advertising to kids and kids

So. This is always an interesting topic. Should advertising be directed to kids? Specifically advertising that desires you to buy something.

Ok. First.

When I talk about advertising to kids I am talking about say kids up to 10 to 12. That appears to be the age everyone agrees on as being when a kid shifts mentally (or by psychological standards) into a decision making state where they can judge truth versus non truth or mature thinking capabilities to assess and evaluate messaging.

Second. While I have been in the business over 20 years I have never worked on a kid’s targeted product campaign. Not by choice … simply I have never had the opportunity. Kid’s health education? Yes. Teens/tweens? Yes. Products for kids under 12? Nope.

Third. So. That said. If you are in marketing or advertising and you want to see what kind of game you have, go to a high school and bring up the topic of advertising to kids in a high school class.

Its game on.

In fact. I would rather take a meeting with AG Laffley and Jim Stengel (respectively, the past CEO and CMO of Proctor&Gamble) then 30 to 60 teens discussing this topic.

Now. To begin this discussion.

Let me begin with the silliest thing I have ever heard:

“When I was growing up, my mother told us if the product were that good, they wouldn’t have to advertise it. People would just buy it.”

Well. Sorry folks. We <people … consumers> don’t work that way. Some incredibly great products have disappeared off shelves simply because not enough people bought them.

If a tree (product) falls in the woods (supermarket) and no one hears it (potential buyers) it definitely does not make a sound (no sales).


What I have heard from tween/teens that is not silly is the robust level of skepticism and cynicism with regard to advertising. Oh. And very well articulated skepticism and cynicism.

Here is the overriding belief system in a high school class when you begin the discussion:

“They are in a way trying to trick you into thinking the product was better than it really was.”

In fact, their logic leads them to believe that was the same as lying.


“When I think how the marketers, advertisers & credit companies manipulate us in order to get our money, I get angry.”

One really smart kid sat up and started talking about “consumerism” as a disease created by advertising (I tried to bribe him with a Snickers bar to shut him up). <note: by the way … he is wrong … but a great thinking thought from a kid>

I pointed out to him that it is not consumerism.

It is called capitalism and if that is a disease then it is a disease that our country is actually built on. From day one anyone and everyone has had the freedom to innovate, create and sell to make a profit. That is the American economy. Like it or not. That is who we are and that is what makes America America.

Anyway. There you go.

Game on.

Where do I begin?


People are going to make choices regardless. And kids are part of people <just to be clear>. And parents typically hold the purse strings to those little people.

So. This discussion isn’t about products (because there are a shitload of products I would never allow get made let alone get near a kid). This is about marketing. Or educating people to make choices <on what to do with their money>.

And communicating that Cool is, well, cool. And maybe it would be cool if you owned this widget or that toy widget.


The product experience is king.

<focus group quote> “After begging for Spaghettios based on the claim that they are “mmm…mmm…good!” our then 6 year old son was furious to discover that “they lied! They are mmm…mmm…bad!” We asked him if he would have asked for them if the commercial said they were “mmm…mmm…bad” and you could just see the wheels turning in his head.”

Ok. The point here?

Bad products don’t last in the game.  Is spaghettios still out there? You betcha. Because there are enough people who buy it that they (and their kids) say its mmmmmmmmmm good (not mmmmmmmmmmmmm bad).

Advertising may be able to fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. Oh. And never fool them in the end.

If it’s not good it’s not good.

If it breaks it breaks.

If it’s not as cool as it looked on TV it’s not as cool

And all those experiences educate kids about choices.

Do I think advertising should be responsible for teaching kids this?

Nope. But it is a reflection of real life.

Learning what to believe, what to question and repercussions to decisions.

And marketing cannot teach kids the difference between “need and want.” (that is really a parent’s job).

Heck. All kids “want.” All advertising does is say “I know you want something (which is already in their energetic little minds) and I want you to want me more than something else you want.”

Some experts claim the result of advertising is “not only an epidemic of materialistic values among children, but also something they call narcissistic wounding of children.” (and, teens being teens, they don’t use all these fancy schmancy words but they will suggest the same thing as you stand in front of the classroom).


Another expert.

“Thanks to advertising children have become convinced that they’re inferior if they don’t have an endless array of new products.”


Pleeeeeease. C’mon.

Sure. Advertisers/marketers use knowledge (like psychologists) to understand how to communicate to kids. Some people are “outraged that psychologists and others are revealing such tidbits as why 3- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that transform themselves into something else and why 8- to 12-year-olds love to collect things.”

So what? A manufacturer has a right to sell their products (once again  … I want to delineate between the products and the marketing of those products … assume the product manufacturers have the best interest of the child in mind) and in a legally approved manufacturing process in a capitalistic society the manufacturer has the right to be as efficient as they possibly can in gaining knowledge that eliminates wasted efforts which ultimately lowers the costs of their products (which, oh by the way, benefits the final consumer).

By the way. Let me note that not a single study addressing ads’ impact on children has been conducted. So every single “expert opinion” is just that … an opinion. (The UK Government has picked up these concerns as part of the Children’s Plan and has commissioned an analysis of evidence on the effects of commercialization on children in order to understand more fully the benefits and downsides of children’s exposure to commercials).

Oh. And while ‘experts’ claim advertising does all this nasty stuff to kids … does that absolve parents from teaching right versus wrong? or need versus want? Or … even the materialistic aspect of life … I tend to believe how the adults in their lives impact their attitudes & behaviors <particularly at that age> more than any television ad ever will.

Anyway. All these marketing efforts seem to work. According to marketing expert James U. McNeal, PhD, author of “The Kids Market: Myths and Realities” (Paramount Market Publishing, 1999), children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year. Teens spend $100 billion.

<side note: I am scratching my head over this … does anybody else wonder where the heck children under the age of 12 get or earn $28 billion dollars?>

Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents.

Marketing is always present in our lives and only become even more so with the explosion of the internet. For example the average child in the UK sees between 20,000 and 40,000 TV ads a year. And while TV advertising is heavily regulated, particularly with regard to foods high in sugar, salt and fat, far less regulation is applied to the internet and regulation that does exist is less stringently enforced than on broadcast media.

Hey. It’s not all bad. Even parents are vocal about the positive impact of pro-social messages, for example those encouraging recycling or driving at slower speeds.

Despite how parents may feel about this topic (apparently about 84% in UK are concerned about advertising targeted to their kids) neither parents nor children can escape the commercial world.

And I am not a parent but I have certainly seen the despair as the weekly trip to the supermarket descends into tears and tantrums leaving them feeling like villains or weak as they ‘give in.’

Pester power is only too real for parents and they wish it would just go away so they could focus on other things. (But. It would be foolish for us in this world of 24/7 web access and knowledge to suggest advertising is the issue. It can increase awareness of something. It can make you aware of something new – a fad, a product or maybe even a real educational aspect. But it cannot make someone buy … or pester for that matter)

Anyway. That is certainly a real, if not anecdotal, parental life experience.


At its worst advertising manipulates children.

And at its best it educates children.

And at all times it is informing choices which are ultimately made not in the advertising, or by the advertising, but by a person.

Now. I firmly believe advertisers have ethical responsibilities especially when it comes to children.

But I believe the larger ethical issue is in telling the truth … not shades of the truth but the truth.

But it’s tricky (I put this entire discussion as a discussion of one huge long slippery slope when talking with high schoolers).

The discussion is a tangled discussion of economics and marketing techniques used by companies to encourage people to part with their money. Teens certainly recognize if the tactics companies used to market a product to people were more obvious then its possible kids would become more resistant to the lure of the product/claim as presented in commercials and slowly learn to be more discerning about their validity. (and one of my solutions – thought 2 at the end – takes this one on)

I do know that I personally (having been in the business) do NOT like the idea that people look at marketing and think “sometimes people say things that aren’t true” and that it was okay for people to question what they saw and heard in marketing. No. I don’t like that.

I do know companies need money to stay in existence and they have to sell things to do that and convincing people to buy their products is simple economics of survival. I just don’t like the “they aren’t saying true things.” (and I take this one on in solution thought 3 at the end)

I do suggest to teens that given America’s belief in capitalism we shouldn’t be discussing advertising but rather maybe it is more about raising smarter consumers.

Think about kids busily soaking paper towels and loading them with various toys testing the claim that the towels were so strong they could carry heavy loads even when wet.

Then find the claim was true and insisting on using nothing but this particular brand of towel in the future.

This is marketing at its best. Truth in communications. Product delivering on promise. Happy buyer. Happy user.

Eventually, the lessons of trusting your own judgment, testing the claims of others, and discovering true value will have value in kids’ everyday lives beyond judging the advertising evil empire.

Dan Jaffe, the executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, says that the industry self-regulates children’s advertising, because they recognize kids are more vulnerable.  But he says that in our culture, kids need to learn how to handle advertising:

“What they’re trying to suggest there is that somehow that we can cocoon kids. Then the question is how long?  Are we talking up ‘til 12, are we talking up ‘til 18 as some people have proposed?  We don’t think that advertising harms kids as long as there is parental intervention.”

It’s a slippery slope when I say this but I have no issues with advertising on products that could be considered either good for children or neutral. I say is a slippery slope because where does the line get drawn? Sweden, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Denmark and a couple other countries I believe have bans on advertising to children under 12. In Sweden they believe because of the way a child’s brain works, it is “not fair play.” I don’t know that I agree 100% with that. But, regardless, we aren’t Sweden, Ireland, Greece or whomever. We are the good ole USofA. If we want to change our culture then I will be first in line to make some suggestions (and maybe advertising is one part but I could think of at least 5 other things that would change our materialistic attitude in the USA before I would touch advertising).

And. Is a branded website with educational content the same as a TV spot with cartoons and adorable animals? Is a clown handing out balloons a form of guerrilla marketing? It’s all advertising. And putting a ban on such a massive nebulous thing isn’t the answer.

And, if you conclude your discussion in a high school class on this topic, even teens see the dilemma. That it is not a black & white issue.


I hate writing about things and not offering solutions.

Thought 1. Don’t ban advertising to kids under 12. Silly reason but it just ain’t the American way. If the American way (culture/economy underpinnings) change than I would consider a ban.

Thought 2. While ultimately I believe it’s up to parents to guide their children and balance exposure of marketing messages I would hold manufacturers (and their messaging partners) to a higher standard. A much higher standard.

And I am going balance this thought by being sure I offer an economic outlet to manufacturers while putting a more expensive challenge to them in the messaging guidelines.

Part a: because I m going to suggest more stringent messaging demands make all advertising targeted to kids under 12 :60 commercial minimum … and offer them special media rates (a discount) for the longer advertisement ad space.

Part b: the more stringent messaging demand. If you are going to market to kids the messaging has to be comparative. No ifs, ands or buts. Make the choice as clear as possible. Or maybe make the benefit as clear as possible.

Legos? Its fun but we know by learning to put our silly little blocks together increases critical thinking skills. (plus. they are WAY cooler then when we were growing up)

Some toy “x”? Well. We have no redeeming value but if you play with us in front of other kids they may think you are cooler.

Barbie? We don’t have proof but what we believe is that making children aware of the positives of plastic surgery enhancement at an early age will help hem understand self esteem (and self confidence) thru their body image.

Shit. I don’t care.

The point is telling the truth in a way so that a kid hears the choice and the parent has an opportunity to say “well, we don’t want it because of x.”

And while I believe cereals in general do a really good job of communicating real benefits even they could take a step further  … “hey, yeah, here is sugar on our cereal, but its actually about portion control, or less waste. With light sugar kids are more likely to eat smaller portions, all of it and absorb all the nutrients needed. The box lasts longer and kids get what they need.”

Do you like it? Heck. I don’t know. But it’s the truth. And if you want a non-sugar cereal that the kid doesn’t always eat. Well. That is you choice to make.

Sure. This could get quickly into the absurd zone. Someone smarter than I could insure it doesn’t.

Thought 3: I end each discussion (if it is not discussed within the class itself) with my biggest issue and thought.

My issue is with the advertising & marketing people themselves. The industry.

I have seen the enemy and it is us.

Despite the fact you could probably corner every marketing person in the world and they would state unequivocally “we always tell the client the right thing to do” .. well … we need to step up to the plate and be honest on this issue.

What Alex Bogusky of Crispin stands up and says is the right thing to do is different than Joe Blow from Idaho.

<I bring up Alex because while I have the utmost respect for him I didn’t agree with a recent blog and solution – of a ban on kid’s advertising– he outlines … agreed with intent didn’t agree with solution>

This is where I have to take it on the chin when talking with a high school class.

I cannot defend what some people in our industry have created. And I don’t try. I admit some marketing is irresponsible.

I don’t know how to do it but certain people in the communications industry and in the business world need to step up to the plate and start behaving like human beings with some ethics (or values … or whatever you want to call them). We need to go to a higher level of responsibility when we are talking about anything to do with kids. A MUCH higher level.

And sometimes I am not sure it is just the people who haven’t had significant training (you know … the local people who say “well, I can do it as well a the big boys can so I will develop the messaging at half the cost and it will be even better because I won’t over think it.”). While I certainly have concerns with that tier of marketing professionals I also think the big boys & girls need to step up to the plate.


Our industry has manipulated the truth for decades (omission of information to me is manipulation). And there is a significant tier of “irresponsible out of ignorance” marketer suppliers.

Somehow we need to be sure that people developing the messaging know what they are doing. All levels of expertise.

So. In the end, I believe making ads for children with integrity is the solution, not banning advertising/marketing to kids.

Anyway. Enough about that.

Regardless of your opinion on this, if you want to see what kind of game you have?

Go to a high school and stand up in front of a bunch of teens and talk about it. Game on. I dare you.

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Written by Bruce