Marketing to Children: How to Protect Them From Commercialism

Marketing to Children: How to Protect Our Kids From Commercialism

Marketing to children is big business and parents must find ways to best support their children’s health, development, and learning in a world that is focused on turning their kids into consumers.

By Wendy Priesnitz

One of the central premises of marketing is that buying things will make us happy. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that the opposite is true, that the pressure to overspend and over-consume actually makes people less happy. And when the pressure to become materialistic affects children, the results are worse.

A study of materialistic values among children by psychology professor Tim Kasser found that materialistic children are less happy, have lower self-esteem, and report more symptoms of anxiety and less generosity. The study also found that more materialistic children report engaging in fewer positive environmental behaviors such as reusing paper and using less water while showering.

The Problem with Marketing to Children

Another study, reported by sociology professor and author Juliet Schor, found that for children, “High consumer involvement is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints. Psychologically healthy children will be made worse off if they become more enmeshed in the culture of getting and spending. Children with emotional problems will be helped if they disengage from the worlds that corporations are constructing for them.”

Other researchers have suggested that marketing is a factor in the childhood obesity epidemic and encourages eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, and family stress. In fact, one of the big concerns of many parents who worry about marketing to children is the proliferation of so-called “junk food” with its high sugar and high fat content.

Unfortunately, marketing to children is big business, worth billions of dollars a year. And it’s growing. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the amount spent on marketing to children doubled between 1992 and 1997. And the target age is getting younger as ever younger children influence purchasing decisions and parents want to give their children an edge over their peers.

Children see advertisements on television, on the Internet, at the movies, on school buses, and in school classrooms. Although direct advertising to children in not allowed in some countries, kids are still exposed to stealth marketing. Almost every major media program for children has a line of licensed merchandise used to sell fast food, breakfast cereals, snacks, and candy. Many toys are actually advertisements for food.

What You Can Do

A number of professional and public health organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, support restrictions on marketing to children. And a number of organizations and coalitions – including CCFC – have formed to protect children from exploitative marketing.

One of CCFC’s earliest actions was a letter writing campaign that began when it was alerted by parents to the quiet integration of advertising on Webkinz World – a wildly popular social networking site for kids who’ve bought Webkinz stuffed animals. The site promoted itself as commercial-free and the “Parents Area” of the site did not mention that it includes advertising. CCFC has also successfully registered complaints to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requesting changes to what it calls “false and deceptive” marketing of Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos. And it continues to protest Mattel’s Hello Barbie, a doll that records and analyzes children’s private conversations, which experts agree is a threat to children’s privacy, wellbeing, and creativity.

Since much of the marketing to children arrives in the form of screens of one sort or another, screen time is a big concern for many parents. While many parents regulate their children’s screen time, there is a strong argument to be made for helping them self-regulate. The Alliance for Childhood, along with the CCFC and a group called Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment, has produced a free, downloadable publication called Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education. This guide is designed to help educators and parents make informed decisions about why, how, and when to use screen technologies with young children. And it is a reminder that just because products are marketed as “educational” doesn’t mean they are.

One of the key things that parents can do to help their children develop immunity to marketing is to teach media literacy. Engage with your children’s media; watch television and surf the web with them, play video games with them, and be ready to discuss the images and events they see. You can talk about how what they are seeing makes them feel, what the intent of an ad is, what’s fantasy and what’s reality, etc.

Especially beware of stealth marketing. On its MediaSmarts website, the Media Awareness Network quotes one marketer as saying, “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than going straight to the mom.”

Here are some more tips provided by media literacy experts:

  • Educate your kids on the purposes of advertising. For very young kids, a statement that ads are there to make you want things you don’t need will be sufficient.

  • Make a game out of spotting the tricks of the advertising trade in commercials and magazine ads.

  • Help kids analyze content. Some questions to discuss include: Who created this message and why? Who profits from it? What techniques are used to attract and hold attention? What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in this message? What is omitted and why?

  • Help your children learn that using technology is collaborative and social, and not an isolating solitary activity.

  • Talk with young girls about the female body images they see in magazines and on TV, and give them better role models.

  • Set an example in your own life through your media consumption and purchasing habits.

  • Create a family media diary to log how much of different types of media you are exposing yourselves to. Then discuss whether that is a good thing or not so you can create guidelines together…for every member of the family.

  • Get outside and play with your kids on a regular basis.

Learn More

Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children by Daniel Acuff and Robert Reiher (Kaplan Business, 2005)

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (Free Press, 2004)

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet B. Schor (Scribner, 2004)

Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture’s War on Children by Henry A. Giroux (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)

The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence by Henry A. Giroux (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)

Harvesting Minds: How TV Commercials Control Kids by Roy Fox (Praeger, 2000)

Children First: A Parent’s Guide to Fighting Corporate Predators by Ralph Nader (Children First, 1996)

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser (MIT Press, 2003)

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored thirteen books. For more information on children and commercialism, visit Natural Child Magazine.