Kids and Advertisements: Hawking Without Thinking


Each day, when watching television, we would most often encounter countless advertisements that hawk our products that we do not necessarily need. All of these products that they are literally shoving into our homes can be tolerable for adults because they can already distinguish the products that are good or bad for them. This is besides the point that advertisements are the “lifeline” of the television industry as it provides income for the TV networks. But what if these ads are directly inviting children? In this case, targeting children through advertisements is controversial because we all know that children do not still bear the salient judgment about the possible repercussions of buying these products hawked in front of them.

In this paper, we will tackle the question of whether advertising directed at children is an ethical way of doing business. Nowadays, the amount of advertising targeting children continues to grow and children view an average of 360,000 advertisements on television before graduating from high school (Serrano, 2006). Not until the early 1970s, advertising directed at children has been realized to become a problem in the United States.

Although studies show that children under the age of seven cannot distinguish the difference between an advertisement and fact, there are minimal regulations in advertisements directed at children in the United States. By comparing the US to other countries that have adopted policies limiting ads directed at children, we will become aware of how effective are these government regulations to curb this unethical practice. With the advance of technology and the popularity of Internet sites such as MySpace and YouTube, what are the steps needed to educate advertisers to adapt ethical regulations?

History of Advertising & Advertising to Children

According to Encyclopædia Britannica (2008), advertising began “in the ancient and medieval world” as it was done “by word of mouth”. However, “the first step toward modern advertising came with the development of printing in the 15th and 16th centuries”. It is said that “17th century weekly newspapers in London began to carry advertisements, and by the 18th century such advertising was flourishing”. As business expanded in the United States in the 19th century, advertising agencies sprouted as “brokers for space in newspapers”. In the 1920s, agencies “that could plan and execute complete advertising campaigns, from initial research to copy preparation to placement in various media” began helping companies to sell products.

Despite the fact that ads had positive effects on businesses, commercials aimed at children yield particularly strong controversies. Gross & Fink (2006) mentioned that, on early radio and early TV, the hosts and stars of children’s programs presented many of the ads. For example, in early TV programs of the 1950s and 1960s, Captain Kangaroo, after doing a stint about growing vegetables, would walk over to a set featuring boxes of cereal and tell the children how good the cereal was.

This practice came under fire when research showed that children have difficulty distinguishing between program content and commercial message. Parents, particularly the group of Boston parents who formed Action for Children’s Television (ACT), also complained about the ads. They pointed out that because of the ads, children were constantly asking their parents to buy them things.

As a result of a research and the complaints, the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) in 1974 issued guidelines stating that programs’ hosts and stars should not sell products and that the display of brand names and products should be confined to commercial segments. In other words, a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes should not appear within the program itself. These guidelines also stated that special measures should be taken to provide auditory and/or visual separation between program material and commercials. This led to “islands” at the end of most children’s commercials. These were still pictures with no audio followed by a definite fade to black.

This was to help children understand that the commercial had ended and the program was about to begin again. Starting about 1983, when the FCC was in a deregulatory mood, these guidelines were no longer touted or enforced, but many commercial producers abided by them anyway (Gross & Fink 2006, p. 126).

Fox (2006) informed that “the trend to marketing to kids gained momentum” in the 1980s and 1990s. It was evidently seen after “the establishment of Channel One [a news network geared to teenagers] in 1989, which now beams television commercials to a captive audience of more than 8,000,000 students in 40% of America’s schools”. In Fox’s study in 1996, he “found that students attending Channel One schools reconstruct or ‘replay’ the ads, creating a kind of ‘echo chamber’ for their messages”.

Advertising and Its Impact on Children

Indeed, advertising is a powerful tool to launch products into an enormous market within a few seconds. With all the available vehicles, advertising and marketing messages reach young consumers through a wide array of media: broadcast and cable television, radio, magazines, computers through the Internet, music, cell phones — and in many different venues — homes, schools, child-care settings, grocery stores, shopping malls, theaters, sporting events, and even airports.

It is reported that “virtually all children ages 2 to 18 years now live in households with a television, and more than half of today’s children and youth report that their families have no rules for television viewing”. Also, “children and youth under the age of 18 years comprise 20 percent of those using the Internet” (Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth [CFMDCY] 2005, p. 5). This is alarming because these marketing approaches have started to be linked to the growing obesity problems in children.

Serrano (2006) informed that “studies have shown that, for many reasons, risk of overweight increases as time watching television increases”. Fact shows that “food is the most often advertised item on children’s television” and “most of these ads are for products high in fat, sugar, or salt”. Also, fast food establishments also rely heavily on marketing their products to children.

In the report by Graham & Kingsley (2006), they also agreed that childhood obesity is related to food advertising target children. Policymakers in Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and agencies such as the Institute of Medicine (IOM) have clamored to have necessary changes in the advertising unhealthy foods. In the report entitled Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that tweens ages 8-12 see the most food ads on TV, an average of 21 ads a day, or more than 7,600 a year.

Teenagers see slightly fewer ads, at 17 a day, for a total of more than 6,000 a year. Of all food ads in the study that target children or teens, 34% are for candy and snacks, 28% are for cereal, and 10% are for fast foods. Four percent are for dairy products and 1% for fruit juices. Alarmingly, of all the 8,854 ads reviewed in their study, there were none for fruits or vegetables targeting children or teens.

Why So Much Emphasis on Advertising to Children?

It is no doubt that children are classified to be an extremely responsive market because “children view approximately 40,000 advertisements each year”. The products marketed to children — sugar-coated cereals, fast food restaurants, candy, and toys — have remained relatively constant over time. Also, marketers are now directing these same kinds of products to children online (Calvert 2008, p. 207). Although the kinds of products marketed to children have remained much the same, the buying power of children and adolescents has increased exponentially over time. Thus, youths now have influence over billions of dollars in spending each year.

For example, in 2002, US four- to twelve-year-olds spent $30 billion. In 2003, American twelve- to seventeen-year-olds spent $112.5 billion and 33 million US teens aged twelve to nineteen each spent about $103 a week. According to one research, parents supply 87 percent of young children’s income. That share drops to 37 percent for teens, who have more of their own discretionary income (Calvert 2008, p. 209).

It was also revealed that youths also “shape the buying patterns of their families”. From vacation choices to car purchases to meal selections, they exert a tremendous power over the family pocketbook. Calvert (2008) said that experts estimate “that two- to fourteen-year-olds have sway over $500 billion a year in household purchasing”. Thus, to influence youth is to influence the entire family’s buying decisions (Calvert 2008, p. 208).

Advertising Regulations in the US & Other Countries

In the United States, Mullins et al. (2008) informed that the FTC has a less aggressive stance on ads that target children. Both the federal government and a variety of industry groups have tried to regulate and control deception in advertising in the United States. For a given ad to be ruled illegal, it must have the potential to deceive a significant number of consumers as to the facts relating to a purchasing decision. However, deception is difficult to detect in many cases because of the subtle ways in which it can work.

Enforcement is hindered by the fact that advertisers can legally employ “puffery”, which uses subjective claims (the “best” or “greatest”) to promote the product. Many believe that since the role of advertising is to provide information relevant to the purchasing decision. Thus, “puffery” needs to be prohibited in the US. Deception can also occur via the use of mockups, which involve the alteration of a product or situation to get a realistic photograph of it (using mashed potatoes to represent ice cream, which melts under the photographer’s lights).

While the FTC has ruled that mockups are legal as long as they do not misrepresent the product’s characteristics, some critics of advertising argue that many are misleading. Endorsements and testimonials for products and services have increased in recent years. But do the individuals involved really use the products, or are they “hired guns”? Even though the FTC has rules governing their use, many such ads have the potential to deceive.

Although most European countries have tighter regulations in ads that target children, only Sweden and Norway, and the Canadian province Quebec have banned commercial advertising directed to children (Obesity Policy Coalition, 2007). In fact, “restrictions apply to commercial advertising of all products and services to children, not just food advertising”. This is because many studies already have proved that advertising of toys creates unreasonable expectations, that children are encouraged to eat harmful foods (sugared cereals), and that the long-term effects of TV may negatively affect children’s values, beliefs, and behavior (especially with respect to violence).

How Likely Change Is in the Future & Conclusion

With the recent clamor of concerned groups and the advent of academic research that proves the harm of ads directed at children, it is expected that people will become aware of the ill effects of exposing children to these ads. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted strong policies opposing advertising to children since 1994. The Academy estimated that, each year, youngsters are exposed to 2,000 television ads for beer and wine.

The organization believed that this may explain the increase in kids’ liquor consumption. Moreover, the Academy contends that the increase in children’s obesity correlates with youngsters watching more TV commercials that tout foods high in salt, sugar, and fat (Fox, 2006). With the repercussions, businesses themselves should adopt ethical policies before releasing their advertisements.

Thus, we have shown that children have both their own disposable income and influence over what their parents buy, and marketers attempt to determine how those dollars are spent. Television now reaps most of the advertising dollars, but newer technologies are providing new ways for marketers to reach children. However, children’s immature cognitive development limits the ability of children younger than eight to understand the persuasive intent of commercials.

Thus, public policy should have stricter regulations on how advertisers can interact with children via television and all other media. If we do not take this step now, our children’s future is at risk and we may all regret this in the future.


Advertising. (2008). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Web.

Calvert, S.L. (2008). Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing. The Future of Children, 18(1): 205-235.

Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth (CFMDCY). (2006). Food Marketing to Children and Youth : Threat or Opportunity?. Washington, DC, USA: National Academies Press.

Fox, R.F. (2006). Advertising Is Harmful to Children. In Egendorf, L.K. (Ed.), Opposing Viewpoints: Advertising. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Graham, Rob and Kingsley, Sarah Williams. New Study Finds That Food is the Top Product Seen Advertised by Children – Among All Children, Tweens See the Most Food Ads at More than 20 a Day. Web.

Gross, L.S. & Fink, E.J. (2006). Telecommunications: Radio, Television, and Movies in the Digital Age, 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mullins, J.W., Walker, O.C. Jr. & Boyd, H.W. Jr. (2008). Marketing Management: A Strategic Decision-Making Approach (6th Edition), New York: McGraw-Hill.

Obesity Policy Coalition. (2007). Effects of Advertising Restrictions in Other Jurisdictions. Web.

Serrano, E. (2004). Kids, Food, and Electronic Media. Web.

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