If marketing to children concerns you, not only are you right to be concerned, but you’re hardly alone: The United Kingdom passed its first law restricting the way businesses can market to children in 1874. That said, the advent of televised and digital media has massively expanded the influence of mass marketing, advertising, and private (corporate or otherwise) interests in the lives of children.

Perceiving Marketing

Research from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows us that children under the age of five do not, by and large, strongly distinguish (if they distinguish at all) between the content of a given piece of media and the advertising embedded within it, even if a clear demarcation – e.g., “we’ll be back after these messages from our sponsors” – is employed. Moreover, children under the age of eight or so do not, by and large, understand that commercial messages are intended to be persuasive.

In a situation in which cognitive perception is (expectedly) absent, the only option to avoid the effects of marketing is to attempt to limit it wherever possible, until such time as the child brain has developed to the point that children can perceive – and consequentially, process and mediate – marketing messages.

This is one of the reasons that apps employed at Discovery are vetted for advertising, and when apps change to include advertising, they are recommended for immediate expungement from the APS-sanctioned App Catalog. If we cannot rightly ensure that children will not be negatively impacted by something, we must do our best to shield them from it, consistent with the best research available and without infringing upon other positive benefits that may be gained from alternatives or with some modification. Parents can engage in the same practices, by setting a high bar for the prevention of exposure to marketing content for children under eight, and having meaningful conversations with children ages eight and up about what marketing is, why it exists, and how to handle situations that involve marketing messages.

Effects of Marketing

To put it bluntly, marketing to children has been shown to work. Children do receive the intended messages – “buy this” or “you need this” – and often translate that message into request or demand. Product preference can develop with as little as a single exposure to a marketing message, and studies show that the preferences, requests, and demands of children do impact the purchasing habits of their parents.

The APA has found that a common source of parent-child conflicts arise from parents denying requests and demands made by children, whose requests and demands originated from marketing. In short, advertising can precipitate more common arguments with your child.

One of the most prevalent behavioral changes in children that stems from marketing is the increased consumption of non-nutritious foods, meaning we must take particular care when it comes to how we influence what children eat, and how they perceive food and healthy eating habits.

It is likely no surprise in 2017 that studies have found a huge statistical significance between exposing children to advertising involving alcohol and tobacco with later favorable attitudes toward these two behaviors.

Marketers attempt to create a condition called “pester power,” the influence that children have on their parents through their requests and demands. There are two primary types of “pester power,” specifically “persistence pestering” and “importance pestering.”

“Persistence pestering” is the less impactful type of nagging behavior, in which children repeat their requests or demands consistently until the parent relents. “Importance pestering” is the more impactful type of nagging behavior, in which children articulate that having a particular thing is important, and preys upon senses of guilt or inadequacy a parent may have, as they desire to provide “what is best” for their children. This latter item is stereotypically analogized to “if you loved me, you would buy me this” tropes. Be it the ever-insistent Veruca Salt dynamic of the former or the sad-puppy-eyes approach of the latter, “pester power” has been shown to be effective in influencing parent behavior. Being aware of this may equip parents to more effectively mediate the source of the messages, when these requests or demands arise.

Internet-Specific Marketing

Many of the methods used by advertisers in the television sphere are used in internet-based media, but Princeton University identified four areas that are specific to the internet sphere, and so parents may need to be more aware of these than they are, given their newness and specific realm of influence.

Advergames are online games that have either subtle or overt commercial influence intent. For example, a game created by a soda company that involves shooting bubbles from a bottle of a particular brand of soda may appear at first blush to be a simple variation of a common game, but the marketing messaging is pervasive throughout the content. The same recreational activity can likely be found in an alternative that does not feature such marketing, making it a better choice for children.

Viral Marketing is buzz spread by online media, much as old-school “word of mouth” marketing worked prior to the advent of viral-capable platforms like social media. Mediating the phenomena of “everyone is doing it” and “everyone says so” is hardly a new challenge for parents, but being aware of the extent to which this can occur online is important.

Tracking is the habit of utilizing various methods – from cookies to explicit and even illegal spyware – to observe the habits and behaviors of people online, and tailoring advertisements to users of a particular account or computer. Many of us have seen this: Even if just out of curiosity, we look something up online or search for a product, and nearly-instantaneously, we are shown image after image, and advertisement after advertisement, for that thing or something like it. Again, because children under the age of eight or so lack the cognitive development to understand this exists or what it means, we must take great care in this milieu.

Online Interactive Agents are “chat bots,” interactive programs that look and behave like people, who aren’t real. Many of us have been to a site or service provider, looking to pay a bill or investigate a product, only to see a box pop up in the corner, saying “Hello! Welcome to our site! Can I help you with anything?” In nearly every instance, this is an automated process with pre-recorded responses and basic cause-effect response methods, and not a real person. This sophistication may be beyond some of our children, developmentally, so we must again take care to ensure children are not exposed to complex and potentially-harmful experiences for which they are not prepared

Poulton, T. (2008). “Kidfulence’” on family spending strong: YTV Report. Media in Canada.

Wilcox, B., et al. (2004). Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. American Psychological Association.