Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Targeting Childhood: Children as Consumers

Children today are considered big business by many. As access to advertisements and product placement has increased through personal devices such as the iTouch and iPhone, there has been a blurring of the line between entertainment and advertisement. I recently read several studies that report that marketers hired by companies to promote their products spend $17 billion a year marketing to children. In fact, marketers see children themselves as very influential in the purchasing habits of their families from everything from cars to vacations. A study in 2000 reported that American children between the ages of 4-12 years spend over $24 billion annually buying things themselves and are considered “influencers” for up to $190 billion annually for family purchases (Furnham, 2000). Another study reported that children under 12 influence $500 billion in purchases per year (Campbell & Davis & Packard, 2000). So, child consumers are considered big business, and therefore fair targets for advertisers marketing their products.

In the United States, it has been estimated that children aged 6-14 years are exposed to about 25 hours of television every week and approximately 20,000 commercials every year on television alone. Given the proliferation of advertising on the internet through game and play sites such as Disney and Nick Jr., it is likely that this number has increased exponentially.

As a consumer, I think it’s important to know that this type of direct advertising to children is not accepted or allowed the world over.  In Norway, Belgium, Greece, Sweden, and Australia, for example, there are specific limits about times, conditions, and shows during which children’s products can be advertised. Not so the United States. Thus, children in America are considered fair game to large marketing companies who employ techniques ranging from focus groups to neuroscience to determine what types of advertisements will get and keep a child’s attention in order to persuade them that they need to buy a specific product.

A few months ago two of my colleagues and I screened a film called “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood” for a group of college students and people from the community who were interested in learning more about this topic. In several very creepy examples, this film showed how marketers study children’s habits through visiting their homes, watching them play, and even hooking them up to neurological sensors while they watch sample ads to see which ones elicit the greatest response. I don’t know about you, but that freaks me out.

There are two things in particular that disturb me about this. The first is that up until the ages of 8-10, research has shown that kids don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertisement. Thus, they watch these and are heavily influenced by them, but unlike adults and adolescents, they don’t know that the ads themselves are designed to influence them. I may watch late night TV infomercials and decide I think that I really need a certain skin care or hair care line, but I know that those are designed to elicit that response from me, which makes me better able to be a conscious consumer. This is literally an impossible task for a child up until the age of 8-10. And, even children in early adolescence have been shown to be unable to distinguish ads from entertainment on websites.

The second thing that disturbs me is that these ads are often seen outside of settings where a consumer might be on guard for them, like schools or sporting events. Some states have placed limits on how companies can advertise in schools, but others haven’t. How many schools across the country have signs with ads for particular products in the halls or educational aids that feature prominent product placement? How many sporting events and arenas are filled with ads?

It seems unfair to fill a child’s life with signals that have been very carefully designed to elicit the “I need it” response when the child is cognitively unable to respond critically to the message. Sure, many times parents have choices, such as turning off the TV. But, I would argue that there are actually public arenas, such as schools and sporting activities, in which the parent has very little control.

If you’d like to learn more about the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, visit their site. They provide information about how children are targeted by marketers as well as what you as an interested party can do to respond to this if you don’t like it.

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2 comments on “Targeting Childhood: Children as Consumers

  1. Jeramy
    May 31, 2011

    It looks like these companies will have even easier access to the schools now. Texas and a few other states are allowing school districts to sell ad space on school buses. I believe Hutto ISD has already started.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      May 31, 2011

      I know, Jeramy, and it makes me sick. Schools should not be places where kids are marketed products. There is plenty of evidence that this is not healthy for them.

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