Ad Literacy 101: Teaching kids to decode commercials.


Teaching kids to decode commercials.

by Brett Berk

September 2, 2009



You’ve heard the playground scuttlebutt on kids and advertising, right? By the time your children are five, they’ll have spent more time watching ads than sleeping. Food ads cause childhood obesity. Ads desensitize kids’ pleasure receptors. The internet is nothing but an ad delivery device.

You may believe some or all of this. Some or all of it may even be true. But as someone who’s spent the past decade working with people who make toys, media, and food for kids; as someone who’s conducted research into how children comprehend advertising; as someone who’s presented on the subject to the U.S. government; and as someone who will soon serve on the Advisory Board of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, I’d like to offer some balanced clarification.

First, advertising to kids is regulated both by the government and the industry that creates it. Second, kids, like adults, often derive pleasure from watching ads: they find them amusing, informative, memorable, and absurd. Third, most of the devices through which advertising is delivered to kids – TV, computer, radio – have on/off switches, or other means of parental control.

That said, the world of kids advertising is hardly Nirvana. There are ads that don’t adhere to best practices. There are new and emerging delivery platforms, the impact and oversight of which remain unclear. And our deepening understanding of kids’ brain function may affect our view of the industry. So I’ll say this: I believe that we may require additional regulation of advertisers, and I follow and support many groups involved in this effort.

But for now, kids advertising remains a big business, and part of our larger commercial culture. And as we’ve seen with other large, embedded, even pariah-like enterprises – tobacco, banking, Republicanism – such outfits tend not to disappear simply because we don’t like or agree with them. So, like most things with young kids – junk food, gender roles, the need to say no – instead of pretending that advertising doesn’t exist, or that kids can be entirely shielded from its presence, or that it doesn’t impact on your child, I recommend children be taught some skills for comprehending and responding to advertising, so that they can feel more in charge of it and its effects on them, instead of vice-versa.

So what are these skills? And how do you teach them? Well, they’re collectively referred to as Advertising Literacy, and they’re intended to make your child a more informed and empowered “reader” of, and critical thinker about, consumer messages. I’ll take you through five key Ad Lit skills, make suggestions for helping your kid to understand them, and provide some resources for continuing from there.

But before we start, there’s something to keep in mind: Ads are often enjoyable for kids. They’re also pretty ubiquitous. So it might be counterproductive to act as though all advertising is dumb or boring or evil, or to make your kid feel guilty for partaking of it. The goal here is rigorous critical thinking, and good/bad dichotomies generally fall into the “simplistic thinking” category. Life is much more complex.