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Helping kids navigate in a media-driven world

Commercials are nothing new. We all grew up with them. What’s new is that advertisers are targeting more of their messages to children–and that kids as young as toddlers are getting those messages loud and clear., which helps parents manage the media in their kids’ lives, reports that “product placement, online promotions and viral marketing have taken over children’s world.”

“If companies were marketing bananas and broccoli, we wouldn’t be concerned,” said Dr. Margo G. Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Way too much sugar

Kids are bombarded with ads for food products high in fat, sugar, salt and calories. TV shows and movies are filled with “buy me” messages (product placements). Online games, contests and “free” cellphone ring tones are disguised efforts to capture kids’ e-mail addresses when they respond or forward to friends (viral marketing).

Advertisers know that the earlier children learn about a brand, the more likely they’ll be to buy it later (or ask for it). And the marketing world is aware that young kids don’t appreciate the difference between ads and entertainment.

The Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, among other groups, has called for restrictions on ads aimed at kids, as some countries have done. But the U.S. approach has been more self-regulatory, with limited protections.

The impact on behavior

The reality is that our kids are growing up in a media-driven ad culture that “sells” behaviors and values based on products and profits, not what’s best for children. And if you look at some of the problems today, you can see the possible connection: childhood obesity, eating disorders, sexualization, youth violence, underage alcohol and tobacco use, and the erosion of creative play.

To help children resist impulse buying, peer pressure to conform and unthinking brand loyalty, here are some suggestions from Common Sense Media.


Keep young children away from ads as much as possible. Kids from 2 to 7 see, on average, 12 TV food ads a day, 4,400 a year. Opt for commercial-free TV or DVDs of your choosing. Many old family shows are available on DVD, so you can avoid heavily advertised re-runs. Avoid sugar-cereal websites with “free fun” games. They’re just a ploy to buy more cereal.

Teach the difference between a TV show and a commercial. It’s all but impossible to keep TV advertising away from young kids, but you can point out when commercials begin and end and talk about what the ads are selling.

Elementary school children

Help kids identify types of ads. Watch TV or play a video game with your child, and look for logos and products that are used as props or part of a storyline. Talk about product-placement messages and
“guerilla marketing.”

Tell kids never to click on an ad or fill out a form without your permission. Contests and promotions are used to capture e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

Explain that ads make things look clever and beautiful. Remind kids that the true purpose behind celebrity endorsements, promotions, downloads and links from games and phones is to sell products and get information.

Middle and high school kids

Demystify brands. Brands sell images as much as they sell products. Companies create hype to make brands more desirable. Tell kids you understand that, like adults, they want the latest “in” products. Just be aware that, often, these are the most heavily advertised and costly.

Steer clear of merchandise related to alcohol or smoking. Studies have shown that the more kids see those ads, the more likely they are to use the products.

Cellphones are not for contests. Trading personal information for soda or candy is a bad deal. The drink lasts a minute but the company keeps your child’s phone number and personal information.

Talk about peer pressure. Advertisers count on young people’s sensitivity to peer pressure to “be cool. “ They also count on kids’ desire to connect with each other to sell them things.

Ask what an ad might be leaving out of a commercial and why. For example, food commercials are not designed to provide the most accurate nutritional information. Encourage kids to look elsewhere for objective information.

Time to give children an ‘ad-ucation’

Check out, the new website from the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Get your kids to play the game with make-believe products (modeled on the real ones). It will encourage them to ask three important questions about commercials:

Who is responsible for the ad?

What is the ad actually saying?

What does the ad want me to do?

The Bureau’s ”ad-ucation” initiative is working with Scholastic, the educational publishing company, to help distribute ”media literacy” materials to teachers and classrooms.

The main idea is that children of all ages need to understand how ”commercial speech” differs from other forms of communication. The goal is to help kids in an ad-saturated world t think critically, analyze the various methods of persuasion, and figure out the various methods of persuasion, and figure out whether buying a product is really in their best interest.

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