Marketing And Children
Advertising to children is big business. Children are now the largest and fastest growing market for consumption. The average American child today can expect to see approximately 40,000 television advertisements per year, with the majority of these during children’s television programming. It is also estimated that more than $12 billion a year is spent on advertising and marketing to children, almost double the amount spent 10 years ago. Children’s spending power has been dramatically increasing over that same time span as well, now totaling almost $24 billion per year and they also have the power to influence their parents’ spending as well. As a result, marketers are paying more attention to young consumers and recognizing that they represent the adult consumers of tomorrow. Toy manufacturers stand out as the big spenders on marketing; the promotion budget often exceeds all the other costs of developing a toy and getting it onto the shelves. Given the intensity of the focus, volume and large amount of money spent, toy advertising during children’s television programming is a morally questionable one for three main reasons and should be closely monitored and severely restricted.
One of the first reasons that toy advertising should be closely monitored and restricted is due to that it creates needless desire and that can often leads to excessive consumerism. Most people would agree that the most direct effect of an advertisement is to convince a consumer to buy a product. A number of surveys show that children who watch a lot of television want more advertised toys and actually consume more advertised foods than children with lighter TV habits. Research shows that young children’s exposure to commercials does indeed train them to value material goods and helps shape their consumer patterns as adults. Recent studies have also shown that by 3 years old, American children recognize approximately 100 brand logos. Child psychologist Dr. Allen Kanner comments on the results of this marketing trend, “In my practice, I see kids becoming incredibly consumerist. The most stark example is when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. They all say they want to make money. When they talk about their friends, they talk about the clothes they wear, the designer labels they wear, not the person’s human qualities.”
Secondly, toy manufacturers use morally questionable practices while constructing advertisements, including the use of child psychologists. Toy advertisers employ different tactics including casting older children in toy commercials because children always want to mimic what the older ones do. Boys are also cast more often than girls because girls will listen to boys, but boys won’t always listen to girls. Boys are also found to prefer different images, music and colors than girls, so these are also considerations when constructing toy commercials. Not only are manufacturers using television as a means to market to children, but they are now also invading our educational institutions. School fundraisers include prizes as rewards for selling and earning money for their schools. These prizes include toys and fast food coupons. Manufacturers are eager to partner with schools, and different types of commercial practices can now be found there. Manufacturers have also even taken to having researchers ‘scout’ skate parks, playgrounds, and video arcades in order to find boys in the 8-13 year old age bracket that are seen as ‘cool’ and likely to be copied by their peers-a group marketers designated “alpha pups.” The marketing scouts offered these children money to learn how to play a new video game and then afterwards were given 10 additional games to give out to friends. This is a way to market toys to children instead of through advertising, but rather a trusted source – a friend. Also in recent years, there has been an upswing in child psychologists employed by toy manufacturers to help them target children more effectively. Many ads play on insecurities and the need to fit in with peers. Advertising at its best is making people feel that without the product you are a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something they are resistant. But if you tell them that they will be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids. Psychologists who help advertisers by giving them tidbits and information like this are helping increase the manufacturer’s profits, not help children, which appears to be a conflict of interest.
Finally, young children cannot comprehend advertisements and often cannot differentiate them from standard children’s programming. Adults, when faced with television advertising, have a variety of skills and abilities at their disposal to make sense of what is seen. There is evidence that the young child’s understanding of television is very different from an older child’s comprehension and an adult’s awareness. Research has shown that young children believe that the people they see on television can engage in social interaction with them, and that people on television actually live in the TV set. Studies have also shown that children up to Fifth Grade do not know that selling a product is the intent of commercials. Children also are more trusting, naÃ¯ve and do not have the understanding needed as well as having sufficient consumer experience needed to be skeptical of advertising. Also, shows such as Teletubbies and Boohbah target audiences as young as one year old, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly states there should be no television for that age group. Preschoolers have trouble differentiating the difference between commercials and standard children’s programming. It is not until Kindergarten or First Grade that they can tell the difference, and even then it due to cues such as the length of messages, not because they can understand the purpose of an advertisement.
There are a number of strongly voiced arguments against placing restrictions or monitoring toy advertisements among them being parental monitoring of children’s television viewing and the view that children will never learn to be consumers unless they are exposed to advertising. As a parent myself, I do monitor the television programming that my children watch and have also used the parental control on my cable box to block programs with certain ratings. This does not allow me to block commercials, and they are often hard to review as they may not be the same from show to show. In today’s society, with the demands on parents’ time, it is not always possible to have complete control over children’s television viewing. Studies have shown that parents and schools can help children become more aware consumers as they progress through elementary school, but this does not apply to preschool age children and young elementary aged students. However, there are children who do not have parents who help them become more educated consumers and schools who cannot afford the luxury of having this type of instruction in their curriculum. While I believe that both of these arguments have some validity to them, I don’t feel that parents should have to try to counteract what is blatantly unfair, the unethical marketing bombardment of their children.
In recent years, there has been an intense focus on marketing to children because they now make up the largest and fastest growing market for consumption. The largest contributors to advertising to children are toy manufacturers and their main vehicle for this is through commercials during children’s television programming. These advertisements create needless desire for products and can lead to excessive consumerism, toy manufacturers employ morally questionable practices including the use of child psychologists while constructing advertisements and young children cannot comprehend advertisements, often leading to confusion between advertisements and standard children’s programming. Therefore, toy advertisements to children during children’s television programming is a morally questionable practice that should be closely monitored and severely restricted.
1. Victor C. Strasburger and Barbara J. Wilson, Children, Adolescents, & the Media, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 35, 53.
2. Eric Clark, The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), 169, 175, 181, 185.
3. Miriam H. Zoll, American News Service, “Psychologists Challenge Ethics of Marketing to Children,” posted on Media Channel’s website: www.mediachannel.org/originals/kidsell.shtml
4. Brian M. Young, Television Advertising and Children, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), 237, 239.