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How to arm your kids against marketing messages

Everywhere we turn, there are ads of some sort, and many target our vulnerable children. But there are ways to protect them.
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Lynn Greiner, August 19, 2013 12:19:50 PM

We’re all bombarded with advertising on every front. Turn on the TV, and there are commercials. Open a newspaper or magazine, or board a transit vehicle, there are print ads. Even online you get advertising varying from the subtle to blatant pop-over ads that cover the content you want to see, and make it as difficult as possible to find the button that makes them go away. It’s all irritating, but it also generates big bucks for the advertisers.

Kids are especially vulnerable to ads. They don’t have the ingrained cynicism (or the experience) to know when their buttons are being pushed. And advertisers know it, and work very hard to create ads that appeal to their wants and needs. They know that children heavily influence their parents’ buying patterns (55% of kids surveyed said that merciless nagging worked). The total advertising budget aimed at children is estimated at over $US15 billion, according to an article from The Center on the New American Dream posted on

That’s not to say we adults are immune. None of us can deny being influenced at some time, in some way, by an ad featuring someone we admire, or showcasing a lifestyle we covet. There’s some serious science behind pushing our buttons to get us to buy, or vote, or whatever, the way the advertiser wants us to. York University even offers a course on Techniques of Persuasion that shows how it’s done – and it’s a great way to immunize yourself against the nonsense. Once you know what they’re up to, you can at least make intelligent decisions rather than just falling for a well-done pitch. For high school students, the International Reading Association provides materials for a class on persuasive techniques in advertising that’s designed to open teens’ eyes, and the younger set is served by a wonderful (but slightly dated) PBSKids site called Don’t Buy It that also offers resources for parents and teachers. It shows, for example, the tricks used to make burgers look delicious in ads.

Canada is behind many other countries in its initiatives to protect kids from junk food ads. Only Quebec has banned print and TV advertising directed at children, and it has been rewarded with the lowest childhood obesity rate in the country, according to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. For a scary look at how targeted kids have become, check out Juliet B. Schor’s 2005 book, Born to Buy: the Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.

Advertisers, of course, don’t just stop at food, as any parent who’s walked through a toy section with their offspring can testify. Even pharmaceutical companies are getting in on the action, putting kiddy slants on the marketing of everything from allergy medication to bandages.

What’s a parent to do? A New York Times article suggests a three-pronged approach: be aware of and work to limit children’s media exposure, provide healthy alternatives to the junk food, and support legislation to curtail advertising directed at kids.

In Born to Buy, Schor points out that the families who are most successful offer alternatives to their kids. Instead of watching TV, they’re involved in nature walks, or book clubs, or sports, or family activities. She also recommends parents encourage schools, PTAs and other groups to sponsor workshops on topics such as television programs, movie ratings, media use, and video games, and for parents to collaborate to screen what their kids see. Schor points out that, “As communities come together to discuss these issues, awareness is created and common approaches can develop. Parents should also be on the lookout for advertisements creeping up in other electronic media like the internet, movies, and video games.”

And, parents should make sure advertisers know they’re displeased with the kid-focused ads. Journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Kent probably says it best in his column in the Guardian. “Target me, not my six-year-old,” he tells them. “I’m the one with the money. If you can’t persuade me your product is worth getting, it probably isn’t, so make something better.”

Image credit: Thinkstock

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