Effects of Advertising on Kids

"There must be a special circle of hell designed for those who came up with the notion of marketing to young kids."–Bill McKibben, author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age"

Advertising directed at children has evolved dramatically in recent years, both qualitiatively and quantitatively, and kids’ mental health, physical health, and relationships with their parents are suffering as a result.  In response to research, some countries have banned television marketing to children altogether.  Yet in most industrialized countries there is little debate on the pluses and minuses of marketing to kids.  Without governments enacting stricter regulation, future social consequences could unfortunately be quite severe.

I am going to try to summarize what some of the experts are writing about.  I first became interested in the topic on hearing the critiques of Sut Jhally, a communications professor at UMass-Amherst.  His work led me to the research of two Harvard professors, Juliet Schor, an economist, and Susan Linn, a child psychologist, both of whom spent time in the advertising industry and recently published ground-breaking books on marketing targeted at kids.  Schor’s research in particular presents convincing evidence that not only are health problems correlated with exposure to advertising, they are CAUSED BY exposure to advertising.

Before we get to the health effects studies, let’s start off with some facts that these experts have been highlighting:

–Global marketing to kids (0-12 years old) has exploded in the last 10-20 years due to their increased power as consumers as well as an increased power to influence their parents.  In the past, marketing to kids was low-budget but U.S. expenditures on ads to kids have risen sharply in recent years, from $2 billion in 1999 to $15 billion in 2005, and have shifted from use of television as the primary format to a "360 degree" format that aims to surround children with messages at school, on the school bus (e.g., "BusRadio"), on the internet, on cellphones and videogames ("advergaming"), doctors offices, zoos, museums, viral marketing (i.e., fake word of mouth) campaigns, grassroots marketing, guerilla marketing, immersive marketing, etc.

–Due to a frontal cortex that has not fully formed, the child is less able to resist advertising using critical thinking skills.  Before 8 years-old, children are unable to understand the persuasive intent of commercials.  Ethically-challenged child psychologists are employed to exploit developmental vulnerabilities. In addition, the industry has lately gone forward with neuromarketing research using fMRI– the latest idea is to directly manipulate specific brain centers.

–Products aimed at kids include not just kids’ stuff like (junk) food and toys, but have grown to include adult and family products such as cars, airlines, vacations, computers, etc. Marketing research shows that kids can have significant influence on their parents’ brand choices. The marketing messages therefore are aimed at getting children to nag and fight with their parents (73% of youth marketers say that most companies put pressure on kids to nag their parents to buy things, according to a 2004 Harris Poll). This fact dilutes the frequently used argument that it’s simply up to parents to protect and talk to their kids, that it’s solely the family’s responsiblity to avoid negative cultural effects.

–In the past, marketing to children was focused on the benefits of the product ("buy this because it tastes good or is fun") but has in recent decades evolved into the marketing of cool, or the promotion of brand consumption as identity development.  The message of brand marketing essentially comes down to "who you are is based on what you have."  So kids are being increasingly bombarded with messages that being rich and having the right stuff means you’re cool.  Otherwise, you’re right to feel like a loser.  According to Schor, today’s average American 9-17 year-olds score the same on anxiety scales as children who were admitted to psychiatric clinics back in 1957.

–Gender stereotyping is rampant in modern advertising to children, including the sexualization of young girls (for more on this see M. Gigi Durham’s 2008 book The Lolita Effect) and dominance-obsessed boys. "Alpha girl" or "mean girl" portrayals, which are sometimes seen as slightly different versions of traditional masculine power structures, are becoming more frequent.

–"Cradle to grave" marketing includes using newborn babies as targets for branding, e.g., Pepsi logos on baby bottles and Teletubbies hospital care packages linked to the PBS show, for which there is no evidence of educational value despite claims to the contrary.

–Childhood obesity, which correlates with amount of electronic media usage as well as diabetes and hypertension, has doubled since 1980, while rates for teenagers has tripled. Some writers have characterized this epidemic as the most significant health threat of our time. Eating disorders are also on the rise, and record numbers of prepubescent girls report being on diets.

So what are the consequences of all this? Does advertising to kids really cause psychological problems?

Schor conducted empirical research looking at the relationship between childrens’ "involvement in consumer culture," i.e., exposure to advertising, getting and spending, and several psychological variables.  After going into detail on how she conducted these studies and reporting the statistical results, she concluded that:

 "High consumer involvement is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints [e.g., headaches, stomachaches]. Psychologically healthy children will be made worse off if they become more enmeshed in the culture of getting and spending. Children with emotional problems will be helped if they disengage from the worlds that corporations are constructing for them. The effects operate in both directions and are symmetric. That is, less involvement in consumer culture leads to healthier kids, and more involvement leads kids’ psychological well-being to deteriorate….The effects are large in magnitude and they are what we call "robust." That means that the results are reproduced in virtually all the different models that we tested."

"By contrast, we did not find a significant effect in the reverse direction…Being depressed or anxious or having low self-esteem does not cause higher levels of consumer involvement." (p167-168)

A second finding by Schor found a causal link between consumer involvement and problems at home with Mom and Dad:

"Higher levels of consumer involvement result in worse relationships with parents (as measured by both the parental attitude scale and the likelihood of fighting or disagreeing with parents). That’s the first causal link. The second is that as children’s relations with their parents deteriorate, there is an additional negative effect on well-being. Relating poorly to parents leads to more depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, and more psychosomatic complaints. Consumer culture packs a double wallop, operating through both a direct and an indirect channel. Surprisingly, there are no effects in the reverse direction. Poor psychological outcomes such as depression and anxiety do not cause relations with parents to deteriorate, nor does a poor relationship with parents lead to higher consumer involvement." (p170)

In addition, the effects of modern marketing may also restrict childrens’ capacity to play creatively. Electronic toys such as Dancing Elmo demand a certain kind of passivity that, if they’re the only kind of toys around, could slow development.  According to Linn, research shows that children play less creatively when playing with toys that are linked to marketing and media such as TV shows and movies.  She argues that modern marketing techniques do not allow children to develop creative, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual capacities and therefore will have fundamental effects on the rest of their lives.  She also provides policy prescriptions for fixing the problem, and recommends specific actions citizens can take on her organization’s website.

Compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. currently places a very low priority on regulation of marketing to kids.  Pressure from family groups led to increased regulation and marketing guidelines in the 1970s but with the advent of the Reagan Revolution and free-market fundamentalism Congress deregulated the industry in 1984 and has sided with corporate interests over childrens’ health ever since. Program-length TV commercials, to the consternation of many, flourish to this day. As for the major 2008 presidential candidates, the McCain and Obama campaigns have both addressed childhood obesity specifically, but both have prioritized industry ties over children’s health. While McCain wants to focus exclusively on families’ responsibilities in going after obesity, Obama plans to get industry involved in making "holistic" reform, although his campaign has so far completely avoided any discussion of possible restrictions on advertising to kids.

Beginning with the globalization of the media market that began in the 1980s, and with it the spread of American-style consumer culture, the issue of the effects of advertising on children has gone global.   According to McChesney (2008), who may be the new king of all media, a global media system dominated by eight or nine conglomerates, with national variants, has essentially replaced many more localized systems belonging to sovereign countries. Responding to this attack, Sweden, Norway, and Greece have already enacted total bans on television advertising to children and several other countries are debating the possibility.

This is one of those issues that crosses traditional political affiliations and it’s not too hard to imagine how popular organizing could take off.  For example in the U.S., the Left and the religious Right have both verbalized disgust with the immoral way government is allowing business to manipulate and prey on children.  Ralph Nader (he uses the term "electronic child molesters") and Phyllis Shaffly find themselves on the same side of the issue.  In the end it comes down to Families vs. Corporate Profit. Seeing as regulation is starting to become trendy again in the wake of the global financial crisis, this seems like a perfect time to get talking and moving. 



Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising, Anchor, 2004.

McChesney, Robert W.. The Political Economy of Media, Monthly Review Press, 2008.

Schor, Juliet B. Born to Buy, Scribner, 2004.

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