Ideological imperatives shine through most strongly in the details that marketers or writers select to adorn the basic idea or narrative of a piece of communications.
That’s a mighty fancy statement. What it means is that be it a TV show, print ad, news feature or charity solicitation, the creator of a piece for the mass media selects details to exemplify or underscore the main message. These details often contain unproven ideological assumptions or widespread societal beliefs which convey a hidden message, which is often more important or compelling than the main one. For years, I have called these hidden messages “ideological subtext.”
We can see the insidious affect of ideological subtext in a current marketing campaign for The March of Dimes called “I’m born to.” Now I have nothing against the March of Dimes. It is a wonderful organization that has raised a lot of money to fight childhood diseases, first polio, and for decades now prevention of birth defects and infant mortality. I can say nothing bad about the organization or its mission.
But this latest campaign, built around the phrase, “Every baby is born to do something great. Help them to be born strong and healthy,” uses details to express the following hidden message: The most admirable thing to be is a performance celebrity.
Most people will first see the campaign as bus shelter boards or other printed enticements to visit the imbornto.com website. The bus shelter board I saw shows two toddlers: the boy is banging a drum while the girl is in a ballet dress. The website has no other photos of children emulating adults professions—no one with a stethoscope, microscope, fire hat, teacher’s long ruler, jack hammer or plumber’s wrench.
“Doing something great” is reduced to entertainers who perform, i.e., celebrities. Some may say it’s cute, but telling kids that they should strive for celebrity status occurs on almost a daily basis in the news media.
The theme line for the campaign says “Every baby is born to do something great,” which is just not true, unless we redefine “greatness” to mean to be good at a job, kind to others and an active member of society.
But that’s not the definition that the March of Dimes gives us in the images. The images tell us that greatness resides only in performance celebrity. That’s also the definition of greatness we get in lists of daily or monthly birthdays published by many periodicals. It’s the definition we get when we peruse articles built on childhood memories of holidays or favorite recipes. It’s the list we get in marketing blurbs that mention famous alumni of schools. Or when the news media asks non-political famous people their opinion on key social issues. Or when a TV news reporter wants to report on a rare disease.
There’s something a little disturbing about the words “Every baby is born to do something great,” even if the definition of greatness is not assumed to be “achieving celebrity status.” Not every child can be great, even if we expand the definition of greatness to include scientific, athletic, literary, business and social achievements. In fact, in the current epoch in which upward mobility has slowed almost to a standstill, college costs have skyrocketed, public schools have been gutted of enrichment programs, rich parents actively spend exorbitant amounts of money to con the system and entry level opportunities often come down to “who you know”—in today’s world there is perhaps less chance of a disadvantaged talented person achieving greatness in any field than at any other time in American history. In other words, not only can’t every baby achieve greatness, but most babies have no shot at greatness.
At least the March of Dimes wants all children to be healthy and it is doing a lot to attain that lofty goal. No one should punish it for expressing ideological assumptions that run ubiquitous today. But you can contribute to the March of Dimes outside of its “I’m born to” campaign and make a point of telling the organization that you didn’t like the campaign because it subtly endorsed the idea that all children should strive to be celebrities.