Children see lots of advertising every day. The ability to spot advertising and understand what advertisements are trying to do is an important life skill, which you can help your child develop.
About advertising and children
Children experience advertising in many forms – on TV, YouTube, apps, radio, billboards, magazines, newspapers, movies, the internet, advergames, text messages, social media and more.
And advertising works on children. For example, the more TV a child watches, the more toys that child is likely to want and ask for.
This is why it’s important for children to learn that advertisements are trying to make you buy something. Ads are trying to influence the way you think or change your mind about something. And advertisers always aim to make their products look good, perhaps even better than they really are.
Advertising affects children in different ways. How children react to advertising 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.
Young children and advertising
At 0-2 years, children can’t tell the difference between advertising and actual programs.
And at 3-6 years, children:
- can identify advertisements and distinguish them from programs, but they don’t understand that ads are trying to sell something
- tend to think of advertisements as being entertaining or helpful announcements
- won’t generally be critical of the claims advertisers are making.
You can limit the effects of advertising on your young child by limiting the amount of commercial TV or YouTube she watches.
If your child has a favourite program on commercial TV, consider recording it and watching it later, so your child can watch it without the advertisements. Another option is to buy, borrow or rent a DVD or download of the show. You could also consider paying a bit more for ad-free versions of apps.
Primary school-age children and advertising
At 7-11 years, children:
- can understand that advertisements are trying to sell them something
- can remember advertising messages
- can recognise some advertising techniques like advertisements overstating how good products are
- can’t always defend themselves by questioning what advertisements are doing
- might not always understand that products aren’t as good as advertisements say they are, or that advertisers might not be telling them any of the bad points.
To limit the effects of advertising on school-age children, the most important thing you can do is talk about advertisements and encourage children to think about what they’re trying to do.
It’s a good idea to focus on the advertisements that your child sees most often. For example, you can get your child thinking and developing a questioning attitude towards advertisers’ claims by asking him to think about what’s being advertised. That is, what’s the product in this advertisement? What is it for? Who is it for?
You can also ask your child about the strategies that are being used to sell a particular product. This can help your child work out how an advertisement makes its product look good. Here are some questions to help children start thinking:
- Does the advertisement use popular celebrities or sports stars to promote the product?
- Does the advertisement link an idea with the product – for example, does the ad make children seem more grown up when they use the product?
- Is the advertisement promoting the product by giving you something for free – for example, do you get a toy if you buy a kids’ meal from a fast food chain?
This will help make the point that you can’t believe everything you see on TV, online or in other media – especially what you see in advertisements.
Teenagers and advertising
At 12-13 years, children:
- can usually understand the purpose of advertising, and can use advertised information to decide what they want
- might not understand how advertising makes things more expensive
- might not recognise tricky product placement strategies.
Over 14 years, children can understand how the marketplace works and can be sceptical about advertisers’ claims.
You can limit the effects of advertising on teenagers by talking about the way advertisements work to sell ideas as well as products. For example, some advertisements link products with the ‘perfect’ life the people in the ads seem to have.
Older children can also start thinking about the subtle impacts of advertising. For example, you could encourage your child to think about how advertisements influence ideas about what girls, boys, women and men should look like, wear, do, eat and drink.
Here are some questions to get older children and teenagers thinking:
- How real is the lifestyle being advertised? Do you know anyone who lives like that?
- Are the foods and drinks in advertisements healthy choices? Why aren’t vegies and fruit advertised like burgers?
- What do advertisements say about gender, families, body shape and cultural diversity? Do they reflect real life?
Older children also need to learn about ‘the small print’. For example, a phone contract is not ‘only’ $25 a month – there’s also an ongoing commitment.
When you talk with your child about advertising, your goal is to help her work out the difference between products and the strategies that are used to sell them. You can also help her learn the difference between advertising messages and other media messages that are designed to entertain, inform or educate.
Spotting common advertising strategies
Here’s a list of common advertising strategies. You could make a game out of spotting the strategies with your child.
The bribe: you get a free toy when you buy a product and you’re encouraged to collect them all – for example, toys packaged with takeaway meals and small toys in cereal packets.
The game: you can play a game and win a prize if you buy a product.
The big claim or promise: a product tastes excellent, or it’s the best in the world. Or a 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: popular or famous people promote a product to make you think you can be just like them if you have the product too.
The cartoon character: a cartoon character you know and like tells you about a product to make it more attractive.
The special effects: filming tricks like close-ups, soft lighting and artificial sets make a product look larger or better than it really is.
The repeat: showing the same thing over and over makes you remember and recognise a product.
The music: catchy tunes or popular songs make you like an advertisement – and the product it advertises – more.
The joke: laughing makes you like an advertisement – and the product it advertises – more.
The story: the advertisement tells an interesting story so you want to keep watching.