Kids Can’t Filter Out Advertising

kids don't understand advertisements

Image: Dad Zen CC by 2.0

My son was invited to take part in a market research session when he was eight years old.  The whole idea seemed bizarre to me. We were raising him in a frugal household out of necessity, but also because materialism isn’t great for people (or the planet).

Naturally, my hand-me-down-wearing kid was eager to participate. The program checked out as reputable, the entire process would take less than a half hour, and a parent was welcome to stay. I let him sign up, not only in response to his enthusiasm but also because I thought it might be an interesting experience for him. And yes, I had the smug idea that he might actually  show marketers they can’t sway every child’s opinion.

When we learned he’d be giving his impression of a Huffy bike commercial I knew he’d already established some strong opinions. His older brother, at 14, worked a few hours a week for a local bike shop assembling bicycles for a big box store. Most were inexpensive bikes with low-quality parts, some bent or broken before they’d ever been used. Quite a few were Huffy bikes. Many nights his observations steered our dinner table conversation toward the tactics companies use to maximize profit and how advertisements can dupe prospective buyers.

As we drove to the market research session I explained to my eight-year-old how they might try to influence him. “There’s no way they can convince me Huffys are anything but junk,” he said fervently. “No way.”

We were shown into room with a one-way mirror and a large video screen. I was relegated to a folding chair in the back while my son sat in a comfy seat at a table with a woman who asked him warm-up questions clearly designed to establish rapport. When she asked about bikes and bike riding he explained he’d learned to ride on a older model Murray bike, then graduated to his uncle’s childhood Schwinn bike (yes, the kind with a  banana seat and high handlebars).  He told the interviewer his (brother-influenced) opinions on how offshore manufacturing affected quality and his (parent-influenced) opinions  about the importance of buying products designed to last for decades. He reiterated in several ways that he would never consider asking for a Huffy bike.

Then she played a 90 second advertisement. It showed a boy hurtling over hills at high speeds and skidding sideways in a triumphant finish.

In those few seconds he changed his mind.

He wanted nothing more than a Huffy bike, he told the interviewer. He couldn’t explain why. He had no language for the powerful effect of the stirring music, symbolic language, and rapidly flitting images. He just wanted one.

Every year, a 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective.

Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”

These advertising strategies are embedded in websites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging and implicit in many toys. They’re built into “advergames” targeted at young children  in free apps and downloads. They’re nearly ubiquitous in schools.

Let’s take a quick glimpse at one aspect of advertising, fast food, to see how well advertising works.

*Twenty percent of commercials on kids’ programs are food-related, and of those, 70 percent advertise sugary food, chips, crackers, and sugar-added beverages, and fast food restaurants.

*Preschoolers surprised researchers when they were able to recognize up to 92% of corporate logos.

*There’s a strong link between fast food branding recognition and obesity in preschoolers.

*One study discovered that familiar food logos stimulate the parts of children’s brains associated with motivation. The researchers noted, “Considering the pervasiveness of advertising, research should further investigate how children respond at the neural level to marketing.”

*A more extensive three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Young people have minimal defenses against advertisers’ tactics. Children under the age of eight may easily recognize advertising, but not understand that they’re being persuaded to buy a product. That means they take in the information as uncritically as they might from a parent or teacher. Older children often fail to see product placement as advertising and typically don’t recognize marketing tactics at work.

network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.

My son’s desire for the specific model bike he saw didn’t wane for weeks. He  may have been more easily influenced by that 90 second advertisement because he’d been exposed to very little commercial television. Still, the experience rattled me. I’d believed that a close family and strong values were sufficient insulation from a culture of rabid consumerism.  I was wrong. There’s much more we need to do to protect our kids.

BTW, he never did get a Huffy bike. Although kids weigh in on over one-third of purchase decisions, in the final analysis, parents are the ones who make the spending choices.



 Materialistic attitudes are related to unhappiness, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, even health problems.

10 Ways to Reclaim Childhood from Corporate Marketers 

Raising Media Aware and Current Events Savvy Kids

Protest corporate marketing in schools.

Avoid screen time for young children.

How the boy without toys is being raised with no commercial playthings at all.

20 thoughts on “Kids Can’t Filter Out Advertising

  1. I’ve seen this effect in my own son. A peer will make an offhand comment about something my son had never heard of before, and suddenly he will obsess about it for weeks. I don’t know if it’s because my son’s social interactions occur in more concentrated bursts than other children, but it’s scary when the influence is so blaringly obvious. What subtle, gradual influences might I be missing?

    Strangely, my daughter isn’t visibly affected the same way, at least not to nearly the same degree.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a retired real-estate sales woman and am horrified that all the young female buyers today, require, as a necessity, granite counters and stainless steel appliances. In a few years this design will be called “out dated”. But seeing movies and magazines, women are told exactly what they “need”. It’s truly ridiculous. When did a new bathroom equal family happiness?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why is the fact that modern homebuyers have modern preferences “horrifying”? I just don’t see how the preference for granite counters and stainless steel appliances is any different from homebuyers from past generations having preferences for new appliances, certain décor, etc. Stainless steel appliances are today’s pink or avocado tile. That doesn’t strike me as either horrifying or as a particularly new phenomenon.


    • I thought about writing this without brand names, it’s pretty irrelevant to the story. It has much more to do with the powerful influence of branding in general. But the piece was just awkward without mentioning the name. And besides, I remember how my little boy used to pronounce the word “huffy” — exhaling sharply as in in an actual huff. Amused me every time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How hard in this consuming world, where everywhere there is some kind of enticement flashing into faces of the innocent. I feel the only way to escape is to go off the grid, yes back to nature with other like minded for support, family, community. everything is in nature play in and with natures Gifts to embrace and be in tune with what god gave is enough to have and use.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m extremely fortunate. One of the last children of a big family, my parents were older than those of my peers. They decided they would not have TV or give their children dozens of toys. We were given handmade toys by my grandfather, who was a skilled craftsman – a wonderful puppet theatre stands out, and we could have as many books as we wanted. We played with sticks, stones, pencil, paper, string, cotton reels, old boxes and glue. By the time TV arrived in our household, I was 14, and found advertising noisy and ludicrous. I still do. I feel grateful for what seemed a bit heavy handed at the time, because I can still quite happily do without a TV and have the mental capacity to entertain myself without needed external stimulus. I worry for the current generation, who are parked in front of the idiot box instead of a book…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Young children are unable to filter this. I’m sure, as children get older, we can teach them about commercial intent. But it’s nearly impossible, at any age, to navigate completely away from the flood of corporate messages embedded in media as well as in the world around us. I personally find it essential to avoid the peace-subtracting effect of magazines, television, and websites with advertising.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Laura, Your posts always make me stop and think!
    The evidence presented in your essay reinforces my advice for both parents and empty-nesters: The TV has an OFF switch. Turn it on to the programs that you believe to be the best parts from the products of distilling – you being the distiller! Leave the swill. Explore the parks and libraries. c

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The adults should always be a role model for their children. In our materialistic world of consumerism, we can use clever (manipulating) product promotion as an opportunity to discuss the advertisers intentions. By taking a conversational tone to promote critical thinking, we can help our children to be comtemplative of anything they see, hear or read, and not just believe it carte-blanche.

    As a poetic example, children are taught in school that haiku should be written in three lines with the syllables of each in a 5-7-5 sequence. I believed this until I took a workshop from a haiku specialist. He gave me the truth. It’s never to late to learn, once again, to question what seems to be accepted as a fact.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely John. When we see commercial messages (explicit or implicit) it’s a great time to talk about them with our kids. If we hide from them completely we’re not giving our kids the tools they need to assess these messages. I guess that’s what disturbed me about my son’s experience, because we were already talking about these things. In fact he, at the age of eight, liked to parody advertisements. I remember driving past a billboard on our way to a museum and he pointed it out, laughing that the right brand of beer will get you all the cute girls. So I thought he was informed and savvy, but a well-targeted ad can get to us below conscious awareness. That beer ad just wasn’t targeted to his particular interests and needs at the time….

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you for this article! It is so excellently written and SO important!! Even as adults, we need to be aware of what we are listening to and its influence, even, and often especially, the background chatter we think we are ignoring. How much more do children need to be protected!!! I really respect your profoundly wise decision to delete the media from your home!


  8. Really interesting article. I saw the documentary movie, but there is nothing better than a straightforward parent experience. Despite all the struggle that we as parents put into raising our kids to be able to resist temptation to become consumers, we often fail… And it’s because the industry uses all the dirty tricks. I like the last part of a story – it’s the parents who buy. And parents have to be conscious and well prepared when talking with their children about all the stuff they want. In our case, we have strong rules about when we buy stuff for them, and when can they use it. There is no smartphone/tablet at our kitchen table (I even assembled my own kitchen safe for that). There is no going to the mall on the weekend. But there is lots of hiking, riding a bike, and spending time together.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, this post elevates my blood pressure this morning! Luring children into a life of fast food/junk food is just evil.

    Our kids are grown and gone now, but the post reminds me of a couple of incidents from their childhood. Our son wasn’t allowed to watch TV, except for PBS under our supervision. When he was 3 and we asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he answered “A Fisher Price 3 in 1 Tournament Table.” We knew then he’d been watching TV without permission.

    Later, when he was old enough, we got him a bicycle. I don’t recall what brand it was, but it was a perfectly sensible bicycle. One of the other kids in the neighborhood teased him about it, because it wasn’t as expensive as his (the other kid had some high-priced prestige-brand bike). They were too young to know or care anything about that. The other kids’ awareness of the cost of his bike had to have come from his parents, who were evidently teaching him materialism at a very young age.

    Liked by 1 person

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