Ad Council Warns Parents: Watch Out for the Boogeyman!

This ad gives me chills AND the creeps. Here’s what it says, in urgent, caring, chiding tones:

You take the family to the food court. Your wife and Pete head for tacos. You and Danny want Chinese. You look up at the menu. You look down to see what Danny wants . But you don’t see Danny. Every parent knows that feeling. IMAGINE if he were actually abducted. To receieve free Amber Alerts on your cell phone go to A child is calling for help.

A child is calling to CHILL! This scenario — a child snatched from a public space at his parent’s side — is so rare it’s like a  child falling into a sinkhole, or being eaten by grizzlies. Public service announcements are supposed to make us aware of something that can actually make a big difference: Stop smoking. See your doctor if you find a lump on your breast. Support your local food pantry. Plenty more children are calling, “Help! I’m hungry!” than, “Help! I was snatched by a stranger in a mall several inches from my dad.”

What also creeps me out about this message is its insidiousness. Of course “every parent knows that feeling.” I’ve had it too — the temporary terror of not being able to see your kid. BUT as readers detailed here on this very blog, almost every single time we get the kid back again, right after our mind has raced to the scenario this ad is reinforcing: “Imagine if he had been abducted.”

Telling us to be MORE worried about stranger abductions is like telling us to be MORE worried about our cellulite. We are already worried beyond all reason! 

Let’s save Public Service Announcements for promoting practices that actually make kids safer and healthier. “Remember, parents: Your kids need time outside.” “Parents, teach your kid to look both ways before crossing.” “Parents, isn’t it time to get your kid a library card?” 

“Watch out for the boogeyman!” isn’t helping anyone. (Well, actually, I’m pretty sure it is helping someone, monetarily, or grant-wise or something. But I can’t figure out who.) — Lenore

45 Responses

  1. I usually have a lot of respect for the Ad Council, but they are way off the mark. If anything, they should be promoting the OPPOSITE – teach your children to use their common sense but stop the insanity of the culture of fear.

    Letter writing campaign, anyone? Lenore, would you consider helping draft a template letter that we individuals could tweak and send ourselves to plead with them to stop doing this?

  2. Poor Danny.

  3. This is so true. I’ve had enough of the fear mentality. I wonder what changes we would see in the world if we all focused more on TRUE public service than fear.

    I’m all for a PSA on reminding adults kids need time outside. In fact, I just wrote today about my son staging a sit-in protest at school (all instigated on his own!) because his class isn’t allowed to go play outside for P.E.

  4. Why don’t they take it to its logical conclusion? Children should be imprisoned in padded rooms, made to wear helmets at all times (just in case!), etc…

  5. A great service for child abductors anywhere – receive free alerts whenever there’s an unattended child in your area!

    Little Danny only wandered off to look at an exciting arcade game but soon every paedophile in the area received a text describing his exact whereabouts…

  6. AAAGHH! I know this PSA and it’s one of the reasons I can’t listen to the radio via the web at work anymore. The fear mongering and talking down to “us common folk” in these ads drive me crazy. I especially despise the one that says I need to learn to protect myself…from myself (an ad for getting better health care). This one about Danny plays all the time.

    I’m all for a letter writing campaign for society to take a big deep breath and relax a little…just tell me when and where.

  7. Another example of a corporation making money off of parents’ irrational fears.

  8. Haven’t we started implanting tracking devices in those little buggers yet?

  9. @James
    Sweet! We’re two steps closer to becoming borg.

    Remember, Free Rangers: Resistance is futile. ^_-

  10. This isn’t exactly an ‘abduction’ scenario, but when my youngest was about 5 or 6, we went to the beach with a bunch of parents and their kids. When I turned my head for an instant, I lost sight of my son.

    My panic was more of the ‘oh, G-d, he ran into the ocean and drowned’ variety and we spent a few anguished minutes that felt more like hours searching for him.

    Turns out, he had done *exactly* what we told him to do if he got lost. Find a responsible adult. When he didn’t see us, he went to the lifeguard.

    I think we don’t give our kids enough credit and I learned that at a parent, it is all too easy to imagine the worst thing that can happen.

    I love the whole concept of ‘free range kids’. It’s not about abandoning kids to the elements, or being an unconcerned parent, it’s about giving your children the tools they need to make the right decisions and giving them the freedom commensurate with their level of responsibility.

  11. Ooooh, the empty swing gets me every time. I’ve seen that image so often to stand for an abducted child that I actually get creeped out if I’m on my playground and a swing is swinging just slightly.

    The ad under the TV section called “Advertised” reminds me of the “Child Abuser” ad from a couple of weeks ago. It’s best to treat everyone as a potential child abductor because you just never know…

  12. The problem for the Ad Council is that their remit is to get people to sign up for wireless Amber Alerts and the truth – that most Amber Alerts are for kids snatched as part of a custody dispute – just isn’t going to get them the results they want.

    It seems to me this is one of the big reasons abduction has become such a big fear – authorities have been taking custody abduction more and more seriously but they don’t get much public support for it. So they talk about stranger abduction in order to get the resources they need in order to deal with custody issues.

    I’m not sure what the solution to that is – but I don’t think it’s using disingenuous appeals to our worst fears.

  13. @Helen and some of the alerts are false – Twitter went NUTS yesterday retweeting an Amber Alert that was a complete and utter hoax. People perpetuate the falsehoods and soon it will become like the boy who cried wolf.

  14. @James: That is an *extremely* good point.

    I have to say, I’ve never had much respect for the Ad Council. Most of their messages seem geared towards creating fear and panic. They were the ones who popularized the New Prohibition (“Just Say No”) and basically served as the propaganda arm of the New Deal. Now they seem like a mushy mishmash of mainstream Democratic thought straight out of upper middle class suburban enclaves. That would render this particular campaign totally unsurprising, given what mainstream Democrats in upper middle class suburban enclaves believe about the chances of their children getting abducted. Or, rather, what they think about the chances of those children of slightly less successful, slightly less educated parents–you know, the kind who would deign to eat in a food court, and whose parents aren’t nearly as careful about watching them–getting abducted.

  15. I just got back from a cruise. While on this cruise, I saw a young child- maybe 3 years old- running around the ship by himself. My biggest worry was that he would try to climb over the boat’s railing and fall into the water all on his own.

    When I mentioned this to a lady I saw at the gym (we were next to each other on treadmills). She was shocked and said, “Your biggest fear should be those molesters who would take him, abuse him and then dump him overboard! It’s easy to get away with stuff like that on a cruise ship! People disappear on those things ALL THE TIME!”

    Sigh. I just shook my head and tried to ignore her after that. I knew reason would not go anywhere with this woman and I was trying to have a good workout- not an intense stranger danger conversation.

  16. Hello I’m Grim Carnage. Coming up at after grays Anatomy the shocking story of how America lost it’s collective mind…. Film at 11!

  17. MOST Amber alerts – are against biological parents – who are trying in vain to snatch their children back from the jaws of the Department of Human Services / CPS and its ilk.

    Lenore- you are right – the odds of children being taken by strangers is so low as to not even register on the “child-snatch scale” ….

  18. i’m currently fond of the commercials and ads from children’s healthcare of atlanta. they show kids muddy, running, laughing, playing with or without adults, and generally just playing as a healthy way of life. the website offers healthy recipes, fun (if a little too structured for me) activities for the whole family, etc. ha. now *i* sound like a PSA.

  19. ana blic – Most Amber Alerts are against non-custodial biological parents trying to steal their children away from the custodial parent.

  20. While the scenario may have been over the top, I think you are throwing the baby out with the bath water on this one. Amber Alerts are used regularly and kids who have had an Amber Alert go out are much more likely to be recovered.

    Yes, it is way more likely that the child having the Amber Alert go out has been abducted by someone they know, like a family member. The scary situation plays on the emotions more, though. It may be a cheap trick, but we shouldn’t rail against advertising for the Amber Alert. It does serve a real purpose, and it does help recover missing children.

  21. Last weekend I went to the crowded mall food court with my wife, her sister, and three kids. I went to get food for the kids, then sat by the table while the women got their food. But at one point one of the kids needed ketchup or some other disgusting condiment, so I left the three kids (5, 5, and 4) at the table while I went to find them the ketchup.

    Crowded food court.

    Three kids left at the table alone.

    Three kids still happily munching their food when I got back.

    Now, I probably wouldn’t have done it if it would have required me to be out of sight of the table. (I’m still a recovering hoverer.) I could see their table the whole time even if I couldn’t get there instantly. But I thought “Geez, these kids are old enough to be able to sit at the table by themselves while I take 30 seconds to go find ketchup.”

    I refuse to be intimidated by fearmongers!

  22. I mostly just get annoyed by the patronizing tone of most public service announcements. Like the one about carseats that has a bunch of quotes from Disney’s Cinderella. I assume it’s aimed at adults, since it’s on the talk radio station. But it’s annoyingly juvenile. And if the idea is to get your kids as excited about car seats as they are about sugary cereal ads, I don’t think it will work.

  23. Last weekend there was a child ‘abduction’ in my town. I know because an amber alert ran across the bottom of my tv screen as if it there were a tornado warning.

    It was very very clearly a custody dispute, as the full name and age of the ‘kidnapper’ was listed along with the name and description of the child…and of course they had the same last name.

    I’m torn on how to feel about the alert running across my screen…on one hand, who knows why this parent didn’t have custody….was she truly unfit? an alcoholic with a bad driving record? or a danger to the child in some other way. Or maybe she just didn’t want to drop her kid off with Daddy on ‘his’ weekend because his new girlfriend was around.

    I’m sure plenty of people saw it and immediately assumed the worst and went and signed for amber alerts via text message.

    Only thing that sells better than sex is fear.

  24. Shannon, please don’t blame the fear culture on “mainstream Democrats in upper middle class suburban enclaves.” Fears knows no political boundaries and it could be argued that the middle class suburban enclaves are inhabited by Republicans. This is not a political issue

  25. Thanks, Estelle, for that terrific link!

  26. Ummm…. I’m really not sure what good an Amber Alert would do if your child was one of the infinitesimal number of children snatched in a public place like a mall. What’s the likelihood you would be able to get a license plate number, even IF you saw the person that took your child?

    I just don’t get the point of the ad, other than to scare parents needlessly. My understanding is that an Amber Alert won’t be issued without a license plate #. The scenario they show doesn’t even work for the “service” they are promoting.

  27. I have a pretty good idea of who these kinds of things “help” (financially and otherwise). All you have to do is start following the money and see where it takes you. The physical infrastructure is expensive (all those freeway message boards that go unused 90% of the time are a big money pit), and I think everyone knows who foots the bill for it.

    So they tax us for it and at the same time pander about the issue (to raise more money, sure, but mostly because it’s such a great political platform). Who wants to stand up against a politician full of zeal about protecting children with, oh, at least 2 or 3 graphic stories about horrible crimes that happened in another state several years ago?

    Try it at a local city council meeting or the like and see what happens. Stand up and espouse the opinion that children are in much greater danger from their daily McFatMeal and the weekly drive to the supermarket and the place would simply erupt. If I tried something like that (as a male in the southern US) they’d probably stone me.

    Americans have been brought to believe that sex crimes are one of the biggest problems our children face. This is social learning theory at its finest, where we see bad things on the television and assume that it is a legitimate concern regardless of the actual evidence. I don’t know why it’s happening (and has been for 20 years or more), but I damned well know how its happening and who is benefiting from it. It’s not the children!

  28. The fear mongering isn’t limited to the Ad Council and their often sanctimonious PSAs. As I live in California, I get to hear an interminable number of state paid spots (never mind that the state is bankrupt), most from a state agency set up to regulate boating.

    Even the reasonable parts of their message are lost in the hyped mini-dramas that our tax dollars are paying for, and the message is totally lost when it degenerates into erroneous factoids such as “Carbon Monoxide from a boat is four times more dangerous than from a car”. I never knew that the source made a difference in toxicity…foolish me, I thought it was the concentration.

    At least the tax dollars funding the Ad Council are a little less direct than this fear mongering drivel spewed direct from the state.

    But, as long as significant numbers of folks let themselves be manipulated by the fear mongers it will not come to an end.

    I started in broadcasting over fifty years ago, and I learned to take the Ad Council stuff with a grain of salt early on. I think that the signal to noise ratio in their stuff has deteriorated steadily over the years.

  29. That rates up there with the ads for Broadview Secutiry or their competitors, can’t remember which one it was. The latest commercial I’ve seen is a mother and her daughter playing the in the back and there is a would be thief looking through the fence. The mother and daughter go into the house for lunch and set the alarm, then the burglar kicks in the door.


  30. […] Ad Council Warns Parents: Watch Out for the Boogeyman! « FreeRangeKids […]

  31. Shannon, this upper middle class white Democratic liberal mom lets her child run free (and go to food courts alone all the time, even knowing (per the press,anyway) that little white cute girls are the wily kidnappers’ favorite prey. My very right-wing family members give me the worst guff for it. Funny how what you see depends on where you look from, ain’t it?
    Don’t make judgmental comments about how judgmental “other” people are, either. I wouldn’t accept that logic from my teenager.

  32. That rates up there with the ads for Broadview Secutiry or their competitors, can’t remember which one it was. The latest commercial I’ve seen is a mother and her daughter playing the in the back and there is a would be thief looking through the fence. The mother and daughter go into the house for lunch and set the alarm, then the burglar kicks in the door.


    What sort of burglar is so stupid as to DELIBERATELY a house he or she knows to be currently occupied?

    It’s easy to get away with stuff like that on a cruise ship! People disappear on those things ALL THE TIME!”

    And the rest of us have never heard of the scourge of the ships before because WHY? Ye gods.

  33. If you’re new to Free Range Kids, be sure you go back and click the words “READERS DETAILED” in this article to read comments from all the parents who lost their kids “temporarily” but thought they might be gone forever.

    Those comments reflect Reality.

    And it’s a good reality, one to which the general public
    is blind, probably because it’s not talked about in the news.

    I remember years ago, when we thought our young son “had wandered off and gotten lost,” when he was actually inside our neighbor’s house where he was supposed to be. Only problem was, the neighbor boy’s mom didn’t know he was there, so she told us he wasn’t!

    Lenore, I still think you should have a link from the main page to highlight those “lost” stories. If visitors keep posting their experiences, you’ll have enough for a book in a couple years.

  34. If my mother had freaked out every time I wandered away from her side in the mall when I was a kid, she’d have spent a lot more money getting rid of her gray hairs.

    I used to deliberately wait for her to be distracted, then scoot off to hide in the middle of a clothes rack. (The round ones were the best.) I thought it was pretty darn funny. She always figured it out and I’d get in trouble for scaring her, but until she found me, I’d sit there peeking out from between the clothes, watching her check all the racks that I WASN’T hiding in, and laughing my little butt off.

  35. @Kim: I used to run away from my mother specifically for the purpose of being a “lost child” and getting her paged over the intercom. I did this every Saturday when my mum would grocery shop–and of course, everyone Mum knew was shopping as well. I think it only came to an end when I pulled that stunt twice in one day and finally got spanked for it.

  36. Signing up for amber alerts can’t be a bad thing. If someone is ever kidnapped, you could make a difference by sharing much-needed information. Of course, the scenario set out in the ad is complete nonsense. All you need to do is to teach your kid to react to being abducted. Even in a crowded mall, a parent would notice a kid screaming.

  37. All you need to do is to teach your kid to react to being abducted. Even in a crowded mall, a parent would notice a kid screaming.

    Actually, there have been a few well-profiled studies on this which show that most people, when they see a kid screaming in a mall, turn the other way and assume it’s a kid throwing a tantrum. Which is fair because 99 times out of 100 (or even more often!) the kid IS throwing a tantrum with their rightful guardian who is doing absolutely nothing wrong. But it does mean that in those extremely rare cases of abductions that people are likely to assume “Tantrum, badly behaved child” instead of “Call the cops!”

  38. Ben, how many times have you seen someone dragging a kid or with a kid in tow that was screaming bloody murder in a store? How many people have you stopped that were doing that asking if they are the child’s parent? Yes, people notice. No, people don’t care. They just see a spoiled brat. I have two children that have serious transition issues, get overloaded very easily, and scream at the absolute tops of their lungs when this happens. While they have special needs, they don’t appear, to the casual observer, to have anything wrong. I get my kids out of the situation when this happens, but have never even had anyone eye me suspiciously as I do this. People ignore screaming children being drug from public places.

  39. @Uly yes, this worked against Rosie O’Donnell once when her son was small. Because they had had threats made against them, she taught him to yell “You’re not my mommy!” at any stranger who tried to take him.

    He had a tantrum one day in public so she moved to take him and remove him from wherever they were and he yelled that.

    Yeah. Kids.

  40. @AirborneVet (10/7 12:18) — The silly and hysterical idea that child abductions, molestation and murder happen ALL THE TIME on cruises is just stupid and wrong. I’ve never heard of a single specific case, and I bet that woman never had either.

    I have, however, heard of a child falling overboard.

    A very close friend of ours was on a cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska with her husband and 7-year-old son. As boys his age sometimes do (and as you feared), he tried to climb the railing. Our friend and her husband called and rushed to stop him, but before they could get to him, his foot slipped and over he went. Without stopping to think, her husband immediately jumped in to try to save him.

    Tragically, neither of them was ever seen again. Both had vanished forever in the turbulent, frigid waters of the Johnstone Strait.

  41. Here’s another example of an ad that is playing up these terrible fears:

  42. I have tried to quit for several years- over 15 in fact! I finally found something that helped me. I quit a little over 2 years ago and have not looked back. I could not have done it without the help of the stop smoking expert. It is definitely worth checking out. You can find it at I’m telling you, after I quit, my lungs thanked me and I have felt better than ever before… Not to mention I can actually taste my food! Seriously, check it out!

  43. Great, true Seems like everything is false, specially from the major news corperations with the big slants to the left or right. Did you see last nights Late Show? haha, that was rediculous! Sorry, I’m rambling along over again. Have a Wonderful one!

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