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Consumerist Hypnosis: The Immorality and Adverse Effects of Child Targeted Advertising


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 12:38 am

By Philip Venkov

The presence and ubiquity of advertising have become an inescapable element of modern society and, by virtue of this prominence, a hotly debated topic. While advertising has always been a principal part of any business for hundreds of years, it is only in the latter half of the 20th century that it has progressed to the massive scale that is seen today. Beginning with the invention of the television, advertising has grown from its roots in primarily print-based mediums, expanding in its reach and scope alongside the unstopping progression of technology. Throughout the 21st century, the interconnectedness of the global economy and the prevalence of mass production has elevated marketing and advertising to new levels. Be it on television, on social media, on websites, or on billboards, one inarguable thing is the omnipresence that advertising has achieved within the lives of people around the world. As such, the practices and tactics concerning advertising have long been under scrutiny, specifically the strategic targeting of children by these advertisers. Criticisms have been levied at companies and advertising firms, calling their child-targeted marketing immoral, manipulative, and deceptive. Many proponents for unregulated child-targeted advertising argue that the effect of this advertising is entirely dependent on the extent to which individuals allow it to influence them; while this statement is true, it disregards the impressionable and naïve nature of young children, a nature that is not as often found in adults who are more mature, knowledgeable, and able to resist the powerful persuasion tactics of advertising. Younger children are far more susceptible to suggestion than adults are, which lends a questionable level of morality to advertising seeking to exploit this. Additionally, this method of advertising is deliberate in its attempt to avoid passing beneath the more rational decision making of a fully developed adult. It is instead designed to manipulate children with its messaging, providing a foothold for influence within families. Finally, advertising targeting the aforementioned demographic often has no regard for its effect upon its audience, an element made even worse by the harmful nature of many things being advertised, be it fast food or tobacco products. For these reasons, it can therefore be concluded that child-targeted advertising must be put under regulation and be heavily restricted.

Firstly, one reason as to why advertising targeting children must be further regulated is that it preys upon the lower media literacy and impressionability of its target audience. It is known that children, especially those who are younger, often have more difficulty recognizing and thinking critically about advertisements. In her 2004 business ethics journal article, “Children and the Changing World of Advertising,” author Elizabeth J. Moore discusses the research that has been done upon children’s capabilities in recognizing advertising, writing, “…perceptual differentiation does not necessarily mean that children have a conceptual understanding that advertisement content is independent of the entertainment that surrounds it… Advertising thus has the power to shape children’s thinking until they acquire ‘cognitive and attitudinal defenses’” (Moore 162). Additional confirmation of the difference of a child’s susceptibility to advertising can be found in Catherine Curran and Micheal R Hyman’s journal article, “Children and advertising: The influence of cognitive development models on research questions and results,” in which they write, “Once children reach the age of reason (i.e., have developed adequate cognitive defenses), they can properly interpret ad claims and avoid the harmful effects of ads; before children reach the age of reason, they cannot counterargue ad claims and are thus highly susceptible to the persuasive nature of ads” (Curran and Hyman 2). These pieces of evidence provide a strong line of reasoning for why companies divert so much of their funds towards child-oriented advertising; it can be incredibly effective in exploiting the lack of development in young children. While this may be a valid strategy, taking advantage of children is not necessarily the most morally noble form of accruing profits. Just as many would condemn the exploitation of a child’s naïveté in the case of a sexual predator, there must be an outcry against the systematic and deliberate manipulation of children that corporations and advertising agencies employ. However, the exploitation of children’s cognitive abilities and media literacy is not the end of the immoral consumer manipulation that companies and advertising agencies perpetuate.

Secondly, child-targeted advertising is morally questionable due to its effort to exploit the role of a child within a family in order to bypass the more critical minds of mature adults. As previously established, there is a substantial gap between adults and children in their abilities to recognize and make decisions when concerning advertisements. This becomes especially important when taking into account the position of consumer influence within a family that a child holds. In their marketing research journal article, “The Influencing Role of the Child in Family Decision Making,” Lewis Berey and Richard Pollay discuss this exact concept, writing, “Examination of the flow of influence from the child to the parent shows that the child's assertiveness is clearly related to the amount of input initiated at the child's end of this communication channel” (Berey and Pollay 1). The power that a child can have upon a family’s buying habits is also explored in Scott Ward and Daniel Wackman’s marketing research journal article, in which they conclude, “Clearly, children who ask for products more often receive the more often” (Ward and Wackman 3), as well as stating, “…purchase influence attempts appear to decrease with age” (Ward and Wackman 3). These two papers serve as concrete evidence in displaying the persuasive power of a child over its parents’ buying patterns. The direct correlation between a child’s exposure to advertising and persistence in begging to buy products through a parent is clear, showing the power that child-targeted advertising can have over not just children. The nature of children’s advertising is that it makes an underhanded attempt at bypassing the more scrutinous eyes of adults, exploiting the way young children can hound their parents into buying products. Furthermore, the way in which this advertising takes advantage of a parent’s relationship with a young child — in which the parent is often more willing to bend to the child’s requests and will consider their child’s requests far more than the suggestions found in advertisements — is a sordid strategy with little moral backing. Once again, the conclusion that children are less capable of resisting the subliminal messaging of advertising is critical in considering the immorality of the practice, as companies use this innocence to position themselves as a prime source of consumer influence within family units. Once this position is established, the most directly harmful effects are usually allowed to take root.

Lastly, one final last reason as to why child-targeted advertising must be addressed and regulated is that it exploits the previously discussed social and psychological dynamics in order to market unhealthy products to children. Through the constant promotion of fast food, alcohol, tobacco, and other harmful products, children are not only manipulated into becoming loyal consumers but also into becoming consumers of wares which are resoundingly unhealthy. According to a report conducted by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, in 2012 alone, “a total of $4.6 billion was spent on all advertising by fast-food restaurants…” with McDonald's spending “… 2.7 times as much to advertise its products as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined.” ("Fast Food Facts 2013"). While the sheer immensity of this spending is staggering, it is even more astounding when one considers the purpose and intent behind these boatloads of money. Chiefly, of the gargantuan budget that is allotted for financing advertising — a sizable chunk of which is made up of funds for child-targeted advertising — all of it is dedicated to knowingly marketing products that are directly harmful to the health of their consumers. This is a considerable perpetuator of several public health issues such as the obesity epidemic, as well as youth alcohol and tobacco consumption. According to the journal article “Perspectives on Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity: Introduction to the Special Section,” written by Elizabeth Moore, “Obesity among preschool and school-aged children in the United States has increased almost threefold since the late 1970s, with 14% of children ages 2-5 and 19% of children ages 6-11 now characterized as being overweight” (Moore 1). It is evident that the aforementioned immense sum of money spent on fast food advertising does nothing to help this inflating statistic; it instead has fueled the growth of childhood obesity by normalizing unhealthy meal choices and manipulating young children into becoming indoctrinated within the network of fast food consumerism. Another example of child-targeted advertising being used to intentionally market products that are harmful to minors can be seen in the tobacco industry. This can be seen in Richard Polly’s journal article, “Targeting Tactics in Selling Smoke: Youthful Aspects of 20th Century Cigarette Advertising,” in which he writes “that cigarette advertising has long been suspected of intentionally appealing to the young, for it is among the young that virtually all starting occurs” (Pollay 1) and that Playboy once “sold itself to tobacco firms by noting that its ‘young readers are naturally more receptive to tobacco brand advertising,’ citing Marlboro, Kent and Winston as clients” (Pollay 5). This demonstrates, without question, the manipulative and negligent manner with which tobacco companies market an addictive product with the potential to destroy a person’s health and life to children. Despite the overwhelmingly harmful effects of smoking, the tobacco industry is still unhindered in attempting to hook those who are most susceptible to believing and internalizing advertising unquestioningly, all of which is being allowed, and children are left being exposed to such harmful messaging without any consequence towards the creators of the advertising. Evidently, if the companies who create these unhealthy and poisonous products are unwilling to restrain themselves in the act of convincing the youth to harm themselves through consumption, then there must be some action taken to restrict them.

In conclusion, the deliberate targeting of children by advertisers to market products is immoral due to its exploitation of children’s cognition and naïveté, as well as due to its aim to use children as a means to expand consumerism within families. Child-targeted advertising also directly harms the youth of society by actively and knowingly marketing harmful products with no consideration for the health of those it seeks to brainwash. For these reasons, actions against the shady and corrupt practice of child-targeted advertising must be taken. Firstly, it is essential to imbue children with knowledge and education that is necessary for proper media literacy. This would be an important step in helping children combat the adverse effects of advertising that is leveled at them on their own. Secondly, there must be a more significant public outcry against the immoral and underhanded advertising practices that companies and advertising agencies employ in order to manipulate children into consuming their products. This also plays a large part in the final measure we must take, which is to petition the government to create more encompassing regulations upon advertising that is specifically targeted at children. Just as the FDA sets standards for what is healthy to be consumed, similar measures must be taken for advertising. However, this can only happen with public support. The government will not implement changes on its own unless there is public support for it. For this reason, the voice of the people needs to be heard, and for the shady practice of child advertising to be put on a leash once and for all. The future and health of today and tomorrow's youth rests in our hands, and only through being vocal about our demands will things change.

Works Cited

Berey, Lewis A., and Richard W. Pollay. “The Influencing Role of the Child in Family Decision Making.” Journal of Marketing Research, vol. 5, no. 1, 1968, pp. 70–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3149796.

Curran, Catharine & Hyman, Michael. (2000). Children and advertising: The influence of cognitive development models on research questions and results (Working Paper). Unpublished Working Paper.

“Fast Food Facts 2013.” RWJF, 21 Feb. 2019, https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2013/11/fast-food-facts-2013.html. Accessed 05 Nov. 2019.

Moore, Elizabeth S. “Children and the Changing World of Advertising.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 52, no. 2, 2004, pp. 161–167. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25123243.

Moore, Elizabeth S. “Perspectives on Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity: Introduction to the Special Section.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 157–161. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30000793.

Pollay, Richard W. “Targeting Tactics in Selling Smoke: Youthful Aspects of 20th Century Cigarette Advertising.” Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, vol. 3, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1–22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40469740.

Ward, Scott, and Daniel B. Wackman. “Children's Purchase Influence Attempts and Parental Yielding.” Journal of Marketing Research, vol. 9, no. 3, 1972, pp. 316–319. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3149545.

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