Teach Your Children About Advertising
by Chad Rueffert

It is an absolute must for every parent whose children watch television (which is all of them) to have a serious and ongoing strategy to counteract the influence and impact advertising has on children.

It may seem strange for a man who makes his living marketing products and services to preach about the negative influences of advertising.  But I'm also a father and I'm dismayed by the rapt attention my kids pay to commercial advertisements and the unquestioned trust they have in the promises conveyed.

The average American child is exposed to more than 40,000 television commercials each year.  None of those ads is for broccoli; few of them encourage your kids to buy and read books; most of them are pushing products kids may want, but surely don't need; and many of them misrepresent the product to make it appear more desirable. 

It is understandable that products and services will be designed for children, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  It's estimated that elementary school children have $11 billion in annual spending power, and influence another $160 billion in family purchases.  Ignoring that market segment would be complete idiocy.  The problem is not that we sell to kids; it's what we sell and how we sell it.

In the "Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics" author Victor Strasburger says:  " First, young children are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against television advertising.  Numerous studies have documented that young children under the age of 6 to 8 years are developmentally unable to understand the intent of advertisements and, in fact, frequently accept advertising claims as being largely true.  Preteens, from ages 8 to 10 years, possess the cognitive ability to process advertisements but do not necessarily do so unless prompted."

Over the years, there have been many efforts to limit the amount of advertising children are exposed to, and what products can be advertised.  But as the journal says:

"On Saturday morning television, 61% of commercials are for food, and more than 90% of those are for sugared cereals, candy bars, fast foods, chips, or other nutritionally unsound foods.   Unfortunately, increased self-regulation by the business community is not the answer, as evidenced by the targeting of younger children and the invasion of the classroom environment.  The Children's Advertising Review Unit, set up by the industry, has no legal authority over advertisers and can only seek voluntary compliance.  Nor can the networks be counted on to make the situation better. Despite the passage of the Children's Television Act in 1990 that limited the amount of commercial advertising time on network television, ABC and NBC now beam more than 15 minutes of advertisements per prime-time network hour."

So, back to the initial point:  every parent needs to have an ongoing strategy to counteract the effects of television advertising on their children.  And while I'm not a pediatric psychologist, I do have several common sense suggestions.

Limit Television Time

This is relatively obvious.  But here’s a startling statistic to consider:  surveys have shown that a quarter of all preschoolers, half of older children and two thirds of all teenagers have a television set in their own bedrooms.

Use the Mute Button

Children often pay more attention to the commercials than they do the entertainment programming.  The actors and spokespeople in commercials these days have more star power than the people on the shows.  Brittany Spears is more intriguing and popular than Vanna White.  If you’re watching television with your kids, make sure the sound goes off when the commercials come on.

Expose the Inaccuracies, Exaggerations and Outright Lies

Just for fun, sit down one night with your kids and watch the commercials with a critical eye.  Ask them if they really believe that drinking beer means you'll be surrounded by bikini-clad models.  Explain to them that something advertised at $19.99 actually costs $27.95 with the outrageous shipping and handling.  Point out that it's impossible to lose ten pounds in two days just by taking a pill.  Tell them that Enrique Iglesias doesn't do ads for Doritos because he likes them, but because they PAY him to.  Get out a box of sugary cereal, show them the nutrition label, and explain that its only "part of a healthy breakfast" if everything else you eat for breakfast is actually healthy. 

Vote With Your Remote Control and Your Checkbook

Corporations, the advertising industry and the media make decisions based on what you, the consumer, react to.  If you refuse to purchase products that exaggerate or lie in their advertising, the companies and agencies will eventually get the message.  If you refuse to purchase a product that's harmful to your child, despite repeated pleas and commercial messages, eventually the company may stop making it.  If you turn the television to PBS or rent more videos or buy TIVO to avoid the constant chatter of commercial television, networks may reduce the amount of commercials they play to entice you back. 

Advertising is a necessity for a thriving and innovative marketplace of products and services.   Nearly every magazine, newspaper, radio and television station earns the majority of its money through its advertising.  Without the advertising, we'd have very few vehicles of information or entertainment distribution.  We'd probably be a less exciting and less educated populace.   But as with most aspects of life, with a little effort we can mitigate the negative aspects while still taking advantage of the positive ones.  Put in the effort for your kids.