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The Science of Nagging: Advertisers Understand it and You Should Too

By Madeline Holler |

nagging, television and kids

She caved! Nagging works.

There’s a reason taking the kids grocery shopping can turn into a drag: kids want stuff, and often it’s stuff parents don’t want them to have.

On our good days, we say “no” to the Lucky Charms, “no” to the Sponge Bob fruit snacks, “no” to the Rice Krispie treats that have been packaged to look like granola bars, which we also say “no” to because they’re dunked in chocolate and about as devoid of nutrition as a deep-fried Snickers bar (which, were that ever to present itself as an option, we’d like to think we’d say “no” to that as well).

The problem with parents, though, is that we’re human. And nagging gets to us. Kids know this and use it often.

A new study, “The Nag Factor: How do very young children get their parents to buy foods and beverages of low nutritional value?” states a bit of the obvious for parents — that nagging works and kids know this.

The authors of the study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, studied 64 mothers of children between the ages of 3 and 5. Based on interviews with the mothers about their shopping habits, media usage and how they deal with nagging, the authors found three types of nagging: juvenile nagging, nagging to test boundaries, and manipulative nagging. Mothers described 10 general ways of dealing with the nagging, “giving in, yelling, ignoring, distracting, staying calm and consistent, avoiding the commercial environment, negotiating and setting rules, allowing alternative items, explaining the reasoning behind choices, and limiting commercial exposure.”

The least effective strategy was, of course, giving in. About one-third of the moms said explaining why they couldn’t buy a certain item worked the best. One-third also said limiting commercial exposure was most effective.

In fact, the researchers found that overall media usage wasn’t associated with nagging, but that exposure to commercials and television characters was. Mothers also reported characters, packaging and commercials were the three main drivers behind their kids’ nagging.

Advertisers know all of this, of course. There’s even an entire area of research devoted to developing advertisements that reach children, leave out the parents and take advantage of a child’s ability to nag their parents. So while not all media exposure contributes to nagging, those ads are doing their jobs.

I’ve always refused to buy toys and foods and backpacks, etc., with TV characters on them — even if they were Sesame Street or Winnie the Pooh, etc. I’ve just always wanted to be consistent and my kids learned early on the answer would be “no” for many things, but especially stuff emblazoned with characters. I know it’s eye-roll inducing but they’re my kids, so I don’t care: often when they see commercials, I ask them questions about whether eating Fruit Gushers is really that AWESOME! and if they think a kid or an adult made those Bendaroos look so cute. We talk about product placement in the store and when I’m too tired to be smart about pointing out the strategies, I simply say “don’t fall for it. The store wants you to nag me!” Not sure that works the first time or every time, but at least the message is there.

It doesn’t take grant-funded research to tell us that kids are world-class nags, but studies like this are important in trying to understand what parents are up against. Yes, yes, perfect parents “take responsibility” and “just say no” and “know they’re the grown-up,” etc. But the rest of us imperfect ones still manage to fall for it because sometimes the easy way out feels like the only way out.

How do you handle nagging? Is saying “no” the only way or will it backfire?

“Nag Factor” appears in the August issue of the Journal of Media and Children.

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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3 thoughts on “The Science of Nagging: Advertisers Understand it and You Should Too

  1. Andrea says:

    “the researchers found that overall media usage wasn’t associated with nagging, but that exposure to commercials and television characters was” – THIS! We do not watch commercial television in our home at all. Period. My kids have no idea what all that crap in the bright packages is, and don’t nag me for it. The cereal aisle holds no interest for them, especially after we bought a box of Lucky Charms for them to try. They ate the little marshmallows, poured out a bowl of the cereal, refused to eat it (because it’s gross!) and fed the rest to the seagulls.
    If nagging is a factor, get rid of your commercial TV. DVDs only, and skip all those ads, too. And most of all, don’t eat that crap yourself!

  2. Amanda says:

    Thre is a great book called “Born To Buy” all about this kind of thing.

  3. Beth says:

    My kids don’t watch commercials and they still get excited by the packaging. They have no idea who half these characters are but they like the way they look anyway. They love Dora images but hate her TV show. It is not related in my household. I do explain to my 6 yo child about advertising and manipulation and she kind of gets it.

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