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Marketing to Children: Is This One of Those Ad Things?

About four months ago, K was eating breakfast, when she told me with delight, “I am losing weight!”  I turned away from the eggs on the stove, alarmed to hear this proclamation from a then-first grader.  She showed me the back of the Special K cereal box she was reading.  Sure enough, in big letters, the box said, “Eat breakfast, weigh less.

Let’s put aside the fact that K has already absorbed the knowledge that it is a good thing to “weigh less,” as evidenced by her reaction to reading the back of the box.  That alone is disturbing at such a young age.  My bigger concern was how completely she accepted the statement put before her, without question.

I had recently read in Lyn Mikel Brown’s and Sharon Lamb’s book, Packaging Girlhood, that “children age eight and younger lack the ability to appreciate the various tricks that advertisers and marketers use to grab their attention or persuade them.”  Here was proof of this statement in my wide-eyed daughter.

In a conversation with Brown, I asked her what parents can do to help young children deconstruct the images and slogans splashed across their world.  She advises parents to start talking with children at young ages about the S word (stereotypes) and marketing tricks, teaching them to think about what they see and talk about how it makes them feel.

I confess I was skeptical that it would really make a difference to such a young kid, but I went ahead and explained to K that advertisements distort facts or take them out of context in order to get people to buy products or use services.  She listened with apparent interest, and even displayed a bit of outrage at the thought of someone trying to pull the wool over her eyes.

I forgot about the cereal box episode until a month later.  K, AR and C were in the bathtub, and I looked at K in amusement.  Caked with sidewalk chalk, sunblock, chocolate ice cream and sweat, her face was unusually dirty.  I went and grabbed a tube of my own face cleanser so she could wash the layers of grime off her grubby little face.

K squeezed out far more soap than was necessary and went to work scrubbing her face.   As she built up a lather, she examined the back of the tube.  “Wow!” she yelled. “This is going to make my face glow!”  Before I could even respond, she paused and narrowed her eyes.  “Wait a minute,” she said slowly, “Is this one of those ad things?”

“Yes!” I practically shouted in excitement.  I couldn’t believe it.  She remembered!  Lyn Mikel Brown’s advice had worked.  All on her own, K had become skeptical of the claims on the tube.  Then she hit me with, “Yeah, I didn’t think my face would really glow in the dark.”

That’s when I realized how literally young kids take advertising.  If I read a claim that a certain brand of face cleanser will make my face glow, I know that this means “glow” as in healthy, radiant skin.  K actually thought it meant her face would glow in the dark.  And for a minute, she had believed it.

Marketers are aware that kids believe what they read (and hear, and see), and they take advantage of it.  They divide products according to gender stereotypes and then slap kid-attracting characters and claims on everything from cosmetics to video games, knowing that kids will beg, wheedle and moan until their fed-up parents buy these items.

There are organizations dedicated to helping parents manage the barrage of marketing, such as the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.  There are blogs like Pigtail Pals--Redefining Girly, that stay on top of all the latest research and news about how the media affects girls.  I have found that there is a growing group of parents who are willing to support each other in resisting advertising.

In all my attention to keeping my kids away from marketer’s claims, I almost forgot about myself.  I was at CVS picking up facial sunblock when I suddenly found myself drawn in by an eye cream that promised to remove wrinkles overnight.  As I stood there, seriously contemplating plunking down an outrageous sum of money for a tiny pot of eye cream, I laughed and said to myself, “Hey, is this one of those ad things?”

I put it back on the shelf and walked away.  Guess I’ll never know.

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