Sold for Life
How Advertising Influences Children, and What You Can Do About It
You’ve no doubt seen the kid in the grocery store, throwing a temper tantrum because his parents wouldn’t buy him the new toy or candy he wanted. Maybe you’ve even been that parent, and you know the sting of the dirty looks for not giving up and buying your child the treat, just to get him to calm down.
Or maybe you know a boy whose love for Spider-Man extends so far that his bedroom is decorated solely in that theme, and he’ll only eat Spider-Man mac and cheese because it “tastes better.”
Perhaps you’ve even seen a group of 5-year-old girls celebrating a birthday with pedicures at a salon.
The common thread to these is not bad parenting, as some people may be quick to assume. The common thread is advertising. Marketers are doing everything in their power to influence your purchases through your children.
How Marketers Target Your Kids
So what’s the big deal? After all, advertisers have been targeting children since the days of radio, right?
While this is certainly true, the amount of targeted advertising to children has increased since children’s television was completely deregulated in 1983. This left corporations free to not only advertise their products through commercials, but to actually create TV shows (or later, online games and websites) for the primary purpose of selling products.
Even if a TV show was not created with the products already in mind, popular cartoons will license their characters to food, toy, and even car manufacturers. The character recognition of, say, Spider-Man will make the 10-year-old at the grocery store request the Spider-Man macaroni over the generic variety, often to the point of nagging. Parents will often purchase the Spider-Man macaroni, perhaps to prevent a temper tantrum, or to reward good behavior, or because they simply don’t care either way. Meanwhile, the child’s loyalty to both the character and the brand of macaroni increases.
And it’s good business. According to one article:
- Teens in the U.S. spend around $160 billion a year.
- Children (up to 11) spend around $18 billion a year.
- Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over $130-670 billion a year.
“Marketers know these are little sponges. They’re so wide open. And they want to get that brand loyalty for life,” says Betsy Taylor, Founder of the Center for A New American Dream.
Take, for example, Hasbro’s My Little Pony, a toy which inspired a 1980s TV show, which in turn sold more toys. The TV show was rebooted with great popularity in 2010 (sparked in part by the nostalgia of girls who grew up with the toy and now have daughters of their own), again increasing the sale of the toys. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has, at various points, included My Little Pony toys in their Happy Meals, encouraging both kids and adult toy collectors to eat there instead of other fast food joints.
And that’s just a product of the 1980s, when the bulk of advertising to children was through the home television set. At least then parents could somewhat regulate advertising by limiting how much time their kids could watch TV each day. With the Internet, parents have even less control. Ads are pushed through to cell phones and mp3 players, and many online games are hosted by cereal and candy companies.
In fact, youth marketer Nick Russell notes that some Internet companies, where kids are required to create unique logins, will push ads based on the personal information they receive, such as age and gender. (If you use Facebook, you can see this targeted advertising in action for yourself. Hit “Refresh” a few times and take note of how most or all of the ads are targeted based on your gender, relationship status, age, or location.)
Advertising’s Ill Effects
Given that adults face an overabundance of ads on a daily basis, it may be difficult to understand why unregulated ads cause problems for children. After all, they’re going to see ads their entire life.
Most of the risks fall into one of three areas.
1. Increased consumerism
If nothing else, increased advertising to kids means an increased awareness of products available for purchase. Since deregulation in late 1983, spending by children and youth has increased by 853%. In addition, products are now pushed based on their social meaning. Soda companies, for example, will feature teens doing cool activities while using beverage-branded objects, rather than advertising the merits of the soda itself.
Many pastors identify materialism as a form of idolatry. Research supports the negative consequences of this. Materialistic children, when asked about a hypothetical windfall, report less generosity and allocate less money to charity. Teenagers have an average of 145 conversations about brands per week. And according to child and family psychologist Alan Kanner, since the 1980s children have started answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Rich,” instead of traditional answers, like an astronaut or fireman.
2. Health risks
One of the most obvious outcomes of increased advertising to children is an increased rate of childhood obesity. According to an article in the Journal of the American Association of Pediatrics, “On TV, of the estimated 40,000 ads per year that young people see, half are for food, especially sugared cereals and high-calorie snacks.” And the goal of the ads goes deeper than simply advertising the food itself. John Robbins explains, “The idea is to get kids to want junk food so much that they nag their parents to take them to [fast food chains], and to buy them other foods they have seen advertised, eventually breaking down parents’ resistance.”
Even campaigns promoting healthy behaviors can have unhealthy outcomes. Pizza Hut’s Book It! program, for example, rewards the positive behavior of reading with free personal pan pizzas.
There’s also evidence that childhood exposure to adult ads impacts their decisions to participate in unhealthy behaviors. While Joe Camel was their official mascot, one study found that Camel Cigarettes’ share in illegal sales to children rose from 0.5% to 32.8%. When you consider the number of children exposed to adult-oriented ads (like alcohol) during prime-time or other “adult” programming, like televised sports, it’s not difficult to imagine the potential impacts on kids and their future buying habits.
3. Maturity risks
The final major risk is that ads encourage kids—girls in particular—to grow up too fast, specifically through sexualized ads and products. Part of this is a product of the tween phenomenon (a term coined largely by and for marketers). Companies take advantage of kids’ natural tendencies to mirror those around them. Because adult culture is highly sexualized, and because kids are eager to grow up, they’re susceptible to advertisements for products like Bonne Belle’s lip gloss for kids (flavored like popular candy), or sexy clothing styles, or the popular Bratz line of dolls, which spawned its own movie and TV show. And those are just products that are specifically for kids; it doesn’t even address the issue of product-independent programming ostensibly for teens, like MTV, which exposes teens to more sex and violence. (For more information on the risks of exposure to sexual content, read the article “Is Porn Raising Your Kids?“).
What You Can Do
Advertisers defend their strategies by claiming that parents are responsible for monitoring their own kids’ purchasing habits. However, Susan Linn, director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, points out, “We have a $15 billion industry that’s working day and night to undermine parental authority.”
So what can you do about it, short of throwing out all technology completely and homeschooling your kids to avoid advertisements in the classroom?
1. Limit screen time
While you can’t control advertisers’ messages, you can control how often your children see them in your home. One study reports that there’s a direct correlation between requests for junk food and the number of ads kids view. There’s also evidence that children under 2 shouldn’t be exposed to the TV at all.
Setting strict time limits on the TV and Internet may show surprising results, even in your own family. If you use the Covenant Eyes Filter, you can even set daily time limits for Internet use for each of your kids.
2. Be aware of what ads your kids see
In an ideal world, you would be able to sit down with your kids every time they turn on the TV. Barring that, don’t let your kids have TVs in their own rooms, and wander through periodically whenever your kids’ favorite shows are on. If you find your children nagging you to buy a certain toy, at least you’ll know why.
If you use Internet Accountability, don’t forget to monitor what they’re doing online, and what companies your kids interact with. Do your kids want you to buy a specific sugary cereal? Check the detailed browsing logs. You may find that they’ve been playing a free online game hosted by that cereal company.
3. Talk to your kids, and model good buying habits
The most important thing to do, of course, is to actually have conversations with your children about why you make the purchasing decisions you do. If you don’t want your daughter playing with Barbie (formerly known as “Lilli” the German “sex doll”) because you’re concerned about the doll’s body shape, tell her why. She’ll remember. Or if you want to buy the standard Mac and Cheese but your son wants the Spider-Man variety, explain that the only difference is the shapes. You may even consider buying both to do a side-by-side taste test with him.
When your family watches TV together, talk about both the content of the TV show itself and the ads. If your kids say they want a particular product after viewing an ad, ask them what the ad did to make them want it. If you’re watching a TV show sponsored by a specific product (American Idol is sponsored by Coke, for example), consider making a game of the product placement in that show.
If you notice your kids playing online games sponsored by specific companies, ask them whether they’re aware that the game is actually an ad. Explain to them why you do or do not buy the product advertised.
Even just a minute or two of conversation at a time will help your kids make informed buying decisions as they get older.