February 7th, 2008

Time to Stop Undermining Children with Ads

By Dr. Melissa Perrin, Psy.D
Pioneer Press (Chicago Sun-Times Suburban News)

Recently a client expressed concern about her daughter’s weight and clothing choices. Her daughter wanted clothing that was revealing and, in order to wear the revealing clothing, she was refusing to eat healthy portioned meals. Her daughter is 7 years old.

The average American child sees almost 40,000 television commercials a year. Advertising is woven into the atmosphere of our world. We are being courted with branding every minute of every day through billboards, media and print advertising, colorful, recognizable logos, names of arenas, products available for school lunches, movies and television shows.

The American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have come out with strongly worded statements advising against television watching for children of all ages but particularly for infants and children through age 6. Both have expressed great concern over the intensity of advertising and ethics involved in advertising to children because children are the least capable of sorting through and choosing against messages in advertising.

Rampant consumerism can lead to low self esteem based on the items one has access to. A person’s level of inferiority or acceptance can be marked by the amount of new and improved products one has. The impact on the family system can be immense.

All humans look outside themselves to varying degrees for validation, rules and regulations, and self-worth. We form communities, social networks and link to larger groups by being fans of athletic teams or linking ourselves with other constructs. We also compare ourselves to others who appear more socially, emotionally and financially successful. Advertising whispers that an external item or circumstance will make us feel better and be better. Children survive physically, psychologically and spiritually by watching and learning from others. Advertisements of all kinds give children and adults social information that may or may not be correct.

The group most likely to respond to advertising is children. Advertisers rely on branding, the practice of creating brand loyalty to the level of personal identification with the product. Recently, a study asked children to taste fried chicken pieces. Almost all of the children stated that the chicken served with the logo of a well-known fast food chain tasted best. Researchers understood this to mean that the preschoolers already had brand loyalty to that logo.

An interesting exercise is to look at the products one buys. Ask yourself why you purchased that product instead of the competitor’s. What does it promise? Does the packaging look different from the other brands? How does this affect your choice? Now ask yourself what jingles and commercials you remember best. Which products are most appealing to your children? Are they linked to television shows or movies? Is the purpose of the show to sell a product or to entertain?

One of the newer and stealthier forms of advertising includes cross selling in which two companies team up to advertise for each other. Think of kid meal toys from popular fast food chains and the connection the toys have with current movies. For an interesting example of cross selling, search these keywords: “Shrek and nutrition.”

Conversations that unpack the messages from advertisers have to include exploration of the hope and expectation built into the advertisements as well as the needs we are both aware and unaware of. These needs often include social acceptance, admiration from others and having an edge on others as well as personal comfort. As children age, the conversations can begin to include messages about social inclusion, self-esteem and body image. We know that accrual of items rarely brings on-going satisfaction and self-esteem. Children are never too young [or old] to begin to understand that products cannot make them belong or like themselves. It takes years to learn that the unique qualities of the child matter more than what they have.

Here are questions you can ask your children to get them thinking about ads and how they are affected by them.

What is the message of the advertisement? Of the packaging on the box?

What is the promise of the product?

What is the likelihood the item will provide the promise?

How does the advertisement make you feel about your life, your future and yourself?

How often do you place my self-concept in the hands of advertisers?

For older children:

If your child is invested in the item and the message it offers, have them earn the money or a portion of it to buy the item themselves.

Have your child research the company and ask if they want to advertise for the company for free.

Each item that displays a logo is an advertisement. What does it mean to be identified with a product or company?

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