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.
The first step to creating an Ad Literate kid is to help your child understand what an ad is. Because TV is their core point of contact with ads, this is probably the best place to start.
Though it may seem obvious to you, young kids often don’t know the difference between advertising and content – it’s one big smear of imagery for them – so focusing on this divide provides an excellent introduction. Fortunately, most broadcasters insert “bumpers” – little breaks – between shows and commercials. Teach your kids to recognize these, and to understand that the stuff that comes after them is an ad. Help them create a definition. (A message about a product is a good open-ended starter.) And have them practice I.D.-ing ads in different kinds of programming and on different channels, as the conventions differ based on location and format.
If your kid is spending time online, the lines are a bit blurrier. Helping your child recognize banner ads and purchase links is a good place to start, as they’re the most obvious forms. Teaching them about logos – that they’re pictures that represent a brand, and often signify advertising – can also be useful. Helping them become aware of the shilling role of spokes-characters can work here as well. You can also get them thinking about the fact that in online games – the core driver for kids’ web usage – there’s often little distinction between “content” and “advertising”: that the advertising here is embedded in, or the sole component of, the experience of playing.
Once they get this, it can be useful to point out all the other places ads can be found: on bus shelters, billboards, magazines, gas pumps, subways, and baggage claim conveyer belts, as well as in products like t-shirts and toothbrushes. (And don’t forget about product placement!) Try playing an I.D.ing game as you walk or drive around. Your kid may surprise you with out-of-the-box characterizations. (The mermaid on your coffee sleeve; the badges on your Ford.) Be open.
Why do you think this ad is here? What’s it for? The next step is to help your child understand what advertising is for. My own research with young kids – as well as that of other experts – revealed that they usually interpret ads solely as a means of alerting them to the existence or availability of new products. And since they’re frequently for products that they desire, they see this as a service. (Which, in some ways, it is. If you don’t believe me, think about how you find out about products or activities in which you’re interested.)
What kids often don’t get is advertising’s persuasive intent: that it’s not just meant to demonstrate what’s currently out on the all-you-can-eat buffet of American consumerism, but that it’s attempting to convince them of the desirability/necessity of a particular entr’e. Exploring this with young children often induces a light-bulb moment.
The best way to make this message hit home – like many things with young kids – is to ask open-ended questions. Try: Why do you think this ad is here? What’s it for? Who is it talking to? (Since young kids don’t have much direct purchase power you can also ask them who else the ad might be trying to get them to talk to. Hint: YOU!)
After kids get what ads are and what they’re for, the next step is helping them understand how they got onto their TV or laptop. Because their life is such a constant onslaught of new discoveries – A worm! Maki rolls! The area under the couch! – young children often don’t have the time or ability to think about where things come from. Also, since they tend to be rooted in the concrete, the proximal, and the present tense, the idea of some invisible presence – god, Kellogg’s, “the man” – placing something in their purview is a bit on the abstract side.
That said, they can certainly be made to comprehend the essential storyline of capitalism: that when you buy something, the people who made it make money; thus the people that make stuff want you to buy it. Once you tell them this, when you see an ad for a particular product, you can ask them who they think might have wanted to put it where it is. This can also be a good way to approach the idea that placing ads costs money, and that they’re not just benign and free public service announcements created for consumer joy or elucidation.
This leads directly into our next area of exploration: why particular ads appear where they do. Because young kids make most discoveries accidentally, and because they have little control over their lives, they generally have a relatively meager understanding of intent. And since they’re naturally self-centered, they often believe that their limited experience of the world defines the totality of its parameters. (And for them, it does.)
Therefore, kids often think that the reason they mainly see ads for things that interest them is a) coincidence, b) divine plan, or c) because this is all that exists. Helping them to realize that this isn’t an accident, but rather a conscious decision on the part of the people who make and place ads, will help them develop core critical thinking skills about audience, aim, and objectives.
In order to accomplish this, you can help them attend to the ads on a program they watch, and see how many feature products for kids like them. Then have them look at a show for older kids, and see what products are advertised here. Then show them one of your news sources (Us Weekly, Real Housewives) and have them find the ads and determine who they might be aimed at. You can even broach the issue of gender-targeted advertising if you want – ads that appear in content that’s more for girls or boys – though if you do this, you should probably be prepared to discuss stereotypical conceptions of gender roles in some intelligent way. (Here’s a primer.)
While kids might recognize that dogs can’t speak English, they may still believe Underdog can fly. Because they use creative/imaginative play to make sense of the world, because they have fewer learned restrictions about how things work, because they’re literal, and because they’re just not that smart, kids have a fluid interpretation of “reality”. Thus, while they might recognize that dogs can’t speak English, they may still believe Underdog can fly.
The same is true for their understanding of ads: if they see something in an ad, even something preposterous, they may assume it’s true or possible. It’s thus important to help them recognize that ads often play with, exaggerate, or elide aspects of the truth. Let them know that advertising is, by its nature, intended to be persuasive. Then encourage them to consider how an ad is trying to persuade them. Ask questions like: What does it seem like it’s trying to say you can do if you use it? Do you think that’s real? Will it actually work like that? Afterwards, give them opportunities to answer these questions by finding (or even buying) products they’ve seen advertised, and comparing their expectations and interpretations with reality. Remember: hands-on experience trumps everything with young kids.
Since issues of content and scale are often particularly muddled, it’s really important to help your kid explore these tactics. While watching ads ask questions like, If you bought that, what do you think would come with it? Or, how big do you think that is? Again, chart their answers. Then when you shop, you can compare and contrast your findings.
Remember, the goal isn’t to create a four-year-old cynic who believes that all media is simply consumer manipulation. Life is richer than that – as attested to by both our adult experience of commercial culture, and our honest affection for ads and products from our youth. Neither is the goal to make your child impervious to the lure of ads or commerce; this is both impossible, and impractical. The idea here is to give your kid skills that will help them see beneath the shiny surface, to comprehend intentionality, and to understand that the buying and selling of things isn’t some ominous and mysterious force – a rushing river which they can either avoid or drown in – but a deep, and at times seductive pool in which they can wade or not, but over which they have some control. Instead of teaching them to fear or avoid the water, you’re teaching them – should they choose – to swim.