Meet Tom Lawton, adoring father, inventor and now presenter of his own TV show, Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home (Sun Channel 4). If he seems a little familiar, that’s because Tom’s essentially George Clarke of George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces crossed with Kirstie Allsopp of Kirstie’s Fill Your House for Free: peppy, outdoorsy and full of gloriously impractical solutions for problems you never knew you had.
This three-part programme follows the adventures of Tom and his six-year-old son, Barney, as they turn the husk of a boat into the floating home of the title. What makes this home so fantastic are the life-enhancing inventions that will fill it. It will be the boat version of one of those inventors’ catalogues you get free with the Radio Times.
“Barney’s just got such a different perspective on things,” said Tom, by way of explaining his unusual choice of assistant. Be warned: parenthood does funny things to the critical faculties. It can make one confuse the scrawls of a sugar-crazed six-year-old with the lost sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. This was how Barney’s blueprints come to be transformed into inventions, including an “All-seeing Eye” balloon camera, an armadillo-shaped convertible roof, and a self-watering plant display. Some were successful, some less so and some wouldn’t pass a basic safety test. Particularly the soft-drink dispenser that shoots cans directly into your crotch.
It doesn’t seem to have dawned on Channel 4 yet, but the greatest asset of this programme is not the ever-chirpy inventor or his darling son, it’s Hadrian, the determinedly untelegenic engineer. A long-suffering Jeeves to Tom’s well-meaning Wooster, Hadrian was tasked with turning the Lawton’s whizz-bang ideas into working devices, without sinking the boat and drowning them all. He progressed from the odd askance look to expressions of purest contempt, culminating in this grumbling assessment: “What he’s actually done is he’s invented something that’s a bit of a pain to make.”
Young Barney is only the latest child product designer in a long and sinister history, as we discovered in Saturday’s final instalment of Jacques Peretti’s documentary The Men Who Made Us Spend (BBC2). Peretti asked almost all his interviewees – toy manufacturers, advertising execs and video-game designers – a version of the same question: “Isn’t it wrong to commercialise childhood?” How quaint to even hear the matter raised! We’d got so used to it.
Well, it wasn’t always this way. George Lucas’s Star Wars was the first movie to utilise the power of merchandising and by the time Transformers came along in the 1980s, cartoons existed mainly as adverts for toys. By the mid-1990s advertisers had realised it was children who held the family purse strings, and soon marketing techniques devised for children had transformed adults, too, into impetuous, narcissistic childlike consumers.
To some extent we know this already, but by piecing together the links, Peretti’s programme has made the implications clear. It helped explain why the generation raised in the 1970s and 1980s never seemed to outgrow their computer games and Star Wars obsession: advertisers wanted them that way.
Perhaps by understanding the psychology behind marketing concepts like “stickiness” and “gamification” we’ll be empowered to make real choices? Then again, perhaps it’s already too late. As if to prove the point, Peretti wrapped up with the BBC’s own bit of “gamification”: “Take a ride on the Open University Shopping Carousel and find out what influences you while you’re shopping. Go to bbc.co.uk and follow the links!” At least they’re not trying to sell us anything. Yet.