Arrrr, Mateys! Verizon’s Done It Again!

Ahoy There, Readers — Have you seen this ad? From the folks who brought you the ap (or network, or whatever) that allows you to track your teen daughter’s ever step at the mall comes:

Talk about raising resilient kids who can roll with the punches! Talk about getting your priorities straight! Talk about having a memorable birthday party, thanks to an unsuspecting cowboy the wee pirates could truss to a tree!

Anyway, everything I’d like to say about this spot — and world — has been said already with great gusto by Tom Henderson at ParentDish. And so, I give you his matey — er, meaty — essay while I go walk the metaphoric plank that is Monday morning. — Lenore

46 Responses

  1. Like parents need any more pressure to put on the perfect birthday party (otherwise they must not love their kids enough!).

  2. Is the average person actually supposed to RELATE to this commercial?? I’ve been to at least a hundred kid’s birthday parties in my life, and I’ve never seen one that required a costumed actor, except on TV. I would think that this is something done only by the very affluent. Or is this just another example of how I’m out of touch with the rest of the world?

  3. I’ve always wondered why do people feel they need to hire someone to entertain kids. Okay, there are several restaurants where I live where some guy keeps the kids busy so that adults can peacefully chat, and kids don’t mess around, getting in the waiters’ way. Good idea.
    But really, for a party??? I just let them all outside for a while, and call them in for the cake (which they usually eat picnic style under the birthday boy’s bed). After having to help clean the mess a couple of times, they sort of get the idea that it’s better for them being careful…
    Never thought of making a thematic birthday party…

  4. what reality can you call a number on your cell phone and have a pirate arrive within the next 10 minutes, on what is probably a summer (or at least nice weather) weekend?

  5. well of course that ad is stupid, how could she possibly have had time to use that service that lets her check if the pirate is a child molester?
    yeeeeesh…(insert giant eye roll here)

  6. My daughter says she’d rather have the horse at the party anyway!

  7. I’m obviously not the demographic this is aimed at, because the whole idea of survival or even significant happiness issues being tied to having a phone that can access stuff instantly is foreign to me. But still…..imagine how much fun the kids could have laughing over the fact that they had a cowboy at a pirate party, and how much money the mom could have saved by demanding half her money back from the incompetent booking agent! Why is this a crisis that requires a $300 phone and a ridiculously expensive usage plan to solve? (Says the Tracfone lady.)

  8. Now this commercial would have been a lot funnier if the agency had sent a stripper to the party, like in the move Parenthood! Of course, in that movie Steve Martin simply puts on a cowboy costume himself and the party is a huge success.

  9. I knew someone that used to perform as a clown magician at parties and special events years ago when I worked the sound and lights in the local entertainment field. He retired long ago because there was so little demand for his service.

  10. @deanne — actually, I thought that’s what the commercial was going to be about.

  11. Seems like the cowboy would be way longer remembered than the actual pirate. The story that would be told for years and years as the funniest party we ever had. And wouldn’t my little flip phone provide the same service if I wanted it?

  12. “I’ve been to at least a hundred kid’s birthday parties in my life, and I’ve never seen one that required a costumed actor, except on TV. I would think that this is something done only by the very affluent”

    Would it were so! Unfortunately, over the top birthday parties are now a province of the middle-middle-class. Keeping up with the Joneses ain’t what it used to be. Okay, actually, I think I’ve only been to one birthday party with a hired actor (a magician), but almost every kid’s party I go to has entertainment now – there’s a rented moon bounce in someone’s backyard, or it’s at a bowling alley, or it’s at a Little Gym with the teachers guiding the activities, or at My Gym, or at the House of Bounce … paid-for entertainment at kid’s parties is very typical of the middle class these days, at least where I live. Of course, looking into some of the less expensive party places (such as Chuck E Cheese) I realize it doesn’t cost much more than it does to have it at home and buy all the paper products, cake, food, etc. yourself. And then you don’t have to set or clean up. Or have a horde of kids trumping all over your house. So I’m beginning to see the wisdom in some of these choices. Also the norm in the middle class for kids parties where I am – party bags with toys and candy for every kid. Some parents spend as much on a party bag as I do on a gift for the birthday kid…

  13. I think the advantage of the phone/network being advertised is that you can search (Bing — does anyone use that?) for a pirate provider and then quickly connect, and not have to worry about poor connectivity.

    It’s like a 0.1% advantage at six times the cost. Besides which, everyone’s right that you can’t call up a company in the middle of a busy day and get 10 minute service. And even if you could, we all survived in the era of, “Oops, couldn’t get the pirate to the party. Oh, well, time for cake!” I KNOW we all survived that era because there were no other options, even for those of us whose parents might have thrown a party with an entertainer (which is another 0.1%)

  14. Sky – yeah, I’ve had Chuck E Cheese parties, bowling, gymnastics and magician parties (there is a magic supply store in my town that does birthday parties). Most of the time I choose to have parties at these places because I don’t have to do anything at all, and it’s still under $150. One time I was tempted to get Spider-man for my son because I saw it advertised and my son really loved Spider-man at the time. Needless to say it was way out of my budget and I came to my senses.

  15. @Sky: Even when I was a kid in the ’80s these were pretty common. I had nearly every elementary school birthday party at a skating rink or bowling alley, and it was a lot of fun for us kids, plus the parents tended to enjoy these activities too, or sit on the side and chat if they wanted (though in those days most parents dropped their kids off and came back at the party’s scheduled end). My mom was a fan of these precisely because there was no need for special cleaning beforehand (because other kids’ parents would see the house) and no mess to clean up afterwards. By the time I got to slumber party age, my friends and I were old enough to clean up after ourselves.

  16. I still think that hired entertainers are a whole different level from “place” parties, like the Y or the skating rink or Chuck E Cheese, though. It’s not hugely more expensive than buying everything yourself, and more convenient. I’ve never had the moolah to do it (really we don’t spend on kids’ parties at all but just have family stuff), but some pretty moneywise friends of mine have done it quite a lot.

    But paying some guy to come and “entertain” your kids, as though going to a party, playing games, yummy eats, and so forth, isn’t enough, seems over the top.

  17. My boys just laughed and then wanted to understand why the kids didn’t just get to play and entertain themselves. I love my kids.

    We saw this ad after “the-best-birthday-party-ever!” party where we let kids ranging in age from 5 years to 13 years fish (ohhh sharp hooks), throw casting nets (possible lead poisoning), crab (more sharp hooks) , swim in a river (where there could be sharks and gators – really), ride in a boat, swing in hammocks, eat hotdogs (even the 1.5 year old). Most of this occurred on a floating dock.

    The short of it – they squirted each other with tunicates, caught squid, shrimp, crabs, flounders, baby bass, and rays. They laughed, talked, squabbled, solved their problems, and discovered the world more fully.

    The worst that happened: 2 splinters from the dock, a nip on a finger by the squid’s beak, and a little sunburn.

    The best birthday ever. I get to say this because it wasn’t a kids party – they were just there. It was mine.

  18. I guess I just don’t recall there being very many elementary school birthday parties of this kind when I was a kid. Then again, my “parties” mostly involved the family going out for dinner and then having cake at home afterwards. I don’t recall going to a lot of parties either. A slumber party or two at someone’s house in 4th or 5th grade. That was about it. I never went to a chuck e cheese or bowling alley party as an elementary kid, let alone as a 4 year old. I actually think backyard birthday parties with a hired clown or magician (or more likely a relative playing that role) were more common. But I do know that many of these party places aren’t much more expensive than doing the basics yourself at home, if you intend to decorate and have food and kids over, etc. It’s just that when I was growing up, having a full-on birthday party with guests every single year maybe wasn’t that common. I think more people did family stuff. Or maybe it was just us.

  19. The commercial that makes me want to throw my remote at the tv is the that car commercial with the Mom who puts so much safety equipment on her son that he can’t put his arms down. Than she smiles proudly and he waddles off to… tennis practice.

    There is something demented about that line of thinking.

  20. Sky — that’s what I remember too, from growing up in the 70’s. Some kids (a small minority) did have parties, but they were cake, ice cream, and pin the tail on the donkey at home, at most, and generally not every year. And generally, IIRC, either VERY simple (eat your cake, watch the kid open the presents, play one game, and go home) or a smaller number of children. And of course, NO parents other than the birthday child’s parents and maybe a family friend for crowd control.

    Growing up, all my family ever did was have cake with candles after an ordinary supper and give presents. I’ve escalated that to letting the child pick the dinner menu (at home.) A couple of times my older kids have “had a few friends over” for pizza, ice cream, and a DVD, but that’s about it. I don’t have a problem with people having actual parties, of course, but in my experience fancy parties with entertainment are not essential ingredients to a happy childhood and a feeling of being loved.

    @Jewels I’ve never seen that commercial but it must be tongue in cheek, right?

  21. Well I’m so glad I’m not the only one on the party thing! We had a “big” party on occasion – 4, 10, 13, 16 were my big parties -(4 because we were moving and my mom wasn’t sure what 5 would bring). All the others were quiet affairs with homemade cake, our choice of dinner that mom made and maybe a couple friends over that afternoon.

    Most of my friends and co-workers think I’m crazy that we don’t have a party every year. We’ve gotten into arguments over this. But I grew up in the Caribbean and we just didn’t spend big money on birthdays.

  22. I grew up rich and I still never had anything like this at a birthday party. Until about middle school (when my friends and I wanted nothing to do with my parents), my mom set a limit of 3 guests (and sometimes my next-door neighbor) because she didn’t want to be responsible for too many kids. We gave out party favors which may have sometimes included pirate hats, but they were just the cheap kind. I remember being very excited one year because my mom’s friend made me a Barbie cake with an actual Barbie doll in it that I got to keep. I never had any hired entertainment. I guess the difference is that even though my family was rich, we lived in a town that was mostly average middle- to lower-class families so there wasn’t any pressure to outdo other families. And honestly, I never even wanted a cowboy or a pirate or even a clown at my party. I just wanted to open presents and eat cake.

    We would play games outside (summer birthday) like musical chairs, which I only remember because of a big tantrum I had when I was 4 or 5 because I didn’t win. We also played croquet which I always hated, but my mom made us play it for some reason.

  23. @Sky — yeah, I’ve been to 3 birthday parties since my son was born, one involving a blow-up bouncing castle (for a 3 y.o.), and two at locations (Little Gym and a science museum, for a 1 y.o. and a 3 y.o. respectively). I have to say, I just don’t “get” it. I appreciate that having the party somewhere else simplifies the parents’ lives, but so does not having a party. Our “parties” for my son have, to date, been (a) cake at grandma’s (1 year); (b) a cupcake after dinner at a pizza restaurant with family (2 year) and (c) supper/cake at our home after an outing earlier in the day to the zoo.

    I know my son’s not yet in the age demographic targeted here, but among my philosophies to date on my kid’s birthday parties: (1) if you’re not old enough to ask for one, you don’t get a birthday “party” (in the sense of an organized event, not to say there’s no celebration at all — see above); (2) modest activities, homemade food, reasonable — not excessive — numbers of guests; (3) the budget for these events is a lot closer to $25 than the “under $150” KarenW cites. No doubt these will evolve as my son grows older but I hope not too wildly.

  24. I am clearly the odd one out here. I LOVE making my kids birthday parties and every one so far has been a theme party. Mind you, I did manage to turn happy faces into an actual theme one year! What can I say? I’m very crafty, to the point of making props for a local theatre group, and these parties provide a great excuse to shop at the dollar store and break out my glue gun. I still pride myself on spending less on parties than most of the others do and the kids always have a great time.Wish me luck with this week’s “mystery” party.

  25. I went to a party once when I was a kid that had an entertainer – a clown – and it really was a great party, probably the best I went to as a kid. We all talked about it for a couple of years after. So I can see why an advertising company would use it as an aspirational lifestyle thing. But the idea that a cowboy on a horse would somehow ruin a pirate party I just can’t even fathom (plus – horse at a party how fantastic is that?).

    I hate the media selling of the idea of perfection as an achievable (or even desirable) goal. I’m much more hooked on ads that highlight life’s actual flaws and suggest something I could see myself trying.

    I can’t get outraged about this though because I don’t really see it as particularly preying on parenting fears, just the regular pretend your life can be perfect if you get our product marketing.

  26. I get odd looks from other parents every time I plan a birthday party for my kids. They ask about themes and I say there isn’t one. And the look on one mom’s face when I said I hadn’t planned any activities or hired a princess character for my daughter’s 4th birthday! Naturally it was her daughter that thought it was the best party she’d ever been to.

    My habit for kid’s birthday parties is to put out some food and drinks, buy a cake and tell the kids to go play. It seems to work pretty well. No extra decorations, bounce house or characters needed. I don’t even have to do more than light supervision and remind the kids to eventually stop playing and have some cake and let the birthday kid open the presents.

  27. I think home-made birthday party games are the best! We do sack races, musical chairs, balance-an-egg-on-a-spoon, etc. The most popular is an obstacle course that I set up in the back yard. The kids have to jump through hula hoops set on the ground, crawl through a tunnel (2 benches covered with a blanket), and balance while walking on a thin board. They always want to do it over and over and have a great time.

  28. Man, if a real actual horse came to my birthday party and my mom sent it away, I would be SO MAD.

    Ahem. I should have typed that in the past tense, of course. I’m 36 😀

    I hadn’t seen this commercial before, but it’s certainly of a piece with the shopping-at-the-mall one, which always makes me want to throw the remote through the TV screen.

  29. When are we going to stop believing the lie that we can control all of life? The fact is we have little control over situation yet in spite of that very little happens to us. We are pretty same and the spontinaity of life is part of living. 15 year olds are safe in shopping malls even without all of their friends and a cowboy instead of a clown is of little consequence. And what happened to birthday parties that consisted of children running around in the yard making up there own games and eating too much candy,cae, and ice craeam? We have lost our way. I wonder if this big shoip can be turned around.

  30. Every time I see one of these commercials, my first thought is “what the —- is 3G anyway?” I mean, obviously I know it has to do with cellular service and all, but it’s ridiculous the way every cell company throws it into their ads to make it sound better. And car companies – sorry, but i don’t know what “hemi” or “powertrain” are either.

    I seem to remember my mom hiring someone to do a puppet show for one of my brother’s birthdays when we were little. My birthday was in the summer and we had a small pool, so the theme of my parties was always “swimming.” And I have a policy of only having my kids’ birthday parties somewhere other than my house for all the reasons mentioned. I know some people love throwing parties for their kids, and I salute them, because to me it’s just one big bundle of stress…

  31. I feel badly for the cowboy. He’s all in character and suited up and he just gets sent away.

  32. I have themes for birthdays, but very homemade 🙂 We had a magic party, and made wands, a top hat pinata to smash (which we made) and my dad did magic tricks!

    and my husband uses bing! lol to the person who asked.

    I dont know how people afford it. ONe year we went to an indoor place and it was $200 for 10 kids… unfortunately I didnt think it would include MY kids. Two were sharing the party. I had a once year old and they said after the fact that she was included in that too.. in the end each girl could only have 3 friends. Anyway that was expensive for that. I could have just paid for them to go to the play centre for $100….

  33. I must be in an area that likes theme parties. I think a lot of the parents go very overboard because they inviting their childs whole class so as not to offend anyone. Excuse me, but I’m not paying to provide entertainment for anyone I wouldn’t feel comfortable having over to play. My kids parties were always small things at home and the last ones were at age 8 or 9. My daughter always had the biggest because her birthday is July 3rd so we just had a picnic for her friends, parents and family to celebrate her birthday and the 4th.

    My son is coming up to the sweet 16 parties now. We’re going to have to buy him dress clothes (kakhi’s just won’t cut it) for him to attend them. They are staring to rival the cost of small weddings.

  34. It is so sad that Verizon thinks so little of kids’ imaginations. Imagine- a cowboy at a pirate party! Make him walk the plank! Force him to lead you to cowboy treasure! On the other side, Verizon must think nothing of the cowboy actor’s imagination- “Yee haw! I’m a cowboy at a rootin’ tootin’ pirate party! I hope they don’t take me aboard their pirate ship!”

    Not to plug my blog, but I’ve documented a few cases where, face to face, I’ve encountered totally inept Verizon employees and gotten pathetic responses from them electronically.

    I’d be more upset about the commercial, but Verizon can’t even get me decent service from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to lower Manahttan. If they can’t get their cell service in order, what can I excpect from their commercials?

  35. BMJ, are you talking about the cell phone blackout when you pass the Statue of Liberty? I think that affects everybody and it’s some sort of security thing, not a Verizon thing.

  36. Wow. I hope that’s not how _most_ people organize birthday parties for their kids.

    My kids would hate it!

    When my son turned 8 a few weeks ago, all he wanted was a cake and all his friends over to play on the playground. He did appreciate for his older sister to organize a treasure hunt for him, and I had a few things in stock in case they got bored.

    (At one point they did, so I looked at the plain white paper plates… got out some water colors and let them make their own frisbees… Stupid things didn’t fly, of course, because they weren’t heavy enough, so my son and his friends had to figure out a way to make them fly after all… And they did.)

    So they had fun — what more do you want?

    So long,

  37. @helenquine: I can see why the party with the hired clown would be memorable — if it was this one special occasion. But if moms keep competing and coming up with all sorts of themes to top each other, and _every_ party needs to be special… it won’t be memorable any more.

    So long,

  38. Frau_Mahlzahn – I never proposed that it’s something all parents should do. I was just providing a little bit of counter to the “Kids don’t want it. All they need is ice cream.” meme that seemed to be developing (which is a gross over generalization on my part and is not intended to suggest that those parties aren’t great fun for the kids).

    I only went to one party with an entertainer and I had no expectations that all others would be the same or better. And while I got the vibe from the add that the mother thought the cowboy was a disaster that would spoil the party I didn’t see anything that suggested it was about meeting anyone else expectations except the her – grossly misguided in my opinion – own.

  39. @helenquine — Yeah, I never meant that kids wouldn’t enjoy an over the top party like that. The more bells and whistles you throw in, the bigger a blast it will be. I’m only saying these things aren’t necessary to a happy childhood, and I was thinking that any implicit pressure to imitate it or to assume that it should be SOP is probably not good overall.

    I do like your point about it being “aspirational” — this is a marketing campaign not a parenting guide, so there’s always this underlying pressure to make you want to identify with the best, brightest, and most affluent, even if it isn’t realistic. Maybe you can’t afford or don’t want the pirate party, but wouldn’t you like to be just like the mom who can? And Verizon will let you! So it’s good to remember that the purpose of a commercial isn’t really to teach us what life should be like, it’s to sell stuff. And yet, I would tend to think that if it’s effective in planting the seed of “you want to be like party mom and sign up with Verizon” then it’s also going to plant the seed of “you want to be like party mom and make your children happy with extravagant parties.” So it has a sociological effect, though not an automatic one.

  40. BTW, I think where this intersects with Free Range is the implicit message “You need to control the environment in order for your kids to have fun.”

  41. Pentamom – “where this intersects with Free Range is the implicit message ‘You need to control the environment in order for your kids to have fun.'”

    That’s true. And in this case it’s even more crazy because that cowboy on a horse looked way more fun than the pirate!

    I guess I can see that it plays into the pressure on people to think they should be able to afford stuff most people can’t. But so much of TV is like that. Very little of it reflects most people’s lives. The average TV character seems to live way, way above the average American salary and even characters depicted in fairly regular jobs are frequently shown to be living in much fancier housing than a cop/nurse/teacher etc. could actually afford. So a 30 second ad just doesn’t seem like the big issue there to me.

  42. This year I asked my boys if they’d rather have a party or the money we would have spent on one ($40). They chose the money. They each got to have one friend over for a playdate that included ice cream (!) and we still did a family celebration with close family friends. All in all, it was a huge success for everyone concerned.

  43. That’s so funny. The first time I saw this commercial, I thought of the FRK piece about the mall commercial. 😀

  44. @helenquine: sorry, I didn’t express myself clearly. I was just saying that if birthday parties turn into some kind of “event” there’s no more fun in it.

    Of course, kids like for their parties to be special, but the question is, what represents special.

    My son, who just turned 8, said he has the best memories of his 5th birthday, when all he and his friends did was play outside on the playground. They do that all the time, but that day he got to have _all_ his friends around, so he really enjoyed that. He and my daughter also agree that getting to pick which birthday cake they want is special. I think, basically they appreciate that someone will make an extra effort for them.

    So long,

  45. What always gets me about this commercial is that it says ‘the party company sent you a cowboy’, and the mother doesn’t just call the party company? Or she doesn’t just ask the cowboy to go back to his truck and change into a pirate costume (or assume that when he sees all the pirates, he’ll figure out the cowboy costume is wrong all on his own)? She goes out and finds a pirate from a different source? How absolutely ridiculous. No wonder she freaks out – she was never trained to solve a simple problem like calling the person/company who made the mistake in the first place.

  46. Well, helenquine, I’m not sure this was ever represented as a “big deal.” I took it as more of “here’s another case of Verizon playing into the perfect, aka controlling, parent myth.”

    I agree with you that TV commercials consistently show stuff above and beyond what is expected to be normal, but they DO show aspiration. In a way, that’s WHY this is troubling. It’s not aspiring to fancy parties that’s the issue, it’s aspiring to be the kind of parent who can’t stand a minor disruption in the fancy party, and has to “solve the problem,” preferably instantaneously. I could well be wrong, but my sense is that 30 years ago you didn’t have commercials made on the premise that minor disappointments in entertainment plans for children are problems to be immediately solved. So it’s the cultural aspiration to over-parenting that’s troubling and symptomatic. I do remember a sitcom plot from the 60’s on a very similar premise, but in that case, the parents were made to look silly for over-reacting, as well. Now, it’s “don’t you want to be just like party-mom and protect the precious snowflakes from a moment’s disappointment?”

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