Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing

Article excerpt

Summary

Marketing and advertising support the U.S. economy by promoting the sale of goods and services to consumers, both adults and children. Sandra Calvert addresses product marketing to children and shows that although marketers have targeted children for decades, two recent trends have increased their interest in child consumers. First, both the discretionary income of children and their power to influence parent purchases have increased over time. Second, as the enormous increase in the number of available television channels has led to smaller audiences for each channel, digital interactive technologies have simultaneously opened new routes to narrow cast to children, thereby creating a growing media space just for children and children's products.

Calvert explains that paid advertising to children primarily involves television spots that feature toys and food products, most of which are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Newer marketing approaches have led to online advertising and to so-called stealth marketing techniques, such as embedding products in the program content in films, online, and in video games.

All these marketing strategies, says Calvert, make children younger than eight especially vulnerable because they lack the cognitive skills to understand the persuasive intent of television and online advertisements. The new stealth techniques can also undermine the consumer defenses even of older children and adolescents.

Calvert explains that government regulations implemented by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission provide some protection for children from advertising and marketing practices. Regulators exert more control over content on scarce television airwaves that belong to the public than over content on the more open online spaces. Overall, Calvert concludes, children live and grow up in a highly sophisticated marketing environment that influences their preferences and behaviors.

During the 1920s, U.S. advertising leaders began to see that a consumer society would create larger markets for the surplus fruits of mass production. (1) Aware that people might not buy enough goods fast enough on their own, advertisers adopted a strategy of exploiting consumers' feelings of inadequacy and sought to market products as a means of alleviating consumers' negative self-image. Their strategy succeeded beyond their greatest expectations.

Crucial to their success was the emergence and eventual dominance of television in U.S. homes. (2) As the medium of television developed, advertisers quickly realized that they could use it to bring products to the attention of mass audiences, both young and old, and thus deliver an enormous supply of children and adults to businesses.

Today, marketing and advertising permeate children's daily lives. Many products marketed to children are not healthful and promote obesity. Younger children often do not understand the persuasive intent of advertisements, and even older children probably have difficulty understanding the intent of newer marketing techniques that blur the line between commercial and program content. Relatively little government regulation protects children from this highly commercialized environment.

In this article, I first examine trends that have made children and youth an ever more attractive audience for marketers and advertisers and then look at marketing and advertising practices directed toward youth. I discuss content analyses of foods and beverages, toys, and alcohol and tobacco. I also examine the effects of marketing on children, focusing both on how children of different ages--and, more important, at different stages of cognitive development--perceive commercials in different ways and on how advertising affects children's behaviors and attitudes. I turn then to how families and parents may mediate the impact of advertisements on their children and discuss the commercialization that results as marketers expand their presence in the public schools. …