A view from Dave Trott: The medium isn't the message
A view from Dave Trott

The medium isn't the message

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In America in the 1960s, commercial television was considered a cultural wasteland and a bad influence.

The image was of pre-school children plonked in front of the set and staring mindlessly at the screen as if hypnotised.

In an attempt to change this, the Children’s Television Workshop was formed.

Joan Ganz Cooney was put in charge, with a brief to create educational programming for children.

Of course, this had been tried before but it was always so dull no child wanted to watch it.

Cooney knew conventional thinking wouldn’t work.

She needed to approach the problem creatively.

Don’t start by making programmes that adults thought children should be watching.

Start by looking at what children wanted to watch.

What was keeping them glued to the screen?

Surprisingly, Cooney found it was the commercials they loved most.

The very thing that adults considered bad was exactly what the pre-school children enjoyed.

The time length was exactly right for their attention span.

They didn’t have time to get bored before a different commercial started.

And, unlike the programmes, the commercials were fun.

Most of the characters were cartoons, there was singing, there were lots of simple jokes and catchy slogans to remember and repeat.

Often they had celebrities in them.

But mainly they were fun, not dull and boring like a lecture from a teacher.

Which was exactly why all the little pre-school children loved to watch the commercials.

And that was Cooney’s flash of creative brilliance.

Instead of making learning seem like work, why not make learning fun?

In fact, why not make learning exactly like the commercials the children loved?

Only instead of selling products, they could sell education.

Each programme could sell a letter and a number.

Each letter or number would be sold by a different cartoon character.

Each would have a song and a catchy slogan to remember.

And each one would be short and fun.

They could even get celebrities to sell them, like in the ads.

The start point would be doing what the kids loved: commercials.

And that’s how Cooney created Sesame Street.

Each programme would be sponsored by a letter and a number, and throughout the show ad would pop up for that letter and number.

So the pre-school children would be learning their alphabet, plus addition and subtraction, and even basic multiplication.

Children were glued to the screen, without realising they were learning.

As Malcolm Gladwell later said of Sesame Street: "If you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them."

Sesame Street was a huge success across America and in 150 countries around the world – it won 167 Emmy Awards.

It became the gold standard for pre-school educational programming.

Sesame Street was a brilliant example of everything advertising seems to have forgotten about itself.

Laugh, sing, have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Or, as Walt Disney said: "We have to entertain in order to educate because the other way round doesn’t work."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.