Children are bombarded by brand messages almost from birth, including counting books for preschoolers that use M&Ms or Cheerios, exposure to brightly coloured and appealing branded packaging in the supermarket, movie and toy tie-ins in fast-food restaurants, product placement in movies, advertisements on television and the Internet, and pitches from entertainment and sports stars in a range of media. In fact, it's almost impossible to escape marketing messages. No wonder, then, that children as young as two are starting to recognize logos and request specific brands as soon as they begin to speak.
Children are a prime target for marketers. Not only do children today have more disposable income at younger ages, but they have significant influence over family purchases. YTV's 2002 Tween Report estimated that Canadian children aged 9 to 14 spend $1.9 billion and influence $20 billion in family purchases per year. Marketing experts call it "pester power," or the "nag factor" -- the ability to get kids to nag their parents to buy a specific product or take them to a specific restaurant. After all, if your child asks you for the latest toy 37 times a day for a week, the odds are that you'll eventually give in and buy it.
As a result, there is now a whole segment of the marketing industry devoted to figuring out how to sell things to kids. Children were first identified as a target market in the 1960s, and the concept has continued to increase in popularity, as shown by the recent explosion of books with titles like What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids; BrandChild: Remarkable Insights into the Minds of Today's Global Kids and Their Relationships with Brands; and Kidfluence: The Marketer's Guide to Understanding and Reaching Generation Y Kids, Tweens, and Teens.
The ages and stages of advertising
In Canada, the average child watches about two hours of television a day and sees more than 20,000 commercials per year. And marketers have become increasingly sophisticated, using research into developmental psychology to exploit children's age-specific vulnerabilities and make their messages that much more powerful:
Up to age four or five, most children don't understand that there is a difference between entertainment and advertising. They watch commercials and television programs with equal attention. Commercials aimed at this group often associate the product or brand with fun and happiness, rather than talking about actual product facts.
Children don't develop a concept of other people's beliefs, desires, and motives, known as "theory of mind," until they are at least six years old. It's difficult for children younger than seven or eight years old to understand that the intent of advertising is to get them to buy things. They also tend to take advertised claims about a product literally.
Tweens, age eight to 12 years, understand the purpose of ads but are still vulnerable to them. These children are starting to develop their sense of identity. "Aspirational" marketing targets their desire to be slightly older and seem more sophisticated than they are.
Teenagers are trying to differentiate themselves from their parents and fit in with their peer group. Marketing aimed at teenagers may focus on teens' insecurities, or it may take positive qualities such as their activism and desire to challenge conformity and repackage them in the form of cool, counter-culture brands.
Children with developmental disabilities or problems with impulsivity may be even more vulnerable to advertising messages than other children their age.
Professionals who work with children are becoming increasingly concerned about this onslaught. In 2003, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a position statement on the impact of media on children and youth that raised several concerns about advertising. In 2004, a coalition of Canadian health groups led by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest called for a ban on advertising aimed at children 13 or younger. Quebec has already banned print and broadcast advertising aimed at children under 13, although children certainly see advertising from other sources as well.
Selling fat and sugar
Many activists consider food advertising to be a leading cause of the increase in overweight in children. A report released in December 2005 by the Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, observed that in the United States alone, over $11 billion dollars a year is spent on marketing food and beverages to children. And the food advertised to children is generally less than nutritious: most of it is highly processed, rich in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, and poor in nutrients like fibre, vitamins, calcium, and iron. A study in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, which analyzed television commercials shown in the U.S. during programs children watch, found that:
- An average of 10.6 food commercials were shown per hour, meaning that a child who watches two hours of television per day would see nearly 8,000 food commercials per year.
- Eighty-three per cent of the advertisements were for convenience foods, fast foods, candy, and soft drinks, compared to only 2% for fruits and vegetables.
- Commercials showed snack-time eating more often than breakfast, lunch, and dinner combined.
- A 2000-calorie diet made up of the foods in ads aimed at children would give more than the recommended daily value of sodium and would contain 171 g (nearly 1 cup) of added sugar.
- Most characters in the advertisements were of average weight, no matter what or how much they ate.
Food manufacturers and advertisers urge physical exercise and media literacy through programs such as Long Live Kids, developed by Concerned Children's Advertisers. They also argue that it's up to parents to watch what their children eat and teach them healthy habits. "Sure they should," say Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen in their book Food Fight, "but look at what interferes. Parents try their best, but it is no contest between them and pressures to eat unhealthy food…. A few parents prevail in the face of this pressure, but they are dwindling in number." While physical exercise, media literacy, and moderation are all good things, it's foolish to ignore the impact of food marketing on children.
Psychologist Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, goes further. She writes, "Marketing products by feeding into children's 'need to be in control' exacerbates an ongoing, normal tension in family life that arises as children move from the total dependence of infancy to the independence of adulthood." She argues that advertising aimed at kids deliberately undermines the parent-child relationship, both by encouraging children to nag their parents for what they want, and by portraying parents and other adults as either absent or incompetent.
Protecting kids from marketing messages: What parents can do
It's probably impossible to completely shield children from marketing messages. However you feel about it, marketing is an inevitable part of the world we live in. Still, parents can give their children tools to help them cope with the barrage. The Media Awareness Network, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and Susan Linn have many suggestions:
- Start young. Children are influenced by marketing from a very young age.
- Limit children's exposure to advertising on television and on the Internet. Don't allow them to have televisions or Internet-enabled computers in their rooms, and limit TV time to one or two hours per day.
- Talk to your kids about how advertising works and what advertisers are trying to accomplish. Explain that advertising is a multi-billion dollar business whose goal is to get people to buy things, and that they are very good at it.
- Encourage kids to think critically about marketing messages. You can start as small as you like: last year a Grade 6 math class in Thunder Bay, Ontario debunked a "fun fact" on a package of Smarties, which claimed that Canadians eat enough Smarties each year to circle the earth 350 times. They found that in order for the claim to be true, either the earth would have to be a lot smaller, or each Smartie would have to be 3.5 metres in diameter.
- Help kids to understand the strategies used by advertisers. Talk with kids about specific ads: "How do you feel about the people in the ad? Do you want to be like them? Why or why not? Does the ad make you feel uncool for not owning the product, or that you'll feel good about yourself if you buy the product? What are some other ways you could get those feelings, without buying the product? Has the ad used any ambiguous words or impressive-sounding facts and figures to make the product sound better than it is? At the end, did the announcer say anything like 'some assembly required' or 'batteries not included'?"
- Explain about product placement: if characters in a movie or TV show are using a particular brand, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there.
- Discuss how your kids can be smart, responsible consumers by knowing what is good for them and what isn't, what is good for the environment and what isn't, and what is good value for money.
- Educate children about nutrition using Canada's Food Guide. Discuss whether eating only things you see on TV makes for a healthy, balanced diet. Make a distinction between "everyday" foods and "sometimes" foods.
- Before going grocery shopping, decide exactly what you plan to buy, including snacks and treats. Having a list that you and your kids have discussed ahead of time makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases and set limits in the store.
- Monitor your own media habits and buying habits, and change them if necessary. Children pick up early on what's important to their parents.
- Make sure TV, Internet, and video game "screen time" is balanced with family time, active, creative play, playing outdoors, reading, and other activities without marketing attached.
- Know that you're probably not alone. Share your concerns about advertising with other parents. You may be able to find other parents who feel the same way you do, and you may be able to settle on consistent rules for TV-watching.
Robin MarwickMedical Writer, AboutKidsHealth