Advertising and Children

A bubbly young researcher armed with a video camera sits on the bedroom floor with a 5-year-old girl.  She is watching her play and asking her questions. The mother is off in the kitchen. The researcher follows the little girl into the bathroom, where an row of empty shampoo and bubble bath bottles is lined up beside the tub. The researcher has an “aha” moment. The little girl has turned the containers into toys.  The researcher is working for a health and beauty company.  She submits her report and the company re-designs the packaging to make the bottles look more like toys.

All around the country, scenes like this are being repeated daily. Advertisers and the companies they represent are doing record levels of research to help market their products to children. They are relying on brain science and extensive footage of children in stores, at playgrounds and in their homes.

Researchers that I interviewed recounted filming sessions of children playing with toys or grooming.  A ritual as private as bath time has become familiar territory.  Marketers observe children taking baths and showers to come up with new strategies on how to market their products.  They investigate children’s closets and even go to sleepovers to gain valuable information on how to get into the mind of your child. All of this is for their financial gain.

American parents have not been well warned about junk food.  It dominates advertising aimed towards children.  Poor eating habits have led to a staggering 15% of the nation’s children into obesity.  Health risks include an entire third of a children today will eventually develop diabetes.  Its not just the junk food that endangers their health, its the “junk culture” that surrounds them.

That junk culture is not only making children materialistic, it is making them sick.  They are depressed, have anxiety and suffer from headaches and digestive issues too.

Children are living in an environment where they are bombarded with advertising aimed just at them.  Devious advertising is influencing children (and parents) in more ways than their parents might imagine.

The average American child is exposed to 40,000 advertising messages each year, according to recent estimates.  Corporations are currently spending $15 billion annually on advertising and marketing to kids up to age 12. With all this money at hand, companies are ratcheting up their kid-oriented ads.  Huge budgets promote entertainment, fashion and apparel, electronics and furniture, and health and beauty aids. After more than a decade of relentless advertising and marketing to children, the results are striking.

By the time many children reach early elementary school, they have already been incorporated into the universe of junk entertainment.  They are listening to music and watching movies and television that offer unprecedented levels of violence along with the presentation of young people as sexual objects.  MTV isn’t just for teenagers, its a kid phenomenon too. By the time these kids enter the 8 to 12 “tween” stage, they’ve adopted the junk values of materialism and the desire to be rich.

When I interviewed a branding expert named Martin Lindstrom, he cited a recent survey by the Millward Brown Global Market Research Agency.  He reveals that nowhere else in the world are 8-12 year-olds more materialistic than North America.  They are more likely to believe that their clothes and brands describe and define who they are and their social status.

This is not only severely distasteful, but unhealthy.  I surveyed 300 children ages 10-13 in urban and suburban Boston in 2002 and 2003.  I asked questions such as how much they cared about having lots of stuff, how important designer labels and a nice family car were to them.  The children were asked how much they focused on acquiring new things, and how much they wanted to be rich or wanted their parents to be richer.

Some parents of suburban children were more restrictive about consumer culture.  This unfortunately this seemed to cause the children to buy into that culture even more.  The children had a negative view of their parents and were more likely to fight and disagree with them.

While the figures tell me that children’s well-being was affected by consumer involvement, it doesn’t explain how.  One possibility is that people who are envious of others and worried about possessions and money are more likely to be depressed and anxious.  Being grateful for what you do have, rather than getting more, seems to be the key to contentment.  While children are focusing on consumer culture, they spend less time reading and playing, which would be more healthy.  Difficult as it is to explain, the connection is clear:  The more enmeshed children are in the culture of getting and spending, the more they suffer for it.

As I interviewed children and parents, I found the conversations were supporting what the figures were telling me.  Parents who were involved in conflicts with their children about possessions, junk food and too much screen time were also reporting behavioral problems in their children.  The children were having difficulties in school and generally unhappy.  How have things got so out of hand?

For the last decade junk culture has been relentlessly pushed by a small number of mega-corporations.  Viacom, Disney, McDonald’s, Burger King, Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sony Pictures and others.  Through their advertising agencies, these companies have developed sophisticated and effective methods of reaching children that go far beyond the television ads of the past.

This kind of intensive research has gone into companies discovering they could turn shampoo bottles into licensed character toys, plastic first-aid bandages into “tattoos”, and ketchup into a gross green goop that kids will demand.

Marketers have perfected stealth marketing efforts, such as peer-to-peer campaigns that enlist children to market to their friends and schoolmates, a process that has been gaining popularity.  The language used by these marketers is a telling clue as to their mentality.  Its a war out there.  Children are often referred to as “targets” by marketing companies.  These companies talk about converting a child into a “user”, a phrase from the drug culture.

There is little doubt as to the winners of this war.  Marketers have transformed childhood from an idyllic state to a hazardous life stage.  It is high time that parents took notice and countered the growing culture of junk.  Many legislators and politicians are supported financially by these companies.  It is time for parents to take action.

Many other studies, like mine, document the harmful effects of the individual components of the junk culture.  Food, violent video games, oversexualized body images, youth consumption of drugs, tobacco and alcohol suggest that adults are failing to protect children in basic ways.

The new anti-parenting parent trend where we would rather be our children’s friend than parent, is clearly not working.

Many adults respond to the junk culture with a fatalistic attitude, shrugging it off as inescapable or not essentially different from what they experienced as children. But others are breaking through that denial to push legislative agendas that pursue new protections from advertising.

The industry is fighting back by dominating government panels and providing increased financial contributions to politicians and advocacy groups.  There is mounting evidence of harm being done to our children by junk culture.  It is high time parents, educators and children’s advocates stood up and reclaimed the culture of childhood.

Author’s e-mail:

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of a new book, “Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture” (Scribner). She is on the advisory board of Commercial Alert.

To help correct this situation:

1) Go to and send an email to your Members of Congress in support of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which is a package of nine legislative measures to restore to parents some control over the commercial influences on their children.

2) Talk about this email to parents, grandparents and those who care about children. Ask them to read the article, and to encourage their Members of Congress to support the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

About Commercial Alert

Commercial Alert is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy. For more information, or to become a member, go to

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