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4 Ways Ads Target Kids, and What to Do About It

Ads change children's minds. Here is how and why it matters.

Vidmir Raic/Pixabay
Source: Vidmir Raic/Pixabay

As adults in America, we are exposed to nonstop attempts to sway our purchasing decisions. Many of us have come to expect this, and are able to mount at least a small amount of resistance to these carefully crafted marketing techniques. Even then, it’s easy to find ourselves buying unnecessary and unhealthy products simply because we saw the right ad. Yet freedom of choice is central to our ideology, so regardless of the consequences, we’re generally comfortable allowing marketers free rein. Though it may not always work in our favor, it’s up to us to see through the manipulation.

But is this line of thinking reasonable when it comes to our children? Despite their early stages of cognitive development, it’s estimated that children are the explicit target of more than $10 billion of marketing a year. They face the same onslaught of ploys as adults do, before they’ve built a working defense system. This helps explain why food ads seem to trigger increased calorie intake in children but not in adults.

As stated in a 2015 paper, food advertising "promotes largely energy dense, nutrient poor foods, and even short‐term exposure results in children increasing their food consumption." Unsurprisingly, ads increase children's preferences for the advertised product. Unfortunately, the vast majority (95-97%) of food ads on programming for kids promote unhealthy foods. The consequences are to be expected: Exposure to these ads is linked to higher rates of childhood obesity.

Though even the decisions of preschoolers can be altered by ads, it’s very unlikely that young children understand the intention of advertisers. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded: “Mature comprehension of advertising occurs no earlier than age 7–8 years on average.” It’s strange that we simultaneously believe children are too young to make well-thought-out decisions, but also comfortable subject them to manipulative ads. This mental targeting is pervasive and potent. However, if we begin to appreciate how and where this process occurs, we can start making interventions to diminish its power. Here are four major ways that companies target children’s minds with marketing psychology, and how we can minimize that impact.

1. In schools. One of the most frightening examples of marketing influence on children is advertising in schools.Commercialized messages have infiltrated the place where minds are supposed to be most receptive. A 2012 review of commercialism in American schools found that, despite some significant decreases, "Most students at all academic levels [continue] to attend schools with one or more types of school-based commercialism.” For example, the study cited that about 50% of middle-school students and around 70% of high-school students attended schools with exclusive beverage contracts.

A 2017 review concluded that “students in the U.S. are commonly exposed to a broad array of food and beverage marketing approaches including direct and indirect advertising,” though there is variability in level of exposure. Advocating for ad-free education, especially in the critical period of elementary through high school, should be an educational priority. Educating children on healthful food decisions may help to curb unhealthy purchases at school, and supporting policy reform to improve school food options can help support lasting change.

2. On television. American children watch, on average, 28 to 32 hours of TV a week on average. It’s worth noting that younger children watch more ads in general than their older cohort, and are less likely to skip ads on the DVR. There have been varying statistics of how many TV ads are seen by children each year, although in 2004 the APA repoted that “children view more than 40,000 commercials each year.” This is an incredible number of targeted advertisement to ingest.

Data indicate that these commercials work, but that should be expected, given that corporations are willing to invest so much on them. It’s also important to note that most food ads seen by children will be for unhealthy products. Indeed, research demonstrates that “the overwhelming majority of food-product advertisements seen on television by American children and adolescents are of poor nutritional content.”

There have been many inquires as to the general impact of TV on the brains of children, with a general consensus that limits make sense. Choosing educational, commercial-free services limiting general exposure to TV are reasonable places to start. The American Academy of Pediatrics additionally provides an excellent recommendation — that “parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.”

3. In grocery stores. Walk down the cereal and snack aisles at a major supermarket and you’re immediately subject to the influence of a planogram. Planograms are models of product placement that use marketing science to increase sales. These capitalize on the saying “eye level is buy level” by placing the most appealing merchandise at the level of the eyes. For an adult, this is around 4-5 feet up. For children, this is closer to 3 feet. When you see brightly colored boxes of cereal or candy featuring animal cartoons around the 3-foot mark, that’s a targeted play to entice children. Research additionally shows those cartoon characters on the boxes are designed to make eye contact with children, and that this increases feelings of trust and connection to that brand. TV commercials feature these same characters, and seeing them in the store perpetuates the purchasing loop. Buying food is an essential part of modern existence, but when it comes to shopping with children, it’s important to keep in mind that all the colorful boxes and cartoons are marketing tactics designed to sell what is likely an unhealthy product. Sticking to whole foods (generally the periphery of the grocery store) when shopping with children (as well as in general) limits exposure to these potent stimuli and their typically unhealthful associated products.

4. On other screens. Modern technology has shifted children’s attention away from the real world and onto a myriad of screens. In addition to television, children now have access to tablets, mobile phones, and computers, and can take the Internet wherever they go. This comes with greatly increased exposure to digital advertising. Survey data indicate that children in the U.S. spend twice as much time online as parents estimate. Within this digital world are advertisements ranging from ad banners to novel techniques like advergames (brand advertisements disguised within interactive games geared to be enjoyable for children). Social media involvement in high-traffic enterprises like Facebook and Instagram exposes children to the latest in targeted advertisement science. So while screens themselves aren’t an issue, they are portals to targeted marketing. With this in mind, strategies to limit non-educational screen time, as well as the use of ad-blockers and ad-rich games, are reasonable places to start.

The Bottom Line: The modern world subjects children to advertising in forms we’ve never before encountered. We face a rapidly changing environment, and without a conscious effort to understand the effects of ads on impressionable minds, we run the risk of allowing unhealthy influences to play an outsize role in their development. By becoming more conscious of how and when these marketing ploys are being deployed, as well as age-related limitations on resisting their effects, we can help mitigate the risk posed to children by commercial coercion.