About advertising and children
Children experience advertising in many forms – on TV, YouTube, apps, radio, billboards, magazines, movies, the internet, online games, 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. Advertisements are trying to influence the way you think or to change your mind about something. And advertisers always aim to make their products look better than they really are.
Advertising affects children in different ways. How children handle advertising can depend on several things, including their age, knowledge and experience. You can help your child learn how to handle the influence of advertising by giving them opportunities to question and talk about what they see in the media. This is an important life skill for children.
Young children and advertising
At 0-2 years, children can’t tell the difference between advertising and TV programs, YouTube videos and so on.
And at 3-6 years, children:
- can identify advertisements and tell the difference between advertisements and TV programs or YouTube videos
- might not be able to tell the difference between entertainment and some advertising on YouTube – for example, unboxing videos that combine play with toy promotion
- might not understand that advertisements are trying to sell something
- tend to think of advertisements as being entertaining or helpful announcements
- won’t generally be critical of the claims that advertisers make.
You can limit the effects of advertising on your young child by limiting the amount of:
- commercial TV or YouTube they watch
- time they spend using the internet or playing games on electronic devices.
You can encourage your child to think of ad breaks as good times to take screen breaks. For example, you could say, ‘It’s an ad – time to take a break’. You might suggest that your child moves around, gets a drink, or tells you about what they’ve been watching or playing. They can go back to watching or playing when the ad is finished.
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 persuasive techniques like advertisements overstating how good products are
- don’t always want to question what advertisements are doing
- might not be able to tell the difference between entertainment and advertising on YouTube or social media – for example, videos of people playing a video game are designed to make you want to play the game too
- 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 to develop a questioning attitude towards advertisers’ claims by asking them 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 a product look good.
Here are questions to help children start thinking:
- Does the advertisement make you feel something – for example, happiness, the desire to belong, or fear?
- Does the advertisement pay popular celebrities or sports stars to promote the product and make it more attractive?
- 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 to make the point that you can’t believe everything you see on TV, online or on social 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
- might not know that people who post videos on YouTube are often sponsored to advertise products
- might not understand that many celebrities and influencers on social media receive money or free products to post about products
- might not know that clicking an advertisement on social media sends data to the makers of the advertisement.
Over 14 years, children:
- might understand how the marketplace works and be sceptical about advertisers’ claims
- might not know that social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat collect user data, which they use to target advertising to the user
- might not be able to identify sponsored posts on social media
- might not have the skills to make judgments about political advertisements, particularly during election campaigns.
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 that the people in the ads seem to have.
Older children can also start thinking about the subtle influences of advertising. For example, you could encourage your child to think about how advertisements influence ideas about what people of all genders should look like, wear, do, eat and drink. Or you could get your child thinking about political advertising and how it works on people’s attitudes towards things like prosperity, fairness and so on.
Here are some questions to get older children and teenagers thinking:
- How real is the lifestyle in this advertisement? 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?
- How does the information you post about yourself on social media influence the kinds of advertisements you see on social media?
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 your child work out the difference between the products and the strategies that are used to sell them. You can also help your child 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 deal: you can subscribe to a game for a reduced price (often for a limited time only), but there’s a high monthly cost after the initial price.
- The appeal to emotions: the advertisement tugs at your heart strings or makes you afraid for your safety.
- 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.