmicky “outrage baiting,” to glean eyeballs, get ‘shares’ and prompt tongues wagging, even if it’s negative chatter to pimp the pundits and trot out the ad campaign du’jour for couch time on morning talk shows…

Since Shaping Youth is known for media literacy “show and tell” games that use fun “lift and reveal” tactics of critical thinking that can get kids riled up with how they’re being “played” by corporations, it seems only natural that we use this ad as a case study to kick off Media Literacy Week Nov. 4-8, 2013, with the apt theme: “What’s Being Sold: Helping Kids Make Sense of Marketing Messages.”

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the Toys R Us TV ad throws Mother Nature under the bus portraying a field trip to the forest as a snorefest of yawns and tepid disinterest…

…That is, until the guide reveals a ‘surprise detour’ to a ToysRUs ‘pick anything’ field day of consumption, complete with gleeful close-ups, heart-tugging sound bites, and a quippy “Wishin Accomplished” hashtag used in social media channels.

Industry can’t worm its way out of culpability on this one, so today I’m here to help youth overturn the marketing manipulation machine with a behind the scenes peek at the Toys R Us tactics. Gloves off.

Shoveling dirt and excrement about nature may actually unearth even MORE “Media Smart” teens like these who kicked off Canada’s forum to spread the message of media literacy. These fertile minds are nourishing the cultural zeitgeist with productive, purposeful insights, like a natural compost creating rich, healthy soil for the next generation to bloom.

It’s fun being part of the problem-solving solution…

When kids SEE how they’re being used, and parents SEE how they’re undermined, and youth and Generation Z eco-warriors ACT with social media pushback on the insultingly naïve narrative that teens would not be ‘bothered’ by this ad, (it’s just a bunch of ‘self-righteous old people’ some tweets have implied) then we’re witnessing a fabulous progression in 21st century media literacy evolution.

It’s no surprise there are volumes of research on the benefits of sharing nature with children from physical, mental, social and educational outcomes to countless societal and stewardship positives ensuring the future of our planet…

And though I’d hoped satirical slammers like The Daily Show or Colbert or Spurlock or Story of Stuff or Free Range Studios would fight fire with fire as media upstanders against bullying the voiceless trees and habitat, I think the ‘see for yourself/connect the dots’ critical thinking skills (or as media critic Howard Rheingold terms it, Crap Detection 101) is ultimately the paramount saber in the battle for hearts and minds.

In fact, I hope Instagrammers and meme-making teens mock the socks off of this duplicitous goodwashing.

As a creative director and writer/producer with 25+ years of branding under my belt, I know marketing methodology when I see it. And this Toys R Us ad hopscotched from:

…“Whoa, waaaaaay off strategy” to “…There is no way in hades that was unintentional, there’s a cynical blend of goodwashing and outrage baiting going on, with those children on camera cynically used as human shields to deflect controversy from this PR ploy of prankvertising…Let’s find out who’s behind this, stat.”


Prankvertising (  is the latest media darling in the ad agency tool chests, using a pseudo-reality show technique which blurs the lines between what’s real, what’s staged to appear real, and the “why would they do that?” water cooler banter, in hopes of keeping the brand abuzz and shared widely. (shades of Lonely Girl 15 circa 2006 and all that “fact or fiction” yammering)

As a gimmick, it’s taking on an ‘anything goes’ flair from Heineken’s odd job interviews involving fake heart attacks,  to flash mobs and smooth productions ‘going viral’ (marketers jackpot) including the freakishly cool  ‘telekenetic coffee shop surprise’ to promote the Carrie movie (admittedly well-staged).

Tactics are all over the board, from ambient to virtual, even knocking down third and fourth walls of social media engagement, either crossing lines or erasing them altogether.

If the strategy were a bumper sticker, the motto might be, “so what if we tick some people off, at least we’ll get views and news.”

A Few Common Questions To Always Ask About Media Messages

(Frank Baker, KNOW TV, Chris Worsnop)

Who is the producer/storyteller of the message?

What is their purpose/motive/agenda? (inform/persuade/educate/entertain/shock, etc.)

What format/medium does the producer use?

My initial take when I saw the spot?

“…This smacks of a troubled brand on the ropes trying to shake up things with a Hail Mary pass from some smallish hot shot creative agency trying to get big attention by baiting outrage for free press on limited media dollars to extend reach with lots of squawk and talk.

…”They’ll probably go for social media saturation in an end run to kids directly, bypassing parents as much as possible or appealing to those who befriend their kids more than parent them so they can play ‘hero’ and win the day.”

Welp, pretty dang close…on a few things anyway.

Sure enough, the agency of record, Escape Pod is a talented boutique shop with a big reputation (Cannes no less) for daring  stunts that get noticed, like this 2011 Wheat Thins ‘prize patrol’ ambush delivering truckloads to “unsuspecting fans” supposedly hunted down through tweets and social media. Escape Pod agency founder Vinny Warren called them Twitterventions and said,

“Every time our commercials aired, brand chatter on Twitter went through the roof. The brand was suddenly relevant again because it had done something cool and involving and current.”

Mmmmhmn. Yep. Fits the ‘reality TV’ mock up of going to the expense of a custom bus to represent a faux “Meet the Trees Foundation” while simultaneously flaming the forest belittling its very worth…

Can you imagine if they would’ve spent that cash on the kids instead? Yup, goodwashing playbook.

Next, I set out on my usual “follow the money trail” sojourn as I caught a whiff of desperation in this early pre-Halloween Oct. 20 launch to “maximize the holiday spend” even before pumpkins were placed in the compost heap.

I peeked under the Toys R Us financial curtain, and Boom! There we go.

They pulled out of a planned IPO this past spring, they have weakened financial performance, heavy debt, and are thus a prime candidate for shifting gears by using any means possible to shake things up, especially given the projected lackluster retail recovery (or lack thereof) this holiday season.

And though I was right on the agency and fiscal piece, I was wrong on the level of saturation. Yes, Toys R Us is indeed amping up digital to target kids directly including inside of social games like Angry Birds, on YouTube, etc. as Sr VP of Toys R Us Reiner said in Adweek, “We’ve started using home-page takeovers and much more rich media than we have in the past; we have a 90-second version that is airing exclusively on Facebook and other social channels,”

…But they’re also gonna blitz the heck out of this ad “in 60-, 30- and 15-second varieties on every major broadcast network, as well as a slew of cable channels such as A&E, TBS, Oxygen, USA, Animal Planet and Food Network.”

Just ducky, now economically challenged parents who may not be able to afford the items in the first place can break their backs to over extend themselves even earlier as they’re pushing free layaways and a price-match guarantee. Time for that third job, parents? Facepalm. (don’t get me wrong, it’s pragmatic but it still sends shop ’til you drop consumption cues)

I would love to see the socio-economics, and demographics on race and regional media buy, as it makes me wonder if this is more of an over-arching parental “disease to please” marketing motivation seeding ‘you are what you own’ consumerism, or if there is any targeting of vulnerable populations which would be particularly debasing and vile.

Remember the Target ad from 2010 telling kids creativity doesn’t count, which mercilessly mocked homemade Halloween costumes with precious originality in order to promote pricey mass produced storebought goods with licensing rights?

Well, this ad dissing nature and outdoor play hits me on that scale. And as an aside, did you notice they used an African American family to instill those insecurities for profit in the photo at left?

Um…look at the reflection in the Toys R Us bus mirror…

Not to mention Toys R Us “seeding” the anti-nature message that FREE is boring and undesirable; gawd forbid they’d want to show any fun happening outdoors.

What does the message say and how does it say it?

What format/medium does the producer use?

What methods/techniques does the producer use to make the message believable?

What lifestyle is portrayed in the message? What clues tell you?

A few quick clicks reveal orgs like Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers, Big Sisters were recruited which Toys R Us wisely left as ‘discovery’ for journalists to get their ‘aww’ moment…

…Though they really should be ashamed at the heinous, cynical practice of purposeful PR ploys that use children as human shields against the inevitable backlash they’ll get from eco-advocates, parents and educators already prepared to boycott and petition.

Let’s face it, these kids were used as props to elicit the emotional response they wanted to capture on film, edited it to their needs, and trotted out a treacly ‘underserved kids get the goods’ stereotype of urban, inner city kids of color.

Being “unbranded” rather than touting the charity in the ad enables the good will hunting PR comeback on talk shows, akin to this piece I wrote about the unbranded cherry red “School Sit Ups Sponsored by Soda and Snacks.”

The fact that they juxtaposed a trip to nature planting a wild, polarizing lens of the outdoors as unfamiliar and boring is manipulative goodwashing at its most misguided.

Toss in the offensive ‘have/have not’ set up to trigger the maximum ebullient reaction for a ‘kids gone wild, unleashed come apart’ and it screams duplicitous, unoriginal, one-trick pony with a nature-bashing twist.

As a writer/producer, I’ll add that any purported ‘authenticity’ Toys R Us puts forth as an excuse for the decision to use nature as a foil is unmitigated hogwash as there was absolutely NO need to use the green bus establishing shot or ranger routine or even mention what TYPE of field trip they’d be going on (museum, STEM, farm, concert, etc.) if their honest intent was to showcase a transition from a routine to a ‘feel good’ moment real or staged.

If the goal was to invoke a yawning contrast to a destination, they could’ve easily cut from generic field trip verbiage (e.g. pairing up, staying in line, name tags, safety lectures, bag lunches, etc.) into the gleeful reveal, but instead they specifically chose to uproot the great outdoors, and diss’ leaves and learning for craptastic consumerism…

Again, it seems the ONLY motivating agenda in the maneuver to throw nature under the bus is to leverage media shock schlock for attention and buzz.

Furthermore, trees, wildlife, animals and nature don’t have a voice or a lawyer, so they’re easy fodder to exploit, while stereotyping and misjudging urban kids.

As one who has worked with Boys & Girls Clubs to increase exposure to wildlife, forestry, eco-literacy, and STEM opportunities, nature has not been missing by choice but by circumstance.

These are the VERY kids who thrive in discovery and are often MOST wide-eyed in experiencing nature’s splendor.

Try sailing on the bay with kids who have never set foot on the water, or kids getting to see an animal up close with wildlife care…I’ll trade toys for joys on those faces any time.

Who/what is left out of the message?

Whose interests are served by showing/telling the message in a particular way?

What do you know, NOT know and what would you like to know?

Beyond the obvious offensiveness of trashing the planet, peeving parents, and upending youth culture’s largest eco-driven generation of naturalists concerned about the environment, I genuinely would like to know if Toys R Us thinks this campaign is sustainable. (not in the green teens/eco-kids stewards sense, but sustainable in the marketing sense)

I genuinely would like to know how such sharp branding minds could be so tone-deaf and short-sighted while bumping up against even marketers’ own youth research and intelligence, as this State of the Future Youth Culture Study put forth:

“While today’s youth culture of 13-25-year-olds is undoubtedly the most tech-savvy generation in the world, they also represent a new generation of hope that grew-up with recycling and a broader awareness about the environment, global warming, nuclear threats, and humanitarian issues affecting their world. This demographic also offers a fresh set of eyes, attitudes, and opportunities to roadmap key solutions on creating engaging sustainability strategies for their future.”

Why, why, WHY would Toys R Us create a Toy Story that’s unsustainable, figuratively and literally?

Goodwashing gimmicks on the backs of cute kids while throwing nature under the bus should be branding suicide! But will it?

Contact Toys “R” Us and let the company know how you feel and what you’ll be doing about it this holiday season. Contact The Escape Pod to remind that media messages can seed behavioral influence early on and recklessness will bite us all in the backside, we reap what we sow. And if you don’t care in the least, I’d love to hear about that in the comments too, or on Twitter @ShapingYouth.

Meanwhile…on a positive hopeful note thinking of what COULD be, someday…

“I have a dream…” (ohmigosh, talk about “Wishin Impossible”…) 

What if this were a colossal bait and switch stealth campaign run by naturalists and eco-warriors for the ULTIMATE “prankvertising?”

Imagine how cool that would be!!

What if folks like Audubon Medal winner and nature hero Richard Louv and his Children & Nature Network were the REAL power players behind a campaign like this to get people buzzing about The Nature Principle and reinforce the 7 Reasons For A NEW Nature Movement? 

We’re long overdue for a massive market correction from nature deficit disorder…

What if youth eco-warriors worldwide flipped the message of consumption and co-opted the campaign to their own ‘wish list’ for sustainability?

Tell you what, Escape Pod, this is your emergency hatch…

If I were you, I’d team promptly to spin this into a different orbit in a “just kidding” all outdoor effort and pretend it was your idea all along.

Use Toys R Us sporting goods and adventure toys to promote experiential hands-on play and team with naturalists and mentoring groups throughout the nation to treat kids to outings that matter. Get the Children and Nature Network to pay it forward with urgency and passion.

If marketers and ad agencies did something THAT stealth and cool and scalable and fun…well, THAT would be “Wishin Accomplished.”

Behind The Scenes: Spot the Spin, Toys R Us PR Video:

Want the REAL STORY Behind Nature’s Positive Impact on Kids? FAR From Boring! Watch THIS!

Also LOVE this Jason Mraz Muppet Media, POSITIVE Messages About the Outdoors

Related Eco-Kids Reading by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth w/Links to Vital Resources

Will Kids Reconnect with Nature…At School?

Great Nature Apps & Media Netiquette in A Totally Wired World

Inspiring Kids As Stewards of the Planet

Inspiring Kids With Green Media

Get ‘Em Outside!

Nature Rocks: Reconnecting Families with Planet Earth!

How To Turn People Green

Shaping Youth Joins Eco-Literacy Coalition: NCLI

The Great Turtle Race

When Art Meets Earth: Wyland’s Murals Inspire Kids to Care Edu & Eco Activism for Int’l Climate Change

Kids Bring Home the Message to Cool the Earth

Spring Break Sanctuary-Media Unplugged on Catalina

Hope Is On The Horizon When Movements Go Mainstream

Green Teen Videos On Climate Change: Global Challenge

Climate Change Chocolate, TerraPass E-Cause Animation…

Teen Scene: Eco-Concerts

Coen Brothers Ad For Clean Coal Air Freshener (kids faves!)

Disney Nature’s EARTH movie: Our Teen Team’s Take

International Day of Peace to Reach and Teach

Green Grades Report Cards: Forest Ethics

One Teen’s View: Use Eco As An Equalizer

Project Green Dorm: Engaging Youth Via Teens Turning Green

S.F. Oil Spill Prompts Altruism & Activism in Kids

Planting Earthseeds Via The Magic School Bus

New Media Worldometers Help Data Click With Kids

Media Savvy Kids and Nature Deficit Disorder


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