By Raising Children Network
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Up to the age of three, children think that objects on TV are real and exist in the TV set. For example, most three-year-olds believe that a bowl of cereal will spill if the TV is turned upside down.
Children see thousands of advertisements on TV, in other media and as part of their daily environment. You can help your child develop an important skill for life by talking about what ads are and what they’re trying to do.

About advertising

Children encounter advertising in many forms - TV, radio, billboards, magazines and newspapers - and new kinds of advertising are developing all the time. For example, advertising can occur in movies,  on the internet, in emails and in text messages.

It’s important for young children to learn that advertisers are trying to make you buy something. Their advertisements are trying to influence the way you think or change your mind about something. And advertisers aim to present their goods in the best light and might not be accurate. For example, commercials can make things look better than they really are.

When you talk with your children about advertising, you can help them learn the difference between advertising messages, and other media messages that are designed to entertain, inform or educate.

Billions of dollars are spent worldwide to sell products to children. Advertisers are trying to make products attractive to this target audience, and might also benefit from children’s pester power.

How age affects reactions to advertisements

Advertising affects children in different ways. How children react to ads to can depend on several things, including their age, what they know or have experienced, and how much opportunity they’ve had to question and talk about what they see in the media. 

The table below offers some general ideas about how children might react to ads depending on their age.  


Age Children
0-2 years Can’t tell the difference between advertising and actual TV programs
3-6 years
  • Can identify an advertisement and distinguish it from programming, but don’t understand that ads are trying to sell something
  • Tend to think of ads as being entertaining or helpful announcements
  • Won’t generally be critical of the claims advertisers are making
7-11 years
  • Can understand that ads are trying to sell them something
  • Can remember advertising messages, and can recognise some advertising techniques (such as overstating how good a thing is), but can’t always defend themselves by questioning what ads are doing
  • Might not always understand that the product isn’t as good as the ad says it is, or that the advertiser might not be telling them any of the bad points
12-14 years
  • At 12, can usually understand the purpose of advertising, and are able to use ad information to decide what they want. Might not understand how advertising makes things more expensive, or might not recognise tricky product placement strategies
  • By 14, can understand how the marketplace works and can be sceptical about advertisers’ claims

How children are affected by advertising

Research suggests that the more TV a child watches, the more toys that child is likely to want and ask for. Also, children might take more notice of ads when they’re watching TV alone.

Teaching your child to understand and deal with advertising will help in the longer term, but it won’t necessarily stop pestering. No matter how well you teach, your child will still ask for things you don’t want her to have. After all, even grown-ups often want the things they see in ads, even if they don’t need them, can’t really afford them, and know they’re not as good as the ad says.

Reducing the hours that your children spend watching commercial TV will result in fewer requests and less pestering.

Limiting the effects of TV advertising on children

Young children (under five) can believe what advertisements tell them, and can’t tell the difference between advertising messages and the TV show they’re watching.

One way to get around this is to limit the amount of commercial TV your young child watches. If your child has a favourite program on commercial TV, consider recording the program so your child can watch it without the ads. You could buy a DVD of your kids’ favourite show rather than letting them watch it – and ads – on TV. Borrowing DVDs from your local library is also a good option.

For school-age children, the most important thing you can do is talk about ads. For example, encourage your child to think about what ads are trying to say. Focus on the ads that your child sees most often – for example, TV ads or ads in magazines or brochures.

Two questions can help get your child thinking:

  • What is being advertised? Help your child to identify the product information in the ad. For example: what is the product? What is it for? 
  • What strategies are being used to sell the product? Help your child to figure out how the ad makes the product more attractive. This makes the point that you can’t believe everything you see on TV – especially what you see in an ad. It helps your child develop a questioning attitude towards advertisers’ claims. 
The goal is to help children work out the difference between information about the product and advertising strategies used to sell products. 

Common advertising strategies 

Here’s a list you could use to help your child spot some common advertising strategies. You could even turn it into a game with older children. For example, they could get a sticker each time they spot a strategy being used.


Ad strategy Method
The bribe You get a free toy when you buy the product (for example, toys packaged with takeaway meals and small toys in cereal packets). You’re encouraged to collect them all.
Play a game You can play a game and win a prize if you buy the product.
The big claim For example, something tastes excellent, or is the best in the world. These are opinions that can’t be proved.
The big promise The product will bring you fun and excitement and make your life better (for example, you’ll have more friends or be able to run faster).
The super-person A popular or famous person promotes the product, and makes you think you can be just like them if you have the product too.
Cartoon characters Cartoon characters you know and like tell you about a product to make it more attractive.
Special effects Filming tricks (such as close-ups, soft lighting and artificial sets) are used to make the product look larger or better than it really is.
Repetition Showing the same thing over and over makes you remember and recognise the product.
Music Catchy tunes or popular songs make you like the ad – and the product – more.
Humour Laughing makes you like the ad – and the product – more.
Story The ad tells an interesting story so you want to keep watching.
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-06-2016