Sold?

Understanding consumer behavior—before you buy.

What Do Santa and Ads Have in Common? Kids Believe in Both.

Children accept ad claims at face value, and the consequences can be harmful.

One of the more controversial areas of advertising is that targeting children.  What’s the source of this controversy?  Well, critics say it’s exploitative and even harmful.  They say it takes advantage of children’s vulnerabilities to make them desire products that in some cases adversely impact their mental and physical well-being.  In this post I’m going to discuss some of the controversy surrounding advertising targeting children, specifically why it’s said to be exploitative and some ways it can harm children.  Then I’m going to conclude this post with recommendations for protecting children from the influence of commercial advertising.

One of the arguments that advertising targeting children is exploitative is largely based around the finding that children aren’t cognitively developed enough to question advertising content.  Young children, specifically children below age eight have difficulty with abstract and hypothetical thought.  They often don’t realize ads are trying to persuade them; rather they view ads as merely informing them.  This means these children are more likely to accept advertising content at face value, even when it’s fantastic or misleading.  For example, children viewing an ad equating happiness with a certain breakfast are more likely to believe eating that cereal really does cause happiness.  As another example, consider an ad featuring children playing with a motorized or electronic toy.  Children viewing this ad are unlikely to realize the toy may not include batteries or may have to be assembled (children of this age probably won’t understand the disclaimer “Some assembly required”).  When children don’t experience the happiness they thought a certain cereal would bring or when they see that a toy in the box is different from the toy in an ad they may experience disappointment and anger, and may even start learning they can’t trust the world.

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The example in the preceding paragraph concerning breakfast cereal brings me to another controversial area within the topic of advertising targeting children:  Food advertisements.  A very common tactic (in fact the single most common tactic) for food ads targeting children is to equate the advertised product with happiness.  This tactic of course sends the message that the advertised product brings happiness, which is controversial not only because children are less likely to question it, but also because it’s the only tactic used in the ad.  In many food ads targeting children the only thing we learn is that the product brings happiness; we learn nothing at all about the product itself.  If the product is a breakfast cereal for example we don’t even learn the type of grain used in its production.  What I mean by this is that these ads aren’t informative; they appeal exclusively to emotional needs.  This might not be an issue if the advertised product was nutritious, but it usually isn’t.  Many food ads targeting children promote junk food, and junk food consumption is related to obesity and type II diabetes.  The point is that promoting a product that can damage one’s health with claims it increases well-being is deceptive, and the underhandedness is compounded in this case because the target of the promotion is unlikely to question that claim.

Modern marketing and advertising targeting children are sophisticated and pervasive.  Billions of dollars are spent every year to bombard children with commercial messages with the goal of persuading them to buy (or ask their parents or guardians to buy) products.  To the extent the effects of exposure to these messages can be negative, and to the further extent children lack the cognitive developmental abilities to protect themselves from these messages, it stands to reason that we as adults ought to protect children from them.  Teaching children to be media literate can increase their defenses against advertising, and usually involves teaching them that ads are biased and must therefore be interpreted with caution.  PBS has a media literacy website called Don’t Buy It that includes information on such topics as how advertisers get food to look so perfect in ads, the difference between designer and bargain brand clothes, and many others.  While teaching media literacy can be helpful for children age eight or older, these interventions are typically ineffective with younger children because of their limited cognitive development.  Therefore, the single best way to protect these children from advertising is to limit their exposure to it by reducing the amount of time they spend with common advertising mediums like television and the Internet.  I know the recommendation to have your kids spend less time in front of the TV and the Internet is trite, but it really is a good way to protect them from advertising.  As a final note, I think it’s worth mentioning that we wouldn’t have to go as far out of our way to reduce children’s exposure to advertising if the U.S. did more to regulate it, both in terms of the amount of child advertising and its content.  Some people are opposed to regulating advertising, claiming business regulations cause harm, however those individuals might consider this:  Advertising regulations are the only thing preventing your kids from seeing tobacco ads targeting (and probably featuring) children.

Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D., is an experimental psychologist who studies consumer behavior in order to help consumers make better, smarter buying decisions.

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