Children used to get regular PSA-style lessons from pop culture characters they related to, learning about everything from avoiding drugs to recycling. But these days, it’s like the Power Rangers don’t even care.
Significant shifts in popular culture and how kids consume media have caused such national campaigns to dwindle.
“I cannot think of any modern cartoons or video game characters or anything like that that are giving out those messages — like it used to be about recycling or about not smoking or anti-bullying or things like that,” said Matt Slayter, educational director for Pop Culture Classroom, a group that aims to help children learn through their entertainment.
“I think it’s really on parents and educators to take that [up], to impose those messages or pick out those messages from the properties that our kids love already,” Slayter added.
In the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, popular kids TV shows such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” regularly featured brief segments meant to impart lessons to young minds.
“Everybody has to do chores, Peter,” one of the VR Troopers admonished. “Yeah, it’s alright to have fun,” his comrades agreed. “As long as your work is finished, OK?”
One Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Turtle Tips” video extolled the virtues of not wasting water. Another saw the ooze-advanced reptiles putting down their weapons to discuss batteries.
“When you throw batteries away, they’ll end up in a landfill. In time, they can leak toxic chemicals into the soil. Many communities have toxic roundups for disposable batteries,” said Donatello, the smartest of the pizza-loving quartet. “Here, use rechargeable batteries. When they run down, you can just charge them up again. It’ll help keep the environment clean.”
Paramount Pictures, which is releasing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” in August, did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
SpongeBob once taught about lab safety, and “Sesame Street” has gone all in against bullying and in favor of cooperation and sharing, but such nationwide messages have all but disappeared, in part, experts say, because of the proliferation of entertainment options.
“Everyone was pretty much watching the same TV shows and listening to the same music since there were only three television networks, and everybody went pretty much to the same movie. There was much more commonality in the culture,” said Charles Coletta, teaching professor in the Department of Popular Culture and the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University.
Now, it could be far more difficult to unite a classroom around a single pop cultural figure, and teachers who try to do so without corporate buy-in could quickly run into intellectual property (IP) problems.
“Obviously, there’s those licensing issues. You know, an individual teacher can get away with using an established character in their own lesson, but as soon as that starts to gain traction … like we at Pop Culture Classroom could not make your curriculum about Mario without Nintendo’s consent,” Slayter said.
“But an individual teacher can totally do that, and they are doing that,” he added.
Companies these days can also be more hesitant to give permission for their entertainment properties to be used due to the polarization in classrooms over how issues are taught, not wanting to risk tainting their characters.
“I think a lot of the pop culture creators out there are much more trepidatious to put their IP in a situation where they’re giving that kind of message because they don’t want that backlash from parents of like ‘Well, why is this character teaching my child this?’ or ‘I don’t want this character to teach my child this,’” Slayter said.
The solution could lie in individualization, with parents and teachers tailoring their offerings to their audience.
Jennifer Swartz-Levine, dean of the School of Arts, Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Lake Erie College, said educators can build “Reels and TikToks and playlists to kind of set the mood” for their lesson plans.
“I think that it’s become more granular and not sort of like big nationwide sort of figures for things like recycling, anti-bullying campaigns or anything like that,” she said.
But even individual takes can raise alarm. Earlier this year, a Stay Safe book produced by a Houston law enforcement consulting firm made headlines for using Winnie the Pooh, who has been in the public domain since early last year, to teach kids the “Run, hide, fight” approach to surviving a school shooting.
“If it is safe to get away, we should RUN like Rabbit instead of stay … If danger is near, do not fear, HIDE like Pooh does until the police appear,” the book reportedly says.
In the end, the easiest way for teachers to use pop culture today is to listen to what their own students to connect with and draw that into their plans.
“I’ll just listen and I’ll have the kids teach me about it if I don’t know. What is this about? And then I’ll do research and I’ll say, you know what, can I use it?“ said Gaetan Pappalardo, a third-grade teacher.
“And if you don’t use the energy that comes from them, then you’re treading water. You’re not gonna get very far, especially with how kids learn today,” Pappalardo added.
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