Commercialism: Keeping Kids Safe and Savvy

Battling the Brands

By Jill Oestreicher Gross


What Parents Can Do:

  8 Ways to Help Your Child Be Commercial-Free


“I’m going to make the bathtub shine with Clorox,” my almost 5-year-old daughter said during a recent nighttime bath, as she scrubbed it clean with her purple soap and washcloth.

I did a double take. “Where did you hear about Clorox?” I asked her.

“From a commercial,” she said proudly – and much to my dismay.

I’ll admit it: I let my children watch television. But in the course of writing this article, I’ve learned how to tackle some of the issues that commercials, television shows and other media create for children – and their parents – particularly during school and holiday shopping seasons.

Kids are highly impressionable, lucrative consumers, influencing close to $500 billion in purchases every year, according to James McNeal, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University.

Kid Consumers“Cradle to grave” marketing – capturing a consumer from infancy through adulthood – reaches children of all ages through the images, characters and products they see on TV, in books, on toys, on the Internet, at the movies, on their cell phones, in stores and among friends. In her book Born to Buy, consumer researcher Juliet Schor reports that the average kindergartener can identify 300 logos and the average 10-year-old knows almost 400 brands.

“Commercialism has never permeated society like this before,” says psychologist Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. Linn is also co-founder and director of the center’s Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which works to limit the impact of commercial culture on children. “It’s unfair that children are bombarded with this kind of marketing,” says Linn, the author of Consuming Kids and The The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercial World. “It’s challenging to be a parent and this is one more challenge.”

How We Got Here

The Federal Trade Commission deregulated children’s television in 1984, opening the door for corporations and their marketing departments to promote children’s toys and other accessories, along with the characters they see on television. Within a year, nine of the top 10 best-selling toys had a TV show connected to them, according to Linn.

Advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year on messages aimed at the youth market, a study by the American Psychological Association found, and the average child watches about 40,000 commercials per year. Interestingly, that study also found that children under age 8 aren’t able to differentiate commercials from TV programming.

Some companies even target children in school, according to Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist and a co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Kanner has written about corporations such as K-Mart, Pizza Hut, Jell-O, Target and others that are offering teachers free curricula for their classrooms that include brand logos, promotions and what amounts to the school’s implicit endorsement of the product.

What Parents Are Doing

Younger children often desire toys and products imprinted with the characters they see on TV, while older children typically look to their peers on and off the screen to find the latest “must-have” product.

Meagan Sousa, a mother of two boys, ages 1 and 3, says her first experience with pervasive marketing in stores was buying “Thomas the Train” toothpaste for her young son.

“It was the first thing that we as moms got sucked into,” Sousa says, recounting how all of the mothers of boys in her circle decided that buying the Thomas toothpaste would make brushing easier. “My son didn’t even like it.”

Sousa, who taught media literacy programs to adolescent girls before becoming a mother, says she believes television breeds short attention spans and obesity. She’s determined to “combat what’s being forced on kids” by only allowing her older child to watch a limited amount of TV and always with her supervision.

“I’ve never allowed myself to use the TV as a babysitter,” she adds.

So how does Sousa get dinner on the table in her household? Her children stand on chairs on either side of her while she cooks.

“I’ll take a burned finger over a child with no attention span, and no one’s burned a finger yet,” she says.

Kathy Little, a mother and former marketer for a major consumer health company, says that, over the years, she has put down a foundation for her children, ages 8 and 11, reflecting the values of their family.

She doesn’t completely ban television in her household; she limits programs to what she considers more “wholesome” and stays away from “junk media,” shows with violent or sexual content and no educational value.

“You have to do more work as a parent up front,” Little says, adding that she spends a lot of time communicating with her kids about media images, commercials and product placement.

Girl with RemoteAs her children get older, Little says, they’re getting more exposure to mass-marketed products. But in confronting the issue directly, she has given them the ability to think more critically about media and the role it plays in their lives.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded families is another way to combat commercialism, but Little says it isn’t always possible.

Kelly McNamee, mother of Lucas, 12, and Allyson, 14, says her household does not subscribe to cable television – to cut down on the amount of time the family spends in front of the TV. But even without cable, she says, commercialism “infiltrates anyway,” through print ads, computer pop-up ads, product placement in movies and on DVDs, and via peer pressure.

McNamee copes by enforcing a clothing budget and limiting screen time. If one of her children wants to buy something on the expensive side, they need to earn part or all of the money themselves, she says.

Saying No

Saying no to a demanding child can be difficult, and experts agree that marketers want children to nag their parents until they break down and say yes. Little says she always explains to her children before they go inside a store exactly what they will and will not be allowed to buy.

“Your children will still love you,” even if you say no, advises Linn. “Parents are so worried about disappointing their children. It really is important for children to learn about how to cope and not get their way. It’s a part of healthy development.”

That said, it’s important to say yes to certain things that your child has asked for, as long as the requests are in line with your values, Linn says.

Making decisions as a family about commercialism and communicating with your children about what is important to your family values is the first step in raising a media-literate child. In this technologically advanced era where children are often directly marketed to, parents need to continue to steer their children toward well-thought-out and meaningful choices.

While I’ve realized that I can’t completely shield my children from commercials – and commercialism – I do have a deeper understanding of the impact mass-marketed products attempt to have on my family. And I’ll be sure to explain to my daughter that Clorox isn’t the only product out there to make the tub shine.


More: Eight Ways to Help Your Child Be Commercial-Free


Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, by Juliet B. Schor, Scribner, 2004. Solutions to commercialism for parents, teachers and advertisers.

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, by Susan Linn, Anchor, 2005. A look at how modern childhood is affected by commercialism.

The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, by Susan Linn, New Press, 2009. Spontaneous, imaginative play is in jeopardy. Here’s how to keep a child’s innate ability to play from being affected by commercial messages.


Jill Oestreicher Gross is a freelance writer and mother of two.