Culture Notes


Issue: "Flawed to the Ameri-Corps," Oct. 19, 1996

Little snack of horrors

R. L. Stine writes horror books for children. Though young readers love his scary tales, many parents object to their violence, death-centeredness, and creepy undertone. The Stephen King of the gradeschool set, who already has over 130 million books in print, is now breaking into a new dimension of literary marketing: snack foods. Mr. Stine's publisher Scholastic has gone beyond its usual practice of marketing its books in school "book clubs" by signing a $40 million deal with PepsiCo and all of its corporate subsidiaries. Specially marked packages of Frito-Lay chips now contain a Stine "mini-book" titled Don't Make Me Laugh, about tickle bullies abducted by aliens. Hershey candy products have a promotion where children save UPC symbols to get a copy of Halloween Game. Pepsi offers Bad Dog, described by a corporate spokesman as fitting Pepsi's "edgy and irreverent image." Taco Bell is offering Stine-character action figures. Some critics are lamenting the way children's books, like movies, have now become merchandising tie-ins to manipulate children into buying products. On the other hand, some educators are praising PepsiCo for at least promoting reading. Few are seeing the correlation between junk food for the body and junk food for the mind.

Tell me lies

Opinion polls have become so influential in forming public policy that it is worth asking how accurate they are-or rather, how many people lie to pollsters or at least stretch the truth to make themselves look good. A recent Louis Harris poll quizzed both children and their parents about their TV habits. Almost half the children surveyed, 49 percent, said that they "never" or "hardly ever" talked to their parents about what they have seen on TV. Only 9 percent said that they discussed shows with their parents "a lot." The parents, though, told a different story: 42 percent said that they talked about TV with their kids "a lot." Only 19 percent admitted to "never" or "hardly ever" discussing the subject. This gap might be accounted for by adults' wanting to seem like good parents to the pollsters. Or maybe the kids aren't paying attention.

Culture warriors discharged

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After 17 years on PBS, Sneak Previews, the movie review show hosted by Jeoffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, is being canceled. With its preview film clips, capsule critiques, and thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendations, the program has guided millions of viewers to good movies and away from bad ones. In the last few years, Mr. Medved has become one of the most articulate critics of Hollywood's cultural nihilism, attacking its denigration of religion, sexual morality, and the sanctity of life, and challenging filmmakers to make movies that actually support the values of ordinary Americans. PBS said that it is canceling the show because it was unable to find corporate sponsors. Another culture warrior is also being sent into television exile. CNBC cancelled the interview program of syndicated columnist and WORLD correspondent Cal Thomas.

Slightly subliminal

Christian critics of pop culture have often warned about the subliminal messages found in some rock music and films. Words or images-whether selling a product, urging immorality, or lauding Satan-supposedly could be edited into a work so that they would pass by so quickly they could not be perceived by the conscious mind. Nevertheless, some believed that these negative messages could be picked up unconsciously and affect viewers' behavior. Others remained skeptical. A new study, however, has confirmed that subliminal messages can influence people, though only to a small extent. A recent issue of the journal Science published research by psychologist Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington in Seattle. In the experiment, 300 people were asked to identify 500 words flashed on a video screen as being male or female, pleasant or unpleasant. Contrary words subliminally placed next to the target words threw off the participants, who often picked up the subliminal messages instead. The effect only worked, however, for single words. Longer and more complicated messages were lost. Research will continue on whether repeated messages stick in a viewer's mind. At any rate, few music groups rely on backmasking or subliminal messages anymore, preferring to just be blatant.

The next generation of gamblers

Theme restaurants popular with young people are now getting into the gambling business. Hard Rock Cafe has branched out with the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and is successfully turning rock 'n' rollers into high rollers. Now Planet Hollywood is getting into the act, announcing plans to open casino-hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.


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