How Your Kids Are Bombarded With Advertising and What YOU Can Do About It

It All ‘Ads’ Up

By Caroline Knorr

Watching TVGive kids the choice between plain snack packages and ones decorated with cartoon characters. Guess which ones they choose? If you’ve ever taken a trip down the cereal aisle with a 4-year-old, you know the answer. But did you know that kids think decorated snacks would taste better? And that they’d prefer to eat them?

This real-life study conducted by Yale University researchers at the Rudd Center for Food and Policy has a lot to say about the impact of advertising on your kids. Take those same snack packages – the ones with the characters – and add them to a game on a website, feature them prominently in a movie, use them to sponsor a contest, advertise them on an iPhone app, have a celebrity Tweet about them. Feeling overwhelmed?

Ads From Every Angle

While many parents have figured out ways to avoid the “gimmes” at the grocery store, it’s way more challenging to combat the many angles from which ads come at your kids in today’s 24/7 media world. Product placement, online promotions, viral videos, cell-phone updates – even Twitter and Facebook are reaching kids directly. And with the new location- based apps for cell phones, marketers can determine exactly where your kid hangs out and shops to target ads.

Most of the top food brands targeting children through TV ads also market to them through branded websites, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And they don’t stop there. These sites use “advergames” (brand-focused games) and viral marketing (encouraging kids to send emails to friends) to build brand loyalty and expand their reach.

What’s at Stake

Beyond the money involved – one study showed that 8- to 12-year-olds spend $30 billion of their own money each year and influence another $150 billion of their parents’ spending – your kids’ health and outlook on life can be affected by the quantity of ads they’re exposed to. Study after study reveals that advertising can affect kids in three key areas: weight, consumerism, and age-appropriate behavior.

How? About 90% of the televised food ads in the U.S. are for junk food, according to a 2009 study by the Cancer Council NSW in Australia, and one out of three children in this country are at risk for becoming obese. As kids age, they are subjected to promotional campaigns with offers for everything from free music downloads and ring tones to games sponsored by the food and beverage industry. And advertisers sneak junk food – called “product placement” – into hundreds of TV shows, movies, and online games.

There is a direct connection between ads and eating habits. American kids consume more than one-third of their daily calories from soft drinks, sweets, salty snacks, and fast food. As kids associate pleasure with junk food, they develop lifelong, unhealthy habits that are difficult to break.

Commercials also fuel the desire for more and more material things, which can cause anxiety, depression, and anger. It can make kids judge their self-worth by what they own. Plus, ads that target appearance can cause feelings of insecurity and body image issues. That’s why groups like the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have called for heavy restrictions on advertising to children.

Age-inappropriate targeting – arguably begun in 1992 when McDonald’s got scolded for pushing toys to kids for Batman Returns (rated PG-13 for violence) – has become a common and prevalent practice. From placing trailers for PG-13 films in front of G-rated movies to the ever-present billboards for M-rated video games, kids are exposed to ads for media that they are simply not ready for. This makes the aging-up process begin earlier and move a lot faster. It’s hard for a parent to keep up with that kind of influence.

Kids are impressionable, and their ability to understand ads depends on their age to some extent. Advertisers know that the earlier a child learns about a brand, the more likely he will be to buy it later (or beg the parents to buy it). Kids under 7 can’t tell the difference between ads and entertainment. As kids get older, they look for clues on how to act from people besides their parents, like friends, celebrities, and yes, their favorite characters.

What You Can Do

You can’t shield your kid from every advertisement, but you can fight back. Train yourself to watch out for all the sneaky ways advertisers are using new technology to advertise to kids, and talk to your kids about them. Ad-proofing your kids means that they’ll have more freedom of choice about which messages they choose to listen to – and which they don’t.


• Limit exposure. Watch commercial-free TV or use a DVR to skip through ads. Mute commercials.

• Highlight the differences between a TV program and a commercial. Point out commercials and use a timer to show kids when the commercial begins and ends. Ask questions to help them recognize that the purpose of the commercial is to sell them a product, for example, what is the commercial selling?


• Help kids identify all of the different types of advertising.

Watch TV or play a video game with your child and find the products and logos used in them. Talk about how the messages try to get them to buy a product.

• Tell your kids never to click on an ad or fill out a form without your permission. Contests and promotions are usually just methods to get email addresses and phone numbers.

• Start a conversation. Ask kids if they know who created the ad and what words, images, or sounds were used to attract their attention. How did they feel after seeing the ad?

• Explain “tricks” that advertisers use in commercials, like using Vaseline to make hamburgers look juicy. Also chat with kids about the true purpose behind promotions, downloads, and links. Kids need to know that no matter how clever the gimmick or game, they’re all ads.

• Teach your children about the popular techniques ad-makers use, such as testimonials from celebrities – or everyday people. This will help your kids know how they’re being influenced.

• Arm kids with information. Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website  where kids can do activities that teach them how to be smart consumers.


• Demystify brands. Brands sell images to kids as much as they sell products. Companies are smart about creating hype around brands. Help your kids to know that they are much more than what they own.

• Talk to kids about alcohol advertising and keep them away from alcohol-branded merchandise. Studies show how effective alcohol messages are for kids. In fact, the more kids see ads, the more likely they are to drink.

• Mobile phones are for communicating, not for contests.
Kids trade information for freebies – soda, candy, etc. Not a good trade because the drink lasts a moment and the cell number is with advertisers forever.

• Talk about peer pressure. Many ads will count on the fact that kids are especially sensitive to peer pressure to be cool. Remind your kids that advertisers are counting on this vulnerability to sell things.

• Ask “what might the advertiser be leaving out of the commercial and why?” Most food ads are not designed to tell us the nutritional values. Encourage your kids to look elsewhere for the missing information.

Related Reading:
Commercialism: Keeping Kids Safe and Savvy

Caroline Knorr is parenting editor at Common Sense Media dedicated to providing trustworthy information and the independent voice that families need to thrive in a world of media and technology. For thousands of reviews, expert advice and to sign up for the weeekly newsletter, visit

First published in L.A. Parent, a Dominion Parenting Media Publication, August 2010.