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October 21, 2006

Advertising to Kids

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A New York Times piece about a study indicating that junk-food and fast-food advertising is all over programming for children, even on PBS, has got me mulling over a poli-sci puzzler -- or maybe just a practical-politics question -- that has long interested me. Namely: What to do (if anything) about regulating advertising that's aimed at kids?

I find the topic fascinating because I find myself endorsing both sides of the debate. They both make a lot of good points. On the one hand, my anti-nanny-state, less-interference-is-better, wary-of-slippery-slopes temperament is always inclined to let chips fall as they may. I'm deeply convinced that, where government action is concerned, the best policy 90% of the time is to do nothing. I'm on the look-out for candidates who will un-do and deep-six bad laws and regulations, not heap up new ones.

Not only that, kids need to get used to life in a rough and dynamic market society. How are they going to make their way if they don't develop instincts and toughness? It's good for kids not to be over-coddled, dammit.

Besides, we have a long history in this country of crafting expensive regulations and establishing expensive regulatory bodies, then watching system after system be captured by the industries they're meant to regulate. How many times do we want to watch this disheartening process occur? And how much money are we eager to chuck down black holes?

On the other hand ... Well, kids aren't yet complete human beings. They're manipulable, dependent, unformed, and vulnerable (qualities that help explain why advertisers love 'em so). For that reason we give children protection of many kinds. So it isn't as though we don't already, and uncontroversially, put a lot of guard rails around childhood.

And, practically speaking, young people these days, eh? I run into tons of young adults whose brains seem to contain nothing but TV cliches and TV catch-phrases. Spending childhood years in front of the boob tube really does seem to addle and jangle, if not actually destroy, the ability to think clearly and independently.

It also clearly promotes a topsy-turvy value system, one in which advertising values reign philosophically supreme, and one that leaves the kids who internalize this attitude judging real life from the point of view of the world portrayed in TV ads. "What's wrong with real life," they seem to wonder, "that it isn't as shiney, poppy, clever, and energized as a TV ad?" They really can't figure this one out, and the last thing they'd consider doing is abandoning their much-loved TV-ad value-system. After all, it provides so much in the way of excitement, temptation, beauty, and stimulation! As far as they're concerned, the TV-ad value-system isn't the problem, and their own devotion to it isn't either. Life is the problem; life needs fixing. This isn't just a bizarre attitude. It's an alarming one.

So I'm not sure where I come down on the question (hence my fascination with it). I do know, though, that -- however skeptical I am of moral crusades and government over-activity -- I wouldn't be entirely upset if advertising directed towards children were legally limited. Politicians seem to need to busy themselves with something positive, after all -- they're as unable as children to sit still. And I can think of many worse busy-time political projects than this one.

But how to regulate? On what basis? Perhaps matters should be left to the states, or even smaller locales. But given that programming is largely national, how could that work? So maybe judgments about TV exposure should be left to parents instead -- doesn't it really belong with them anyway? But what if the parents are dim, or are themselves TV victims? ...

Here's a UNESCO survey, and a Wikipedia overview. Britain is debating limiting fast-food advertising to kids. Disney has just announced that it will be tweaking some of its practices.

You may not be surprised to learn that Sweden has banned all TV advertising aimed at kids younger than 12. Sweden, eh? But perhaps their kids are less crazed and gullible, and less addicted to empty stimulation, than so many of ours are. Perhaps they're healthier too. If so, are these bad things?

Your own feelings, hunches, and thoughts about the question?



posted by Michael at October 21, 2006


When I was in public school, we spent hours and hours on propaganda, learning the tricks and why we should resist. When I began to teach in 1961, the junior high level book (though we still called it 7th and 8th grade) had a large section on the logical errors of glittering generalizations or unwarranted assumptions or confusing co-incidence with cause and effect.

Of course, those lessons were supposed to protect us from the blandishments of Soviet propaganda about Communism -- which didn't yet mean cities of concrete jail cells and environmental devastation. But they have defended me nicely from advertising as well.

Why don't we teach that stuff anymore? Well, it has protected me nicely from a lot of politic rhetoric as well!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 21, 2006 12:10 PM


You slip rather easily into the "national we." Having made some attempt to remove this meretricious pronoun, along with its good friend the passive voice, from my own fingertips, I know how tough this can be. But it doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

Consider the last 200 years of efforts, generally propounded by public-spirited intellectuals such as ourselves, to recast the task of educating children from a personal to a communal responsibility. (Perhaps we could start the clock with Emile.) How well do you think this program, overall, has succeeded? If you had the power to choose, would you choose to continue it, or abandon it, giving parents the right and responsibility to raise their children as they best see fit?

My parents were not quite hippies, but they were of that generation. I grew up without a TV, I'm quite glad of it, and I still don't own one. When I have children, I won't get one as a way to entertain them, although it will undoubtedly be tempting. And the same goes - times ten - for videogames.

I feel very strongly that these prejudices of mine are, in fact, facts. However, I also feel very strongly that the net effect of the entire exercise of public discourse on the correct education of children has been to inflict extraordinary damage on Western culture. I am quite confident that if I were given the One Ring, I could construct an educational system that would correct all this damage and more. But since every intellectual from Plato to Rush Limbaugh seems to share this exact same confidence, I have trouble expressing it without caveats.

I hope this attitude doesn't strike you as entirely negative. It is tough to express a disbelief in the principle, which seems to be shared by every intelligent person in the world these days, that the world should be ruled by intellectuals, in intellectual prose, to an audience of fellow intellectuals. Perhaps if we replace the word "intellectual" with "Jesuit," and adjust the date by a year or two, the point becomes a little clearer.

Posted by: Mencius on October 21, 2006 3:50 PM

Mary -- Camille Paglia sometimes talks about how great it'd be if kids were given year-long courses in the history of popular culture. At least that way they'd understand that pop culture has a history, and that pop culture (and the whole consumption-thang) isn't all there is to the world. Put it in context. It'd be a start anyway.

Mencius -- You're raising lots of interesting points. The how-to-minimize-the-use-of-"we" question ... Should it be the state's business at all to educate kids ... Good stuff. I'm not sure I see how they relate to the topic at hand, though: whether or not to regulate advertising aimed at kids. Are you suggesting that the state has no business regulating ads aimed at kids? Yeah, I can see that p-o-v. On the other hand, there are already scads of laws on the books attempting to ensure a certain amount of special protection for kids, so in the real world ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2006 4:44 PM

It's not just a case of teaching the kids, it's about educating the parents as well. A lot.

The British Ofcom decided against a ban on fastfood advertisements targetting kids in 2004, because it's normally the parents who get to decide what their children eat.

At the same time, children seem to be extremely brand conscious, even at a incredibly early age. A survey from the Dutch-Finnish publisher Sanoma taught me two year olds recognize the MacDonalds-logo, and consider it a cool brand.

The letter M seems to be the first letter these children can write...

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 21, 2006 5:27 PM

I would say simply keep the advertsing out of places where the kids are held as a captive audience--schools. Then its up to the parents to deal with the home front. If they can't be bothered to do that and the kids get a distorted view of the world and values to boot, well, too bad. It just makes the competition for the truly good things in life that much easier for the healthy kids. Darwinism works.

Its just as simple as turning off the computer and TV, really. If the parents aren't home (latchkey kids), then pitch the TV, and change the passwords on the computer, or unhook it from the internet.

Posted by: s on October 21, 2006 7:38 PM

There's something to be said for learning life's little lessons the hard way. Circa 1957, when I was five, Cheerios ads on TV blatantly promised that kids who ate them for breakfast got super-strength. As a result, I responded to the bullying of another kid in my kindergarten class with false confidence in my fighting prowess, since after all I'd eaten my Cheerios that morning, and a bitter lesson was learned that day that I wouldn't have gotten from a TV ad merely claiming Cheerios are a part of a balanced breakfast.

TV has been around for a long time now, and commercials weren't always sanitized for your protection. Today's middle-aged adults (like Moi) grew up on raw TV. Has anybody done follow-up studies to see how damaged we ended up?

I remember earnest girls in my high school English class pontificating on how the American people at large were mindless sheep baaing on cue at TV advertising and thereby lured into buying junk they didn't really need to keep capitalist consumer society going. But if the actual real-world adults I knew at the time were any indication, people are smarter when their own self-interest is concerned than intellectuals give them credit for, and will quickly spot deceptive advertising if the product doesn't work as claimed. And even us brainwashed kids wised up eventually after answering a few ads in comic books for X-Ray Specs or other such products that were shameless frauds.

Kids are basically smarter and tougher than their would-be protectors think, I suspect...


Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 21, 2006 8:44 PM


I apologize for being a one-note Johnny and slightly off topic. I just figured this thought of yours might be a good place to mount my slightly-cracked hobbyhorse and commence to perorate, for a couple of reasons.

First, because you flirt briefly with negativism before ditching it for the political tense. And second, because the sentiments you'd like to enforce are so obviously proper and justified.

I mean, put the question in reverse. Suppose "our children" (by which I mean, of course, someone else's children - I have none) were growing up on a nice John Stuart Mill diet of Aesop's Fables, De Bello Gallico (kids love war) and John Bunyan? Would "we" say, no, this is all wrong - the little tykes need, in the finest tradition of the political passive voice, to be exposed to more Burger King commercials? Because Caesar will make them violent and Ovid will turn them into little horndogs? Um, not.

But if you favor something, and you consider yourself rational, you should oppose its opposite in a counterfactual. If you believe the US should not have a fence on the Mexico border, for example, you should believe that you would believe, if there was such a fence, that it must be torn down at once.

So the only reason to oppose state regulation of children's TV - perhaps, for purposes of illustration, through the US government's most fanatical little acronym by a country mile, the FDA - is, as you point out, that one has some kind of a problem with the whole idea of these little public crusades.

But what kind of a problem could that be? As you point out, there are already "scads of laws." So what harm is another one or two? We're all realists here, aren't we? Or as Albert Jay Nock once wrote:

It is interesting to observe that in the year 1935 the average individual’s incurious attitude towards the phenomenon of the State is precisely what his attitude was towards the phenomenon of the Church in the year, say, 1500. The State was then a very weak institution; the Church was very strong. The individual was born into the Church, as his ancestors had been for generations, in precisely the formal, documented fashion in which he is now born into the State. He was taxed for the Church’s support, as he now is for the State’s support. He was supposed to accept the official theory and doctrine of the Church, to conform to its discipline, and in a general way to do as it told him; again, precisely the sanctions that the State now lays upon him. If he were reluctant or recalcitrant, the Church made a satisfactory amount of trouble for him, as the State now does. Notwithstanding all this, it does not appear to have occurred to the Church-citizen of that day, any more than it occurs to the State-citizen of the present, to ask what sort of institution it was that claimed his allegiance.

Indeed, the primary religious direction of Western culture for the last two centuries has been nationalistic, not theistic. It certainly wasn't an imaginary ethereal being I said a prayer to every morning in elementary school. In fact, the current reading of the First Amendment gives it a suspicious resemblance to the commandment of the same number, and the similarity between the tenets of Unitarianism and those of "political correctness" is also worth noting.

To recap, my point is that the answer to the question you're asking does not rest on any factual issue. It has nothing to do with kids and commercials. Unless some contrarian is willing to raise the point, we all agree that TV commercials are not good for kids. The question is whether our ethical precepts assign a positive or negative value to the prospect that the State should act on the matter.

People sometimes wonder why so many intellectuals supported the nationalist supergovernments of the 20th century. As Victor Klemperer so memorably put it:

If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honorable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene...

And indeed the problem of the intellectuals who supported Nazism and Stalinism has perplexed many great thinkers since. Intellectuals love and live to think - why would we support dogmatic regimes that repress free speech?

Which is hilarious, in a sense. Because it is not necessary to go digging around in Carl Schmitt or Maxim Gorky for the evidence. Try William James, as much as anyone the founder of our own [there's that "we" again - drat] state creed of humanist pragmatism:

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues, although originally gain by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one's country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame? Why should men not some day feel that is it worth a blood-tax to belong to a collectivity superior in any respect? Why should they not blush with indignant shame if the community that owns them is vile in any way whatsoever? Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up. What the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise. The war-function has grasped us so far; but the constructive interests may some day seem no less imperative, and impose on the individual a hardly lighter burden.

Let me illustrate my idea more concretely. There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions once for all are such, and we can stand it. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this campaigning life at all, — this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. It may end by seeming shameful to all of us that some of us have nothing but campaigning, and others nothing but unmanly ease. If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

In retrospect, we can see clearly that this is exactly what the America of 1906 needed: militaristic state worship with a massive forced-labor program. Quite a card, that Billy James.

In reality, intellectuals have always worshiped power and they can be expected to always do so. Historical periods in which intellectuals are estranged from power are the exceptions. We just remember them better, because they have resulted in most of the progress of civilization. But if we are in one now, you definitely could have fooled me.

In other words, intellectuals tend to believe that central planning is good for the same reason fishermen tend to believe that eating fish is healthy. It is a belief naturally in accordance with our interests and predilections. It allows us to feel important when we discuss important issues, like whether children should watch TV commercials.

I hope I am not completely loopy in imagining a possible future in which this habit, which obviously in this case is harmless at worst and might even be beneficial, might be socially taboo. Just as harmless comments about racial personality traits are, today, in the real world, taboo. And for all the same reasons.

Posted by: Mencius on October 21, 2006 10:25 PM

This is so unorigonal, for a childless person to advocate for the new laws to "protect the innocent children".

Please. We already have enough Park Slope yuppies with nothing better to do.

Posted by: Tat on October 22, 2006 12:49 PM

IJSbrand -- The way kids take to brands is fascinating, isn't it? They recognize 'em, they have opinions about 'em, they consider some fun and some not-fun ... Where does all that come from?

S -- Seems like a very sensible approach. It'd be lovely to see a lot of people take it up. But will they? I have a theory that for many kids these days, their real parents *are* the TV and computer ... Not that anything legal ought to be done about this, of course ...

Dwight -- That's a hilarious (and probably archetypal) memory, the Cheerios one! Funny how some incidents really make an impact on a person, isn't it?

Mencius -- I'm with you in your skepticism about intellectuals. The ones who don't worship centralized power seem few and far between. I wonder what the psychological explanation is? I guess my own half-assed hunch is that an intellectual's makeup is centralized and top-down -- it's all in his head. And he thinks that's great, and that he's great. So he projects it out -- society ought to work that centralized-and-top-down way too! But that's probably a pretty lame theory. Anyway, god bless the very few intellectuals who see themselves as part of something larger, and as serving it. But intellctualism and humility don't often seem to go hand in hand.

Tat - My lack of originality is boundless, god knows. But did you actually read the posting? Nowhere in it do I advocate new laws.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 23, 2006 12:30 AM


I'm afraid you're a little too optimistic.

The intellectuals who see themselves as part of something larger, and serving it, are exactly the problem. Hominids crave status, status is power, and power is responsibility.

Think of it as evolutionary psychology. The best way to attract the supporters you need to gain power is to present yourself as responsible. The best way to present yourself as responsible is to actually mean it. To see yourself, in other words, as part of something larger, and serving it. Powerful people always see themselves as bearers of a heavy and unpleasant burden.

The most powerful people in the West today, measured strictly by their ability to influence the real world, are journalists and professors. (They call it "creating social change," I believe.) These are also the people who natter on endlessly about ethics and responsibility - and, in my opinion, are quite sincere.

The really daring and public-spirited move for an intellectual is to embrace irresponsibility, to accept the lesson of Boromir, to admit that art is nothing but entertainment. Yes, I have seen the future - and its name is the eXile.

Posted by: Mencius on October 23, 2006 1:34 AM

Michael - can't vouch for reading the entire post with religious fervor, but I did browsed thru, and that's what was left in memory. Now that I scouted the text, here's a quote that did it:
"I wouldn't be entirely upset if advertising directed towards children were legally limited[...]
But how to regulate? On what basis? Perhaps matters should be left to the states, or even smaller locales. But given that programming is largely national, how could that work? So maybe judgments about TV exposure should be left to parents instead -- doesn't it really belong with them anyway? But what if the parents are dim, or are themselves TV victims?

Paradoxically, when growing up in collectivist system, with omnipresent State, nobody questioned the priority of parents. And here, in the supposedly individualist society the nose of the dictators from officialdom are constantly in my business.
Doesn't matter, dim or quick-witted, sick or athletic parents are - it's their right (I would say - inalienable right) to manufacture their children the way they see fit, even in their own appalling image. It's not a crime to be stupid or gullible or believe the TV ads or in Santa Klaus.
Back in USSR a neighbor would rat to the Children Services of abuse only if the kid was wearing bruises, not if his neighbor just trusts his 8yo with the keys to the house and being home alone. When I was 10 one of my chores was getting my 4yo sister to and from daycare, 20 min walk from our house, and then heating up lunch for both of us when we got home. This would be impossible in NY, what with the stupid "child protection laws" already in place.

No, Michael, ther is no difference, if the official paper in the mail comes from the Big Government or the Small one, from Feds or your community board - it's still invasion of your privacy and liberties.
I can't believe you even ask those questions.

Posted by: Tat on October 23, 2006 10:50 AM

When I was little, I desparately yearned for a bottle of "Mr Bubble" bubble bath. But the commercials showed Mr. Bubble rising out of the water and talking to kids in the bath. When the time came to actually use the bubble bath, I was terrified. I kept saying to my mom--"What will I say to him?" Ultimately, I risked it, and to my surprise, Mr. Bubble never actually emerged from the foam.

Nobody regulated me away from the commercial---or regulated Cheerios. We survived.

Posted by: annette on October 23, 2006 5:04 PM

Michael – Re: What to do (if anything) about regulating advertising that's aimed at kids?


I am with Prarie Mary here. Parents should not be afraid to say “no” to their kids, and should teach them about propaganda, etc. The schools have a role to play here as well in teaching logical thinking.

But also, I think that kids have a (parentally guided) right to a pursuit of happiness, and that adults spend too much time acting like Grinches over relatively trivial matters. Junk food, TV, and materialistic crap in moderation is not going to kill, warp or destroy kids.

You say that you have “run into tons of young adults whose brains seem to contain nothing but TV cliches and TV catch-phrases. Spending childhood years in front of the boob tube really does seem to addle and jangle, if not actually destroy, the ability to think clearly and independently.”

There have always been stupid and shallow people, and some people assert their right to be shallow, middle-brow and unimaginative as a natural human right. I have never seen anything anywhere to support the idea that there was greater intellectual curiosity before TV existed. It always amazes me to see adults who berate their kids about reading and eating right when then never read themselves and have some of the unhealthiest food habits imaginable. It’s truly “do as I say, not as I do” gone wild.

And to be blunt, despite the power of blogging and many thoughtful Internet sites, I don’t see that clarity of thought or independent thinking is either consistently displayed or valued as much as people claim.

Besides, while many adults are narcotizing themselves with daytime TV and unimaginative prime-time crap, television executives are desperately trying to entice younger people back to TV, and away from the Internet, iPods and other non-boob tube devices and activities. And since a lot of folks, including kids, use Tivo, DVRs and other sources of video material to avoid commercials, it seems like the idea of regulating commercials is a solution in search of a problem.

That Disneyland is going to try to foist healthy crap like bottled water and applesauce onto kids is a travesty. A trip to Disneyland is supposed to be a freaking treat. These supposedly healthy meals are a step above baby food, and are an insult to any self-respecting kid. Imagine and adult going to Las Vegas and being told that he can’t drink alcohol or even coffee, or eat stake or chocolate cake in a fancy restaurant. Both kids and adults need a little self-indulgence now and then, and a break from the drab, the mundane, and even … the boringly healthy.

Britain is debating limiting junk food advertising and has done much to try to push healthy meals onto kids. The predictable result: Cheeky British school kids are becoming junk food smugglers (God bless their souls), creating a very profitable and popular black market in more enjoyable foods:

Here’s a little bit of the BBC story, which details how even some U.S. are following the example set by their UK cousins:

"Students buy huge variety boxes of candy or crisps, and then sell their supplies,"… "You've got to see it to believe it. Seniors who get out at noon throw fast food over campus gates to friends."

Food puritans are turning kids into black market operators. What delicious irony.

Empty stimulation? Bring it on. Although he clearly is not an acceptable role model, one can admire in some respects the supposed demise of Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Roman gourmet and lover of luxury who lived in the 1st century AD. According to Seneca, “Having spent a fortune of 100 million sestertii in his kitchen, spent all the gifts he had received from the Imperial court, and thus swallowed up his income in lavish hospitality, Apicius found that he had only 10 million sestertii left. Afraid of dying in relative poverty, he poisoned himself.”

Posted by: Alec on October 24, 2006 7:56 AM

I couldn't have been older than 5 (or at least I hope not). It was a Snickers commercial. You may remember it. A guy grabs some peanuts and when he opens his hand, a Snickers bar, in wrapper, magically appears.

In awe, I ran over to our stash of peanuts. Grabbed a tiny handful. My heart raced. I slowly opened my hand, and voila! The same amount of peanuts, only warmer and sweatier.

I tossed them out. Must have been a bad bunch of peanuts.

I grabbed another handful. Held them a bit looser. This time, like in the commercial, I opened my hand much quicker. Voila!

Still another handful of lame-ass peanuts.

I tossed them out too, learning at an early age never to trust anything on TV.

Posted by: Steven K. on October 24, 2006 3:52 PM

I agree with basically everything that was posted in the comment space- every different opinion makes sense in this case... We all had our certain toy or candy that we played with because of the way it was advertised. We all changed our minds at one point or another. Some kids learn before others do about the world of advertising- even though at a young age, it is hard for any child to tell the difference between what they see on TV and actual life- I think it is up to the parents to teach them the difference between fantasy worlds and reality.
The advertising industry is finding new ways to grab children's attention- new songs, celebrities, products, jingles and the like are making it very difficult for a child to resist their feeling towards a new toy.
I do believe that there should be some restrictions on child advertisement. Possibly a change in the time of day and the channel the commercials are on would make a positive difference. The content of commercials greatly affects how a child is manipulated too- the alcohol commercials these days make the product look so safe, fun and socially acceptable -any kid who wants to fit in would be tempted by what they see. I believe children are the prime example of "monkey see, monkey do" and that that should be noted with every commercial targeting children. Again though, that is something that should be controlled by the parents not the advertising industry- they are just doing their job.

Posted by: Kayla Coleman on October 27, 2006 1:54 PM

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