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The number of children aged below twelve years in Canada is high and keeps on rising. Over the past few years, child-targeted advertising has become a lucrative industry that is estimated to generate 250 billion dollars annually (Desmond, 2007). It is estimated that young children spend 700 million dollars each year on items such as clothes, electronics, and snack foods (Desmond, 2007).
The narrator in the film, Consuming Kids, argues that the fact that children spend an “equivalent of the combined economies of the world’s 115 poorest countries” has attracted many marketers to this market (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). Advertisers have no difficulty accessing this market segment as the deregulation of media advertising in the 1980s removed all restrictions.
This paper will argue that child-targeted has social and psychological effects on children and thus, warrants regulation. The first part of this paper elucidates the psychological tactics that marketers use to reach children and the effects of such approaches.
The paper will then discuss why advertising to children is a social problem and what can be done to regulate it. In the final section, a conclusion regarding marketing to children below twelve years will be provided.
What Do We Know?
While child-targeted marketing is not new, it gained a dramatic prominence after the deregulation of media advertising in the 1980s. Media advertising began in the 1950s following the invention of television (Butter, Popovich, Stackhouse & Garner, 1981). Besides the advent of television, a large number of children (baby boomers) motivated the 1950s marketers to create ads targeting younger children.
An example is a commercial by Hasbro about Mr. Potato Head products, an assortment of children’s toys, which was advertised on television (Butter et al., 1981). During this period, an estimated 87 percent of households owned television sets in Canada (Butter et al., 1981, p. 91). Marketers capitalized on the growing number of television sets to reach out to younger consumers.
In the 1970s, children-targeted advertising became an issue of public interest. Following pressure from various public organizations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed policies that prohibited selling to children (Desmond, 2007). However, the rules became obsolete in 1980 following the federal government’s deregulation of media advertising. The deregulation marked a new era in marketing.
The narrator of the film, Consuming Kids, describes the 1980s as a “period that child-targeted marketing came into its own as an industry” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). During this period, advertising was liberalized and many firms started marketing directly to children.
The Social Issues around Child-targeted Advertising
Often, children depend on commercials as not only as forms of entertainment but also as sources of information about what they should buy partly because marketers package commercials in a ‘fun to watch’ way. Researchers have established that commercials about toys and action figures have a captivating effect on children (Oxenford, 2008). Such ads make children to act or behave like certain heroes or action figures.
They also play a role in gender socialization, whereby children behave according to what they see or hear on the media. In this context, adverts act as a form of social control (Tepperman & Curtis, 2011). Marketers relate their products with popular action figures in order to sell them to the child demographic (Butter et al., 1981).
In the film, Consuming Kids, the narrator says, “One of the things that give children some stability and continuity is their attachment to touchstones in their lives” and marketers use “this powerful attachment to make money” (2008). Thus, advertisers use popular action figures and toys to market video games and food products to children.
For example, an ad about the Burger King features popular action figures, which motivates many children to visit Burger King to see their favorite toys (Oxenford, 2008).
It is believed that child-targeted commercials are largely deceptive. According to Butter et al. (1981), children have a limited understanding of the messages contained in ads, which make them vulnerable to unscrupulous marketers out to make huge profits. As the narrator in the film, Consuming Kids, states, following the deregulation, the children’s consumer spending rose steadily to “40 billion dollars–an 852 percent increase” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008).
While in the past, firms were prohibited from placing any ads in children’s shows or programs, the post-deregulation era saw companies turn into product promotion through children’s music and television shows.
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For example, marketers use the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to advertise various products, including toys and books (Oxenford, 2008). As a result, all children are under pressure to own the toys advertised on this show. It can be concluded that marketers use popular shows to introduce and imprint their products in the minds of young children.
Marketers employ child psychologists to help them understand children’s behavior, personality, and perception in order to create appealing ads. By understanding their psychology, marketers have found ingenious ways to reach this demographic without the children knowing it (Oxenford, 2008). Psychologists have found that children’s understanding of the content contained in the commercials depends on age.
Although children below twelve years can differentiate a commercial from a regular program, they often do not understand what they are watching. Like the film, Consuming Kids puts it, marketers reach out to three-year-olds by “playing the ad much more slowly and using round figures instead of angles, because of children like round figures at that age” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). Thus, advertisers use appealing visual images to appeal to younger consumers.
Marketers also use a number of psychological tactics to access the child demographic. Soon after deregulation, commercials focused on the physical features of a product. In contrast, modern commercials depict the products as amazing and “cool” (Desmond, 2007). This approach, which gives a product a social meaning, is known as symbolic advertising (Desmond, 2007). Young consumers desire these products because they consider them “cool”.
For example, marketers use symbolic advertising to market toys such as Furbies and Zhu Zhu pets to children who consider them to be both powerful and fun (Desmond, 2007, p. 96). With the advent of technology and the internet, marketers have turned to online tools in their quest for this market. Internet advertising, which for a long time focused on adult generation, has become an important tool for child-targeted marketing.
Discussion and Conclusion
Nowadays, much of children’s entertainment involves online video games. In this regard, many companies advertise their products through websites that offer online children’s games. For example, the websites of companies such as Chips Ahoy and Disney not only offer online games for children but also advertise movies and snacks that children should buy (Desmond, 2007).
According to Alexander (1999), these websites collect the user’s personal information without their consent through personalized emails (p. 76). This allows companies to micro-target children based on each child’s personal information.
As the narrator in the Consuming Kids film says, “If you set up five different accounts, from five different geographic areas, on different genders, on different ages and different preferences, you will see five different ads” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). Thus, in a bid to track viewers, the companies collect and use children’s personal information to market their products to this demographic.
Marketers have also employed neuroscience to gain insight into the children’s thinking patterns. Companies pay for tests that measure the success of their ads in the target market. For example, in the film Consuming Kinds, the narrator says, “That’s another whole new scary thing to put a child on an MRI, and watch what is being lit up inside his brain” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008).
This underscores the fact that marketers use unethical tactics to access this market. Such approaches lead to negative gender socialization and affect children’s psychological development. Given the negative effects of child-targeted marketing, legislations that regulate advertising are necessary.
Such legislations should seek to limit the number of ads that can be aired per hour on television or radio and children’s shows. Policymakers should also put in place legislations that prohibit companies from collecting and using children’s personal information as this infringes on the children’s privacy.
This paper has discussed child-targeted marketing and its effects on children. Since the 1984 deregulation, companies have employed several marketing strategies to access children under the age of twelve. They place ads on shows, music, and, most recently, online games to capitalize on the children’s limited understanding of the advertising intent.
The current policies have failed to protect children’s information privacy, which exposes them to social evils such as pornography, substance use, and violence. To change this trend, policymakers must enact stringent policies that prohibit companies from advertising to children under the age of twelve.
Alexander, A. (1999). We’ll Be Back In a Moment: A Content Analysis of Advertisements in Children’s Television in the 1950s. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.
Barbaro, A. & Earp, J. (Executive Producers). (2008). Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. NY, USA: Media Education Foundation.
Butter, J., Popovich, M., Stackhouse, H. & Garner K. (1981). Discrimination of Television Programs and Commercials by Preschool Children. Journal of Advertising Research, 21(2), 53-56.
Desmond, R. (2007). The Effects of Advertising on Children and Adolescents: A Meta- Analysis. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Tepperman, L. & Curtis, J. (2011). Social Problems: A Canadian Perspective, 3rd Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Oxenford, D. (2008). Embedded Advertising and Product Placement. Television Broadcast, 31(8), 26-27.