My daughter won’t ever know of TV commercials – and I’m surprisingly sad

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The way the commercials of our childhoods wormed their way deep into our psyches created a nostalgia haze. Photograph: Cultura Creative/Alamy

My daughter had an interesting “first” the other day, a milestone that may be obsolete one day soon: at five years old, she watched her first television commercial.

We were at her pediatrician’s office, where there was a newly installed television set hanging from the ceiling of the waiting room set to a kid’s channel. While we sat and waited for her named to be called, Layla watched Sponge Bob Square Pants until … an advertisement for a toy came on. She was mesmerized and immediately wanted to know everything about it. Did the toy really light up? How soon could she have one? When will they play that “show” again?!

Before anyone gets huffy: we’re not anti-technology nuts, or the kind of people who patronizingly inform you at a dinner party that, actually, we don’t own a television. I promise. We just happen to watch television shows, like an increasing number of Americans, without cable. Forty percent of Americans subscribe to a streaming service like Netflix; cable ratings fell 9% in 2014, and 90% of Americans with digital recording devices use it to skip over ads.

We decided it was cheaper to buy the shows we like online and forgo cable, and it’s been one of the best decisions – financially and culturally – we’ve ever made. We get to watch what we want when we want, and we don’t have to deal with the hassle of commercials interrupting us.

And we’re far from the only ones who feel as much. In 2004, the American Psychological Association said that children watch, on average, about 40,000 commercials every year. But today, in the age of iPads, AppleTV and apps, young people are entertaining themselves ad-free more than ever. That’s why companies like Time Warner and Viacom are cutting back on commercial time.

This all sounds great, but the truth is that it never occurred to me I’d be inadvertently raising my kid commercial-free. It’s not that I object – I’m glad to have a child that isn’t bugging me several times a day for some horrid plastic light-up thing she doesn’t need but saw on TV. Kids who watch fewer advertisements ask for fewer toys, and I like the idea of my daughter avoiding materialism for as long as humanly possible.

But there’s also something sad about the idea that the days of Saturday morning cartoons are gone. Certain shows and commercials were a huge part of my childhood, – Hungry Hungry Hippos! My Buddy! – and it’s odd to think of a new generation of children not experiencing that.

Of course, the move towards watching less “traditional” television doesn’t mean we’re truly ad-free or that my daughter won’t be targeted by advertising companies – more television shows are implementing product placement as a means to make up for television decline. But a character drinking a Coke or driving a certain kind of car doesn’t have quite the same appeal as a jingle you can’t get out of your head or a terrible but fun board game ad.

My daughter hasn’t asked about that toy again (thank goodness; it was awful) and probably won’t see another commercial for some time. And that’s probably for the best. But one day, maybe I’ll sit her down – iPad in hand, YouTube readily available – and show her an art form she missed out on.

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