Grass Stain Conspiracy: The Powerful Push to make Kids Play Outside Again
Survey data obtained by Base Camp News indicates a massive behavior shift among children and parents, and advertisers are following suit: kids are shunning the outdoors, and it's bad for all of us
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Summer was synonymous with a simple routine: sweep the porch, raise the flag, then run barefoot from the house for a long day of adventure.
First, we walk the beach for miles on calloused heels in search of sea glass. After lunch, we swim until our skin shrivels, before building palaces in the sand. In the evening, the clang of the dinner bell summons us to the old screen door.
After supper, we scavenge around the yard for firewood until the sun sinks below the horizon. We circle our fire in rusted beach chairs to roast marshmallows over the crackling embers, once they’ve burned down low.
When the tide reaches the dying coals, we head home with muddy feet — I remember having to scrub them clean on the back deck before bedtime — and dirty clothes.
Remember that line ladies and gentlemen, I’ll come back to it later.
“Throughout the span of my life, I believe I witnessed the death knell of the so-called ‘real childhood,’ where regimented activities tamed unstructured imagination.”
The kind of life I lived during those warm summer months was already an endangered species during my younger years. I hung around other kids who played in the dirt. Many of us joined the Boy Scouts together. Some even continued that path through the end of adolescence.
But watching my brother grow up in the years that followed, I saw the outdoor experience becoming more of an appointment activity via organized sports leagues and camps. The number of other kids playing outside dwindled, making it harder to find friends if you weren’t locked into the schedule.
A lot changed in just those few short years.
Throughout the span of my life, I believe I witnessed the death knell of the so-called “real childhood,” where regimented activities tamed unstructured imagination. Real free time evaporated.
Letting kids roam went from normal, to kitschy, to sneered at within a generation or two. In the current year, some would even consider it child abuse.
It wasn’t overnight, no. It took decades. But we eventually fled from grounded person-to-person experiences, and ran into the arms of our new constant companion: the phone, and the infinite opium den of constant stimulation.
But you’ve read that story before. I’m not here to bemoan the loss of the childhood experience. I’m here to talk about detergent. More specifically…
“Detergent that’s Tough on Grass Stains, Gentle on Colors!”
Have you ever heard that line before? Of course you have, but it’s buried somewhere deep in your brain. It’s been years since you’ve seen that commercial, hasn’t it? Do you remember the last time you’ve even seen a grass stain?
Back in the day, advertisers — and the huge cleaning product companies they worked for — had it pretty good. They got to cash in on a simple cycle:
Kids get dirty playing outside
Parents buy detergent to clean up after them
But with behavior for kids changing, would this business model last?
While researching this piece—
—I came across a ghastly study. It found maximum security inmates spend more time outside than the average child, as of around 2015. It also found fewer and fewer children actually want to spend time outside.
This partially blows up the theory laid out in another article from more than a year ago. In the piece, I guessed that almost everyone secretly hated the creeping influence of technology and social media, and was just looking for an excuse to put it down.
The data I referenced comes from a study funded by Unilever about 7 years back. At first glance, I thought that was a strange thing for them to spend money on. I suspect some of you have already figured out where this is going though.
After their study, Unilever launched a campaign called “Free the Kids; Dirt is Good.”
Watch these prisoners describe conditions our kids are living under as “torture:”
I’m glad Unilever made this video. I’m glad they’re calling attention to the issue. But I doubt their sole motivation was to promote the spirit of adventure. Fact is: dirty kids sell detergent.
This made me curious. Could there really be such a big drop in kids playing outside, that it impacted the bottom line for these companies? I decided to ask whether this was an actual concern on their radar, and whether it changed how they market their products. To their credit, they actually wrote back:
Afraid this isn’t something we’re able to help with at this time, but thank you for reaching out. Best of luck for the project.
Unilever Press Office
Fair enough. I understand not wanting to share advertising information like that. But then I realized there were better ways to confirm my suspicions.
The more I researched, the more I realized I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d seen a company tout their product’s ability to tackle dirt and grass stains. But of course, this could just be the result of targeted advertising.
I put together a survey to see if you all have noticed something similar.1 You can still take it by the way, and I hope you do.
Giving me more data will help bolster my conclusion. Or debunk it. In either case, I’ll publish an update.
**Everything that precedes this line was written before conducting the survey. This lets me test a hypothesis with you here. Conclusions below!**
Conclusions, for the Reader with Limited Time
Companies still brag about how well their products fight grass stains. But they don’t do it nearly as often as they should,2 based on the number of respondents who have kids of mess-making age, and what we know about targeted ads.
My new hypothesis is that advertisers have data on both parent and child behavior, indicating kids simply aren’t getting dirty by playing outside, and adjusted their marketing accordingly.
Graphs, in all Their Naked Glory
Not everyone had seen a detergent commercial in the past year, but most had — about 78% of respondents. Of that group: roughly a quarter said the commercials they saw highlighted stain fighting power against messes from things like food, juice, and wine rather than dirt or grass.
Dirt and grass stain removal still played a prominent role though, according to about 24% of survey respondents.
But the group of people who couldn’t actually remember what the commercial contained, is almost as large.
So does this mean we pack it up? This all really is a conspiracy theory and these companies are humming along just fine, advertising strategy unchanged? Not so fast!
Back in the hay day of TV, ad companies made educated guesses on what the customer wanted, based on the programing they were placing the commercial in. As a child, my favorite TV show was the exalted and flawless work of art known as Rocket Power. For those of you who watched it, you may be amused to know that I originally considered branding this publication as, “Like Reggie’s ‘Zine, but real.”
For those who don’t remember the show: the core cast learn about the importance of friendship and loyalty while playing extreme sports and helping out at the combined burger joint / surf shop known as the Shore Shack.
My nostalgia notwithstanding, of course a TV show about playing hard, outside, would be the perfect to advertise detergent that could tackle the resulting mess.
“Advertisers — with probable access to your likes and dislikes, habits, browsing data, and even frequented locations — determined that even if you have kids, they’re just not playing the way they used to. The Grass Stain Conspiracy is real.”
Now though, thanks to the magic of targeted advertising: companies don’t need to make informed guesses about commercial programing. They have the data to predict what you’ll want to buy before you decide to start shopping. And they can use this information to follow you around with tailored ads, to give you little nudges.
Check out where everyone gets their entertainment:
The overwhelming majority consumes their content from streaming services. If they’re seeing commercials, it’s for something that ad companies know they need.
With that in mind, I give you my smoking gun:
Well, maybe not a smoking gun, but the barrel is certainly warm and I’m sure a forensic lab could tell you it’s been fired recently. At the start of this piece, I hypothesized that targeted ads may have put a stop to the detergent commercials for me personally, but they could be still shown to parents.
But the graph above proves this idea wrong. 40.7–72.7%3 of respondents have children in their prime mess-making years. And remember: only 24% of them are getting grass stain ads.
If you don’t see where I’m going with this — I get it, I’ve thrown a lot of numbers your way. Here’s the simple version:
Advertisers are showing far fewer of these grass stain ads than you would expect, based on the number of survey takers with kids.
That means advertisers — with probable access to your likes and dislikes, habits, browsing data, and even frequented locations — determined that even if you have kids, they’re just not playing the way they used to.
The Grass Stain Conspiracy is real.
I feel it’s pretty obvious this is a bad thing, but if I’m case you’re a Smith (see my last article) I will spell it out in plain terms.
Kids are increasingly obese and chronically online; playing outside would probably be good for their physical health
Kids are increasingly mentally ill, anxious wrecks; playing outside would probably be good for their mental health
People who like to be outside make better advocates for conservation, than theoretical naturalists who have never seen a tree
So what are we going to do about it?
Last month I hosted a Trail Talk episode with Hannah Gallagher. She’s the VP of Lake County Search and Rescue, and mother of two young kids. Our discussion centered on how parents can safely get their kids interested and invested in the outdoors.
If you do have kids, I think Hannah did a great job providing some actionable advice that will help you out.
I think the rest comes from setting the social bar.
Earlier, I referred to doom scrolling as an infinite opium den of constant stimulation. I wasn’t being hyperbolic. Most of us are addicts, and children learn by example. Children look around at a society of people who are inactive, gluttonous, and chronically checking their phones.
Even if you don’t have kids, do your part in stopping the normalization of this behavior. If you’re at a restaurant with friends, put your phone down. Talk to people. Be active, and be a good steward of your hobbies.
You’re helping to set an example of the positive benefits these lifestyle choices can bring, and you never know who’s watching.
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Other Stuff I Considered
I don’t like presenting you with weak arguments, lest my friend over at Karlstack investigate me for data fraud. I spent a great deal of time trying to poke holes in my own case here, and welcome debate on this topic. After all, if I’m wrong, society and the future of the outdoor community are in much better shape.
If you think of something I missed, have a good counterpoint — or just want to agree with me, that’s fine too — leave a comment!
What if Things Were Always This Way
A problem I couldn’t solve for in my story is the lack of “before” data. My survey reflects 2023 trends. I can’t retroactively poll the same TV viewers, 20 years ago.
Advertisers may be playing to a smaller audience of parents with active kids. But I can’t prove it hasn’t always been this way. To be clear: I can prove kids are spending less time outside. I cannot prove this change has impacted ad campaigns, outside of strong circumstantial evidence.
No Accounting for Luddites
21.9% of survey takers reported they had not seen any detergent ads in the last year. And that’s just among those who actually encountered the survey.
Because you had to actually be online, and using social media to know this survey existed: there could be a missing subset of people who never watch TV, and have extremely active children.
I don’t believe this to be representative of the greater population, but it is theoretically possible and so I must list it here.
In two key questions, a significant portion of survey takers could not remember critical details about the commercials.
When asked what aspect of the (detergent) product the advertiser highlighted most prominently, 21% selected “Don’t Recall”
When asked whether the ad featured children, 38% answered “Dont’ recall”
This percentage is significant enough that (again, in theory) the findings of the survey could be even be inverted. E.g. what if every single person who didn’t remember what feature the ad highlighted, actually saw a Unilever commercial about fighting dirt and grass stains, and it just wasn’t memorable?
I don’t actually think this is the case because it would be inconsistent with what we know about the behavior of kids over time. But I still feel the need to lay my cards on the table.
I started this piece on the basis that the most accurate way to prove what advertisers were thinking was to ask them. Second after that, was to make observations about what they were doing, and infer their thoughts from their actions.
This piece effectively draws conclusions based on the inferred data advertisers have, based on the content they have chosen to highlight in their targeted ads, based on the observations of consumers. This is a very indirect way to reach a conclusion, and is probably the biggest potential hole in my reasoning.
That said, I think the logical foundation those conclusions are set on is still rock solid, relying on only two very simple assumptions:
The advertisers placing targeted ads have robust information on their customers
The detergent companies are motivated by profit, and are trying to market their product as effectively as possible
If you disagree with me on any of these points, again, please leave a comment!
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This survey should be used as an informal pulse-taking of sorts, not absolute gospel
“Should,” here means with the same degree of frequency you would expect in years past, based on the former behavior of children in previous generations.
I use this range because the question I pulled the data factored for respondents having multiple children, meaning they could tick more than one box. That’s why the percentage numbers don’t add up to 100. So while 72.7% had a child of some age, a portion of this group may also be empty nesters.
32% of respondents mentioned having an adult child. Between 0 and 100% of this group may have another child, younger than 18. So we subtract this entire data set from the “kids” group and arrive at our range.