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As ads seduce kids, studies sound alarm

The typical Saturday morning TV commercial comes on, pushing a toy. Mom is thinking, "What a waste of money. He'd be bored with this in 10 minutes." Her 4-year-old is thinking, "What a cool toy! I want it!"

They might as well be on different planets. In some ways, they are. Adults have the mental capacity to recognize and evaluate persuasive intent in commercials. Children under 8 don't. They accept comercials at face value, believing them to be truthful and unbiased, researchers say.

This innate difference is at the core of two studies issued late last month. One, by the American Psychological Association, goes so far as to recommend prohibiting advertisers from marketing to children 8 or younger, precisely because they lack the ability to apply a filter to marketing aimed at them. A second, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, links an increase in childhood obesity to the amount of junk food advertising aimed at children.

With about $12 billion in advertising a year aimed at youth, parents often struggle to get their children to resist the pull of commercials. "They keep asking and I just keep saying, `No,' " Lexington mother Susanne Beck says of her three children, 4, 7, and 9. "I just see that as part of my job. My 7-year-old is especially vulnerable. Not just to the products but to the values commercials sell about consuming."

Even children understand these are not benign issues.

At the Driscoll School in Brookline, a public school for kindergarten through eighth grade, seventh-grader Jacqueline Pasek-Allen thinks it's a good idea to ban advertising to children under 8. "When you're little, you believe ads," she says. "I used to think ads were just part of life."

Classmate Micah Motenko agrees. "It would be good [to have a ban] because it's really easy to influence little kids," he says. "They don't know ads could be lying. Like when I was small, I thought Kraft macaroni and cheese was the macaroni and cheese."

Jacqueline and Micah have a perspective many students their age lack. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of two teachers, librarian Amy Neale and art teacher Marianne Taylor, the Driscoll School this year offered a 10-week media literacy progam for seventh-graders as part of the English curriculum. It's one of a smattering of schools in the area to do so.

Parents themselves, Neale and Taylor say the idea grew out of frustration at how much children, their own included, are influenced by marketing. "It's hard to think of a place in kids' lives where they are not assaulted by marketing all the time," says Neale. "And most of it," Taylor adds, "is content they are developmentally unable to process." Their goal is to enable students to answer this question: "Does the media give you what you want or tell you what to want?"

Here's a snippet from a recent classroom discussion: "What advertisers do isn't exactly lying, it's more like they stretch the truth," says Lily Fariborz. "Some of what they advertise doesn't exactly happen the way they say it will. Like I got this hair product once. It says it would make my hair stronger but it didn't work. It was really annoying."

"Look at this," says Iris Hicks, holding up a magazine ad for milk that features the shirtless rap star Nelly. "Why does he need to have his shirt off? It's to show his muscles, to make you think if you drink milk, your body will look like his. Advertisers use stars to attract young kids. I know a friend who would buy more milk if she saw this."

"That's the thing," interjects Jasmin Taylor: "It tempts you. Even if you know it's not true, it still tempts you to get the product."

Even a preschooler can understand that commercials try to get you to buy something. What the Driscoll students now understand is how commercials do it. "They have tricks," says Aviva Hamavid. "Like sometimes they use `weasel words.' Those are words that trick you into thinking something is better than it really is, like glamorous or new and improved."

These are concepts children typically can't grasp until at least 8, which is why the APA task force picked that age as a cut-off. "Until they can understand that advertising has a bias, that motives and intentions are sometimes hidden and not always consistent with your interests, they can't defend against it," says psychologist Dale Kunkel, a professor at the University of California/Santa Barbara and author of the APA report. He and other researchers link marketing to:

Obesity. The combination of more than 20,000 ads a year persuading children to eat junk food and children's natural inclination to accept these messages as true has led to an increase in unhealthy eating habits and to childhood obesity, says the Kaiser Foundation report. Children are particularly susceptible when food ad campaigns team up with beloved TV and movie characters, for instance SpongeBob Cheez-Its, Scooby-Doo cereals, or Teletubbies Happy Meals.

Materialism. "The relentless message children get is that the way to be happy, popular, and successful is by buying the right products," says California child psychologist Alan Kanner, a consultant to the APA task force and co-editor of "Psychology & Consumer Culture, The Struggle for The Good Life in a Materialistic World" (APA Press). Aviva Hamavid, one of the Driscoll students, says, "Abercrombie & Fitch don't even bother to show the clothes they're selling. They show people half naked. They want you to think that if you buy the clothes, this is what you'll look like underneath."

Distrust. What begins as disappointment when a toy doesn't perform as advertised builds to frustration as it happens again and again. "Over time, you end up with an 11-year-old who gets angry and [is] less trusting as an individual," says Kanner. At a summit sponsored last month in New York City by Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children, child psychologist Susan Linn also called for federal restrictions on marketing for children. She says the United States lags behind many countries in protecting children, ticking off a list that includes bans of one kind or another in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greece, New Zealand and the Canadian province of Quebec. Linn is associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center and author of the forthcoming book "Consuming Kids, The Hostile Takeover of Childhood" (New Press).

Not everyone in the class at Driscoll thinks banning ads to young children is a good idea. Isaac Maze-Rothstein says, "I think a ban needs to be gradual. We live in a society that's based on consumption. If kids don't see commercials until 9, they'll drown in a tidal wave of it."

Contact Barbara Meltz at

related information
Teach about the fib factor
1. As soon as children start watching TV, hopefully not before age 2, teach them about the fib factor: "Not everything you see on TV is true. Sometimes they fib, to make you get your parents to buy you something, even if it isn't good for you."
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