Children and Advertising

I wrote a paper on advertising directed towards children for my psych class and I’m kinda proud of it, so I’d figure I’d post it. It’s pretty long, but it was a really interesting project to research, especially as someone preparing to work in advertising. Good to know all sides of the argument.

There is an ongoing debate in the United States over the issue of advertising directed towards children. While other countries such as Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the UK have adopted regulations that prohibit advertising on programs targeting young children, American advertisers are self-regulated and experience little intervention from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (Wilcox, et al. 2004).  Children’s current patterns of consumption and their unique vulnerability to advertising messages have create a need for stronger restrictions on advertising targeting children.

Advertisers have traditionally viewed children as off limits when it comes to targeting ads, but in recent years industry practices have changed in response to new media technology. Advertisements directed specifically at children became common after the widespread adoption of television and grew with the arrival of cable television, which gave programmers the ability to create to entire channels of child-oriented programming and advertising. Over the past few years, the growth of the Internet has expanded opportunities to advertise to children, with advertising content on thousands of child-oriented sites (Wilcox, et al. 2004).

Concern surrounding advertising to children is not a new development. In 1874, proceeding the advent both television and radio, British Parliament passed legislation intended to protect children from merchants attempting to get them to buy products and assume debt (O’Barr 2008). Research on the fairness of targeting young children dates back to the late 1960s, and in the early 1970s the FCC considered banning advertising to young children, but ultimately settled on limiting the amount of advertising time allowed on children’s programming and restricting certain advertising practices (Wilcox, et al. 2004).

Companies currently spend almost $17 billion annually marketing to children. Children now control a significant amount of money, with eight to 12 year olds spending $30 billion each year and influencing another $150 billion of their parents’ spending, driving advertisers to target a younger demographic. Children from eight to 13 years old watch an average of three to four hours of television a day and see an estimated 40,000 commercials annually (O’Barr 2008).

Children often view these advertising without adult supervision as a result of the privatization of children’s media use. The majority of American children have televisions in their bedrooms and many have unsupervised access to computers. Much of the content they view, including advertisements, is without parental monitoring and supervision (Wilcox, et al. 2004).

In the late 1970s, the FCC considered banning all television advertising directed at young children, citing developmental researched, but it was forced to abandon the proposal by Congress under pressure from the television and advertising industries  (Wilcox, et al. 2004). The FCC standard for the 21st century has thus far been that commercial messages accompanying programming directed towards children must not exceed 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. They also accept complaints about violations of their rules and investigate those charges (O’Barr 2008).

Since then, the advertising industry has created self-regulatory guidelines recognizing the evidence of children’s unique vulnerability to commercial persuasion, but the code is vague, voluntary, and unenforced (Wilcox, et al. 2004). The Children’s Advertising Review Board (CARU), established in 1974, provides guidelines and principles for advertising to children. Advertisers who adhere to the CARU’s principles are typically exempt from FCC inquiry and review (O’Barr 2008).

Outside of government and industry oversight, parent groups have also mobilized to shape or restrict media programming for children and advertising directed towards them. Founded in 1968, Action for Children’s Television (ACT) is perhaps the best known of these groups. ACT petitioned the FCC for better children’s programming and was a major force behind the 1990 Children’s Television Act, before disbanding. This interaction of government, industry, and concerned citizens stopped some of the more heinous activities of early children’s television and advertising. (O’Barr 2008)

Today, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), founded in 2000, strives to “limit commercial access to children and end the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing,” (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood n.d.). They assert that advertising directed towards children creates a commercialized culture that exacerbates childhood obesity, eating disorder, youth violence, serialization, family stress, drug use, materialism, and erodes creative play (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood n.d.).

The focus of existing research includes young children’s ability to differentiate advertising from surrounding programs and their early understanding of advertising. However, research with very young children is difficult because of their language capability and different researchers using different methodologies that lead to contradicting results. This leads to is disagreement among academics about what age children can differentiate between program and advertising material, and when they can comprehend the persuasive intention of advertising content (Gunter, Oates and Blades 2005).

Many researchers use Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to analyze children’s ability to comprehend advertising. In these terms, researchers argue that at seven to eight years old children begin understanding that advertisements are designed to influence them. Children’s understanding of advertising goes through stages. First, they do not distinguish advertising from content. Then after they achieve this, they do not understand the function of advertising, and after that, they realize that the purpose of it is to sell or persuade. This understanding is necessary to learn how to make judgments about its validity. (Gunter, Oates and Blades 2005)

However, it’s been suggested that the results that can be drawn from research based on Piaget’s theory are limited, and more modern theories are needed to gain fuller insight (Gunter, Oates and Blades 2005). Also it’s been established that most children younger than seven cannot recognize persuasive intent in commercials, but there is far less research examining at what age children develop the ability to understand that advertisements are inherently biased or when they develop strategies to fight this bias (Wilcox, et al. 2004).

Studies examining children’s ability to discern deception in advertising have shown that only half of kindergarteners believe advertising is never or only sometimes truthful, compared to 97-percent of sixth graders. Overall, research shows that skepticism about advertising develops as children grow older (Wilcox, et al. 2004). Research shows that marketing is heavily associated with childhood obesity, family stress, increased materialistic values, and body shaming (Wilcox, et al. 2004) (Linn 2005). Additionally, children with existing issues are more vulnerable to toxic messages (Linn 2005). In the same vein, studies show that common parent-child conflicts often occur when parents’ deny their children’s requests to purchase a product brought on by advertising. Advertisements also strongly influence the decision to buy and eat junk food, and studies have documented an association between advertisements for non-nutritious food and rates of childhood obesity (Wilcox, et al. 2004).

The question now, understanding the sensitivity children have to advertising and the lack of specific, enforced regulations on advertising targeting children, is not whether something needs to change, but rather where we should start. The onus should be laid most heavily on the government agencies and the industry. Although parents, and appropriately aged children, should be educated, they don’t have the ability to cut specific, harmful media from their lives. Psychologists also have a responsibility to research and inform people of the effects of advertising. Such a pervasive and potentially harmful facet of children’s lives needs to be much more thoroughly examined, as thus far it has been limited severely to television when the Internet is currently and will continue to be hugely impactful in the everyday lives of children.

Based on research done, regulations that could help restrict the unchecked influence of advertising may be restricting advertising that is primarily directed to young children and encouraging more rigorous self-regulation on the part of the advertising industry, with the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) deviation of the Council of better Business Bureaus publicizing its guidelines so people can report deviation (Wilcox, et al. 2004). There is also the option to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) to develop stricter regulations and better systems of enforcement.

The debate surround advertising directed towards children has a long history and a large body of research suggesting that it is unethical under a certain age, but the current state of advertising and industry regulations in the United States do not reflect this. It has been shown that children under the age of seven are not developmentally capable of correctly interpreting commercial messages, and there is research that connects advertising directed towards children with a number of problems that plague modern childhood. Advertising often exploits children’s lack of comprehension and that can results in problems ranging from family conflict to serious health issues. If the regulations remain as such the markets targeting children, the volume of advertisements directed at them, and the issues associated with childhood exposure to advertising will only grow.


Works Cited

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. n.d. (accessed March 30, 2014).

Gunter, Barrie, Caroline Oates, and Mark Blades. “Advertising to Children on TV: Content, Impact, and Regulation.” Mahwah, London: University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, 2005.

Linn, Susan. “The Commercializatoin of Childhood.” In Childhood Lost: How American Culture is Failing Our Kids, edited by Sharna Olfman. Praeger, 2005.

O’Barr, William M. “Children and Advertising.” Advertising & Soceity Review 9, no. 4 (2008).

Wilcox, Brian, Joanne Cantor, Peter Dowrick, Dale Kunkel, Susan Linn, and Edward Palmer. Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. American Psychological Association, 2004.


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