November 1997

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Advertising's Influence on Kids

By  Beth Weiss, Copyright 1997

People talk about how hard it is to raise children "nowadays".  I suspect it’s always been a challenge to be a parent, but children "nowadays" get exposed to a lot of advertising that just wasn’t there years ago.   There are so many different marketing mediums that our children see and hear on a regular basis, and lots of those are things we would just as soon shelter them from for just a little longer.  Perhaps the television is the most common influence we’d like to exert a little more control over, but it’s not the only one.  There are newspapers, books, radio stations, kids at (pre)school, displays in the store—it’s just about impossible to totally isolate a child from whatever the current popular culture icons are.

It worries that my children are exposed to advertising—and the accompanying pressures--before they’re old enough to judge value and recognize hyperbole.  It bothers me that advertising is actually intentionally telling children to be obnoxious to get what they want.  I don’t like seeing high-pressure sales displays at the local discount store.  And don’t get me started on marketing “tie-in toys” for adult movies.

We were watching the Weather channel (not exactly a hotbed of commercialism) when a commercial came on exhorting parents to buy a particular car so their kids would think they were cool.  Whoa—let’s wait just a minute here—does someone really think that parents would choose a car based on whether their (non-income-producing, non-driving) children would think it was cool?  And what message does that send to children?  Do we really need our kids getting the idea that their notion of cool is going to influence major financial decisions in our families?

Okay, so maybe I was over-relaxing my parental standards, having the Weather Channel on while the kids were in the room.  But even public TV isn’t really safe.  “Mom, come quick!” Jordan called.  It turned out that the “lady on TV” told the children to get their parents (it was a pledge drive).  It was awfully difficult convincing my son that we were already members and I didn’t need to call the number on the TV screen.  How is he supposed to know that sometimes grownups will tell children to do something that they don’t really have to do?  He’s used to having to listen to adults when they give him directions, and advertising executives don’t seem to have any scruples about exploiting that.

Totally avoiding exposure to messages I don’t want the kids to get appears to be impossible, since we are going to watch the Weather Channel, we are going to watch The Magic Schoolbus, we are going to eat at Burger King when Daddy is out of town (and sometimes when he isn’t), and we are going to go to Wal-Mart and walk past the latest Disney movie tie-in display.

All right, so I can’t just protect the kids from it; so what other choices do I have?  Just saying no isn’t enough—we have to actively reject some of the concepts that the advertising world is trying to get us to accept.  I have to tell Jordan that “I know the toy is for children, but the movie is just for older children and adults.”   I have to tell him “I know that your friend plays with those kind of toys, but we don’t.”  And sometimes, regardless of what other families might or might not do, sometimes I just have to say “That isn’t nice.”   Substituting our values for those that are plastered across our society isn’t easy—and it’s frustrating!  I think I find it especially frustrating because it isn’t society’s mores our family is rejecting, it’s the cultural norm that advertising presents as belonging to society.

I have a dream that enough people will someday stand up and say “Hold it—that’s enough—STOP IT!” and that advertising will become less manipulative and more informative.  But that’s probably a dream that will never come true.  In the meantime, we can all work on holding ourselves and our children to a higher standard than what is commonly accepted—and standing strong when that standard is challenged, both by our children as they test their limits, and by others who aren’t willing to see what the advertising world is doing.

Best wishes,


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