The other day I found my 6-year-old son watching an Internet cartoon called "Happy Tree Friends."
Purple daisies danced, high-pitched voices sang and animals with heart-shaped noses waved cheerily. But then the music changed, and a previously merry green bear, wearing dog tags and camouflage, suffered an apparent psychotic breakdown.
Crrrrrack!! went the neck of a purple badger, as the bear snapped off its head. Blood splashed and continued flowing as the bear gleefully garroted a hedgehog, then finished off a whimpering squirrel already impaled on metal spikes by placing a hand grenade in its paw.
Joshua turned to me with a sheepish grin. He clearly had a sense that I wasn't happy about his new friends, but he couldn't have known what I was really thinking. Which was this: I'm a longtime journalist who reveres the First Amendment, and I live in California's liberal bastion of Marin County. Yet I would readily skip my next yoga class to march with right-wing fundamentalists in a cultural war against "Happy Tree Friends."
Just when parents thought we knew who our electronic enemies were -- the shoot-'em-up video games, the TVs hawking trans fats, the pedophile e-mail stalkers and teenage-boobs Web sites -- here comes this new swamp-thing mass entertainment: the Internet "Flash cartoon," pared down to pure shock value. Its music and animation are tuned to the Teletubbies set -- that's its "joke." Its faux warning, "Cartoon Violence: Not for Small Children or Big Babies" is pure come-on -- for those who can read. And it's easy to watch over and over again, reinforcing its empathy-dulling impact. That makes it particularly harmful to young psyches, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni told me, because children are prompted to copy what they see -- especially what they see over and over again. "Not only do you get exposed and desensitized; you're primed, facilitated, almost invited to act that way," maintains Iacoboni, whose expertise in the brain dynamics of imitation makes him an outspoken critic of media mayhem.
"Happy Tree Friends" appears tailor-made to sneak under the radar of blocking software (which can't filter images), unless parents are somehow Internet-savvy enough to know about the site and specifically ban it in advance. And it's certainly suited for the kind of viral contagion that caught up with my 6-year-old, who learned of the site from his 9-year-old brother, who first saw it over the shoulder of a teenage summer camp counselor.
But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. In its web-cartoon class, "Happy Tree Friends" is a humongous moneymaker, as irresistible to big advertisers as it is to 6-year-olds. At last count, the site was drawing 15 million unique viewers a month, reaping $300,000 or more in ads for each new episode. It recently snagged a place on cable TV, while spawning DVDs, trademark mints, T-shirts and, inevitably, a planned video game.
Internet cartoons had their defining moment with the hilarious "This Land Is Your Land" 2004 election-year parody, featuring George W. Bush calling John Kerry a "liberal wiener" and Kerry calling Bush a "right-wing nut job" to the famous Woody Guthrie tune. By then, the beaten-down Web ad industry was already starting to ride a dramatic recovery, thanks to burgeoning new content and the increasing prevalence of high-quality, high-speed connections. The trend has brought some truly interesting material -- and also such savage fare as the graphic cartoon "Gonads & Strife" and another inviting you to repeatedly electrocute a gerbil in a light socket. The Bush-Kerry feature by some reports was the most popular cartoon ever. "Happy Tree Friends," now in its fifth, most successful, year may well be the most lucrative.
Its narrative is as primitive as its business plan. In every episode, the cute creatures are introduced, after which something awful happens to them, either by gruesome accident, or at the paws of the psychopathic bear. The wordless content appeals to a global audience, enhancing an already remarkably efficient delivery system for advertising. There's a running ad before each episode, while banners flash below and beside the cartoons.
The show itself reportedly began as a potential ad -- ironically, against media violence according to Kenn Navarro, its co-creator. Navarro came up with the idea while designing an eight-second spot for an educational company, to illustrate what kids shouldn't be watching. Indeed, 30 years of extensive research underscores the link between TV violence and increased violent behavior among viewers. One study equates the impact as larger than that of asbestos exposure to cancer -- a health risk that certainly moved our society to act. But try telling that to "Happy Tree Friends" Executive Producer John Evershed, CEO of Mondo Media in San Francisco.
Evershed, the father of three children, the youngest aged 2, told me during a phone conversation that he wouldn't let them watch "Happy Tree Friends." But then he argued that the cartoon wasn't really harmful. "It's like 'Tom & Jerry,' " he said. "I grew up on 'Tom & Jerry,' and I don't think I'm particularly aggressive."
Aggressive? AGGRESSIVE? Much as I'd like to, I can't fairly speak for Evershed on this point, but I certainly do worry about the impact on my children. As for "Tom & Jerry," I know "Tom & Jerry," and this is no "Tom & Jerry." "Tom & Jerry" never pulled knives or tore heads off or used someone's intestines to strangle a third party, just for starters.
"Tom & Jerry" also had creativity, with surprising plot twists and a richly emotive score. Most importantly, "Tom & Jerry" had a conscience. Routinely, Tom attacks Jerry and is punished for his aggression. In terms of human evolution, the 1940s classic is light-years ahead of "Happy Tree Friends," whose authors, Navarro and Rhode Montijo, have been quoted as saying, "If we are in a room brainstorming episodes and end up laughing at the death scene, then it's all good!"
Mad as I am, I'm actually not suggesting that the feds step in and ban this cartoon. The basic freedom of the Internet is too precious, and government censorship too risky and probably not even feasible. The current rules -- restrictions on the major airwaves, but anything goes on the Web -- will have to do.
But what about the big mainstream advertisers who've made "Happy Tree Friends" such a wild success? I was startled, while watching the cartoon, to see banner ads for companies including Toyota and Kaiser Permanente (which has a new campaign they call "Thrive." Thrive, indeed!). Consumers ought to be able to raise a stink, threaten a reputation, even wage boycotts in the face of such irresponsibility. But many Internet ads enjoy the escape clause of being random and ephemeral, as I found out when I called Hilary Weber, Kaiser's San Francisco-based head of Internet marketing. Weber said she couldn't even confirm that her company's ad had appeared.
"I can't replicate it," she said, adding that it would "take a lot of research" to establish whether Kaiser indeed had purchased such an ad. That, she explained, is because Kaiser, like many other big corporations, buys bulk ads through third parties -- saving money, yet relinquishing control over where the ads end up.
Weber said she was concerned about Kaiser's reputation and planned to investigate further, yet declined to tell me the names of the third-party companies placing the firm's ads. So I then turned to Mika Salmi, CEO of AtomShockwave, which manages the ads on "Happy Tree Friends." Salmi, on his cell phone, said he couldn't, with confidence, name the third-party companies with whom he contracts, though he thought one "might" be Advertising.com. But when I contacted Lisa Jacobson, Advertising.com's spokeswoman, she declined to name advertisers not already listed on her firm's Web page. "We actually don't think we're the best fit for this piece," Jacobson wrote me by e-mail. "You'll probably need to speak with companies like Kaiser and Toyota directly. But thanks for thinking of us . . . "
In our brief telephone conversation, Evershed told me he thinks parents have the ultimate responsibility to shield their kids from media violence. In the abstract, I certainly agree with that, but I admit I sometimes wonder if I'm actually doing my kids a disservice by spending so much time and energy chasing them off the Internet, while coaching them in empathy, manners and the Golden Rule. Because if most of their peers, who lack the luxury of moms with time to meddle, are gorging on "Happy Tree Friends," it would probably serve them better to be trained to defend themselves with firearms and karate.
Still, for now at least, I refuse to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what society expects from parents, with so little support in return.
So I'd like to offer just two public suggestions. Why can't summer camps and after-school programs more closely supervise Internet use? And why can't Kaiser and other big companies start crafting contracts that specifically stipulate that their ads never, ever end up on sites like "Happy Tree Friends"?
Meanwhile, I'm talking to other parents, because the first step in this peaceful war is to realize we're not alone. Together, we may even manage to subvert our culture's embrace of shock for shock's sake, one gory excess at a time.
Katherine Ellison is a veteran reporter and the author, most recently, of "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter" (Basic Books).