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.