Your ten-year-old admires pop stars like Beyoncé and Britney Spears, but you think she’s too young to wear faux leopard skin, crop tops and miniskirts. You head for the mall to help her with back-to-school shopping and what do you find in the stores? Faux leopard skin, crop tops and mini-skirts, sizes 6 and up...
Your grandson’s a bit pudgy and watches too much TV, but he loves the outdoors. You buy him a subscription to National Geographic Kids, hoping it’ll inspire him to get off the couch. Little did you know the magazine was loaded with ads for Twinkies, M&Ms, Froot Loops and fast food...
Anxious adults know from experience: marketing to children is everywhere. A breathtaking $2 billion is spent annually on advertising aimed at kids, up from $100 million ten years ago. Advertisers focus on this market for good reason. Research shows that in 1998 alone, American children influenced $500 billion of their parents’ purchases.
While children wield enormous buying power and time-stressed parents may want to believe their children are savvy and sophisticated consumers, Elizabeth Moore, professor of marketing and parent of a teenage daughter, says it isn’t so. In “Children and the Changing World of Advertising,” (Journal of Business Ethics 52:2004) Moore explores how children understand and defend themselves against advertising messages.
Historically, researchers and policy experts have thought that once children understand selling intent, at about age 8, they are able to defend themselves against advertising claims. Through in-depth interviews and experiments with children between the ages of 6 and 12, Moore and colleague Richard J. Lutz found this not to be true.
Building on earlier research, the professors found that while kids between 9 and 12—known as “tweens”—are beginning to develop critical thinking skills, they don’t tap this knowledge when watching advertisements unless explicitly reminded to do so. “It’s like the switch hasn’t been turned on, unless you tell them to turn it on,” the report states.
The study also found that children consistently gave advertisers the benefit of the doubt for dubious claims. The study says that “unless an advertiser was perceived as having grossly overstepped the line between exaggeration and deliberate deception, the children tended to characterize genuine problems as merely innocent mistakes or oversights.”
Moore also found that 11 and 12-year-olds were especially receptive to ads with high entertainment content and more likely to be influenced by their messages. Unlike younger children, who based their decisions on direct product experience—“I don’t like this cereal”—older children were more likely to interpret their product usage experience positively if they enjoyed watching an advertisement.
Echoing the concerns of many parents, Moore points out that children’s vulnerabilities to advertising claims can become particularly worrisome when sexual imagery is introduced through the media, marketing and product distribution. “Those images are so powerful and so potentially negative,” says Moore. “Images can shape (a child’s) view of the world and how people beyond their lives live. Kids don’t have the experience to know...that life isn’t really like that.”
Recently, Moore has turned her attention to studying how children are influenced by new forms of marketing, such as Internet advergames which bear titles such as “Lifesavers Boardwalk Bowling” or the “Oreo Dunking Games.” And she is concerned about how children will fare when facing an unprecedented blitz of advertising from multiple media. “The range, level and sophistication of advertising targeted to children continues to accelerate,” she says.
“I think there are gaps for these kids sort of like Swiss cheese,” continues Moore. “You know, they get parts of it and then there are other parts that they just don’t quite understand...so when she (a child) is giving the benefit of the doubt to this advertiser, not fully understanding that there are huge resources being put at persuading her...there’s real vulnerability.”
So what’s a beleaguered parent to do?
Discuss Ad Strategy
Take advantage of children’s interest in the creative strategy behind ads and remind children that commercials are designed to persuade. Moore says, “Ask them questions, such as: ‘Are they telling us everything that they know? Why are they playing that music? Why do they show us the package so many times?’”
Use Teachable Moments
“Remind children of past experiences when they wanted something (advertised), they got it, and it wasn’t so good,” says Moore. “Maybe the cereal that sat in the cupboard for six months. Ask ‘What happened here? So what do we now think about what we saw (on TV)?’”
“It’s the repetition and the constancy of advertising that is particularly worrisome,” says Moore. Studies show that heavy television viewers, those who watch more than four hours per day, are more likely to believe the ads they see and to request more things from their parents. Years ago, when Moore began to fear that too much MTV would alter her young daughter Laura’s self-image and fashion choices, she canceled the cable.
Have Ongoing Conversations
“At this age (11-12), children are deciding who they are and how they feel about themselves, and I didn’t want Laura to grow up believing in this particular (advertised) image of beauty,” Moore says. “We had many conversations on all sorts of issues even down to the point of what messages are being sent when a girl dresses a particular way. What is she saying about herself? How are other people going to view her? But we talked mostly about self respect. I would say, ‘I want you to be who you are and to be taken seriously for other facets of who you are, not just how you look.’”
Looking back on all of the conversations and negotiations involved in raising her daughter, now a high school senior, in a media- and marketing-saturated world, Moore points to the enduring role of parents in children’s development. “Parents are really important, absolutely,” Moore says. “Children are watching and they’re listening and they’re learning from what we do,” and ultimately, a parent’s influence will prevail. Moore notes that parental example becomes imbedded within a child’s self-identity and remains through adulthood. “Sometimes I’ll be talking to Laura, and I’ll say, wait a minute, where did that come from? It’s like I am listening to my mother’s voice.”
Professor Elizabeth Moore has done extensive research on marketing to children, marketing and society, and intergenerational marketing. In 2005, she spoke before the Federal Trade Commission and the Institute of the National Academies of Science on the issues of marketing and childhood obesity.
—Mary Hamann is the editor of this magazine.
—Elizabeth Station is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in South Bend, Indiana, who focuses on higher education and the non-profit sector.