Kids And Advertising: (Ab)using The Most Vulnerable Target Group

Kids And Advertising: (Ab)using The Most Vulnerable Target Group

Here are a few questions that are on everyone’s minds – unless you are working in a marketing agency, in which case we hope that besides having all the answers, you are acting in the best interest of the kids.

How do big companies choose who to target in their marketing strategies? What do they look for before making the final decision about who their true target group is? And are there any rules they have to follow? 

Although there are many initiatives and campaigns across the world that aim to put more control on the advertising industry, it is still almost completely in the industry’s hands and self-regulatory.

The problem especially arises with the most vulnerable target group among all of us – the children, who are heavily exposed to and susceptible to advertising.

The most vulnerable target group among all of us – the children, are heavily exposed to and susceptible to advertising.

At the time when the famous “Buy, buy baby” research was published in 2007, 50% of all children ads in the USA were for candies,snacks, sugary cereals, and fast food. So it comes as no surprise that all holiday candy sales in the US reached $8.09 billion in 2015! Throw in the fact that over 1/3 of American children or teens are overweight or obese and that the latest research shows that this trend is unfortunately increasing, and you’ll get a clear picture of the power that advertising has over us and our kids.

Get Them When They're Young

Get Them When They’re Young

Direct advertising is clear and can easily be recognised. But what about the indirect advertising? As we get older, our advertising defence mechanism (our natural spam-filter for ads) becomes stronger and stronger. That is the reason why kids, as soon as they become conscious of their social environment, are the main advertising target for companies.

The results of the research that was done in 1944 in the USA and that was repeated back in 1964, both times confirmed that the grown-up research subjects used at least 23% of the products that they used when they were kids. Products that are most likely to become a habit for children are ketchup, mayonnaise, toothpaste, coffee, pain relief pills, soap, perfume, makeup products, beer, and cigarettes.

Recognize some trends from your own life?

Being susceptible to the advertising is one of the vulnerabilities companies rely on. If they play their chips right, those kids will grow up as loyal customers and quite possibly introduce the same products to their own offspring. The fact that the children aren’t as ad resilient as adults are, has become a goldmine for many companies and is sometimes used in unethical ways by the marketing experts.

(Scary, right?)

Believe it or not, there are many rules when it comes to this type of marketing. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Greece, Belgium and Denmark. While in Norway, Sweden, and Quebec advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal. But then, in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission studied the issue of advertising to children in the 1970s and decided against restricting it.

Companies work on making children become their loyal customers from an early age.

By the time children in the US finish high school, they have spent nearly twice as many hours in front of the TV than in the classroom (source: Advertising Educational Foundation). All of this sounds even more serious if we take into account the most recent evidence that some tobacco companies have specifically targeted teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 for their marketing campaigns.

Tobacco Advertising For Kids- Yes, There Is Such A Thing

Tobacco Advertising For Kids- Yes, There Is Such A Thing

Tobacco companies used to spend around 10 billion US dollars a year on marketing. If you do a simple math you realize they spent approximately 1 million US dollars per hour to market their products. What is even more appealing is that cigarettes are responsible for the death of about 1 to 10 adults worldwide every single year.

The problem doesn’t revolve around the amount of money tobacco companies spent on advertising to children. Rather, it centres on them targeting kids in an indirect way. Just look at the photo below and imagine what did the kid think those were?

Results from the research of Tobacco Free Network and the American Cancer Society in Central New York showed that:

Advertising to children is completely restricted in Great Britain, Greece, Belgium and Denmark, and in Norway, Sweden, and Quebec advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal.

  • 90 percent of stores featured tobacco product displays behind the cash register;
  • 30 percent of tobacco ads appeared near toys or candies;
  • Tobacco ads were found inside 68 percent of stores;
  • 15 percent of stores selling tobacco were located within 1,000 feet of schools.

How truly horrific this is, comes to light when you realize that before the age of 8, most kids can’t even tell the difference between movies and TV commercials or between the funny comic on the web and an online banner targeted for them. You see the problem now, don’t you?

Impact of technology

To make things a little bit more difficult for everyone, we now have a range of mobile devices that are also used as efficient advertising channels. Technology has changed the relationship that the commercial and advertising world have with our children. They can use tech to bypass parents and go directly to children through product placement in the shows kids watch, in apps they use, and even in video games they play.

Given that children in the US between the ages of eight and 11 spend 3.6 hours a day glued to a screen, that’s a huge window of opportunity for advertisers.

The Three Types of Kids Market

The Three Types of Kids Market

Children markets can be reached in sound, inspiring and funny ways. Reaching out to kids is of great value for the big companies because, according to research, children under 14 influenced as much as 76% of American household spending in 2018.

Advertisers and marketers have learned that the best way to understand children is to segment their market into 3 groups and research them separately:

  1. Kids’ primary market – what do kids buy with their own money?
  2. Kids’ influence market – how do kids affect the buying habits of the decision-makers (their parents, grandparents, carers, etc.)?
  3. Kids‘ future market – what will kids buy when they grow up?

Marketing experts understand what amount of money kids get to spend, what they need, and what they truly want. They’ve learned how to think like kids and how to approach them like kids. Due to a rising number of divorces and parents’ working hours, kids get a lot more home responsibilities and are in charge of buying a lot more products then they were before, so that’s also something companies pay close attention to.

How can we educate and protect our children

How can we educate and protect our children

As we mentioned before, children’s ad defence mechanisms practically don’t exist at such an early age and it’s up to us to teach them what advertising is and how it affects us. There are a couple of things we can do:

Avoid the ads as much as possible

Avoiding ads is a tough thing to do, especially because of the commercial-saturated environment of our consumer society. While trying to fight it and defeat it as an individual is close to impossible. However, here are some of the things you can do:

  • Pay attention to the platforms your kids regularly visit, like YouTube, Hulu, etc. 
  • Pay close attention to the websites your children visit, especially innocent-seeming gaming sites that are quite often commercials in disguise, 
  • Use ad blockers for your browser to protect your entire family’s online privacy.
Companies today use technology of mobile devices to bypass parents and go directly to children through product placement in the shows they watch, in apps, and even in video games.

Using ad blockers within your browser could be the best option. In most cases, ad blockers are browser extensions that are easy to install and will protect your online privacy. Besides protecting your kids from seeing ads, ad blockers will also make sure that ad servers are not tracking your online activities. But be sure to choose the right ad blocker – get informed and read reviews, since some of them will sell your browsing data to third parties. 

Identify the ads and talk about them

Advertisers use products and product logos in the storylines of shows and even as props in games. Explain what ads are and tell your kids that the only goal of all that is to sell them the exact same products. 

When you’re watching TV and the commercial block starts, use it as an educational opportunity to ask them questions like What do you think they are talking about here? What are those ads telling you? 

Talk about the “cool person” factor

Companies want some of their products to appear cool to younger generations and that’s why they use celebrities to endorse their product. Talk with your kids about what that is, and explain that their favourite athlete who is sharing an image with their “favourite” soft drink or chips is paid a lot of money to do that, not because it’s good for them. 

Advertisers quite often play on kids and teens’ insecurities and desire to fit in and they tend to use unrealistic images of people and life in their ads. These send a message that if you buy that brand, you’ll be cool or you’ll be happy. That has an alarmingly harmful effect on young minds and causes serious problems like depression. 

It is up to us to educate our children and teach them what advertising is and what kind of impact it can have on our lives.

Instagram is a whole lot different league, especially when it comes to teens. Sponsored posts by different brands and products displayed through affiliate marketing plague our feeds, preying at our weak spots. Is bikini season upon us? An array of detox solutions is advertised to us by influencers, celebrities, etc. Recently, American actress Jameela Jamil helped Instagram empower their policy on banning advertising weight loss products to kids. The policy seeks to ban advertising diet products to everyone below the age of 18, in order to protect children and teens from making the wrong assumptions about their bodies. 

Help them develop their digital intelligence

This is something the entire family and all internet users need to pay more attention to. Digital intelligence is a concept that refers to our entire activity and “existence” in the digital world. It speaks of our interactions, what we post and comment on, what we share with others, and the digital content we consume. Everyone and especially children need to be aware of their digital footprint, privacy on social media platforms, and the potential consequence of their actions and sharing information.  

When we speak about advertising, we need to teach them what online scams and spam are, and how to recognize them, as well as how ads usually look like and how they can learn to identify them.

Final Cut

Final Cut

We live in a consumerist environment where advertising is present to the extent of full invading one’s privacy and having a serious impact on our overall health. Adblocking and ad recognition mechanisms are not innate capabilities and we need to help our children develop critical reasoning to minimize the effects of advertising as much as possible.


Luka Radunovic

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