Ethics of Advertising to Children & Teens

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The Ethics of Advertising to Children continues to be a highly debated topic among parents, government officials, and advertising companies. Ethics is defined as a set of moral principles that govern someone’s behavior, or how an activity is conducted, while advertising is a type of communication between a buyer and a seller. Together, Ethics in advertising is a set of well-defined principles which govern how communication can take place between a seller and buyer. Ethical ads tell the truth and don’t make any false claims.[1]

Child Advertising

Child advertising is defined as the act of advertising products or services to children as defined by national legislation and advertising standards. It is often the subject of debate because of the influence it can have on children since they are impressionable at such a young age.[2]. Children can be easily manipulated due to their low ability to comprehend the objectives of advertisers.[2] Advertising to children can involve celebrity endorsements from actors or characters from popular children's television shows, product placement in movies or television, tie-ins between movies or television shows, and fast-food restaurants or toy action figures.[3]

Children and TV

This snapshot is from the popular Reese's Puffs cereal commercial, aimed at children. Image from URL:

Commercial advertising to children began with the advent of television and cable, which allowed programmers to develop channels specifically for children.[4] Upon the growth of the Internet, the number of advertisements directed towards children grew.[4] Now, a majority of American children have televisions in their bedrooms as well as unsupervised access to computers. This allows for companies to advertise products and services to children in the absence of parental monitoring or supervision.[4] Children between the ages of 6 and 11 years old watch, on average, about 28 hours of television per week.[5] As a result, they are exposed to between 20[2] and 40 thousand commercials annually.[4] Although the rise of streaming services in recent years has saved children born in the 2010s from over 150 hours of commercials each year,[6] children are highly impressionable and easily influenced by all types of media. For example, many adults can recite commercials that aired in their childhood word-for-word many years later. For Generation Z, that may be Reese’s Puffs, Kars4Kids, Empire Carpets, or the ShamWow. Between the ages of 4 and 5 years old, children can’t distinguish commercial content from the main program, leading to an equally amount of focused attention on televised content, whereas adult attention to commercials decreases with age.[7] Children can recall commercial content with as little as a single commercial exposure, and this ability strengthens with repeated exposure and leads to product preference.[4]

Advertisements in Gaming Applications

This snapshot is from the app Doctor Kids. The character is seen crying after the user exist out of a pop-up advertisement.[8]

With a rise in technology, the growth of online games has provided an extra medium for advertising agencies to reach consumers with their marketing messages.[9] At the University of Michigan, researchers found that 95 percent of tablet or smartphone games for children feature some form of advertisements.[10] These games act as another channel of communication which one can broadcast information to a wide range of players. Since in-app sales are not regular by federal agencies that supervise television ads, gaming companies have the leeway to set their own rules for their advertisements.[10] But similarly to televised content, children often cannot distinguish between games and advertisements, or even the persuasive intentions of these advertisements until the age of 8.[11] For example, in a children’s gaming app Doctor Kids, the main objective is for the user to act as a doctor and treat patients.[8] At some point during the game, a pop-up message will appear and invite the user to purchase a mini game for $1.99, or unlock all the mini games for $3.99.[8] If the user closes out of the pop-up, however, the character on the screen will look sad and begin to cry. The user, or child, may feel ashamed for making the character cry and deceived into thinking they made a wrong decision.[8] However, many times the pop-up message is not closed, and children may click on the advertisements from these games and make an erroneous purchase.[11] In fact, this action was prevalent for many customers such that the Federal Trade Commission filed lawsuits against companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon for allowing children to spend millions of dollars on these in-app purchases.[11] After the case was brought to court, Google, Apple, and Amazon refunded at least $121.5 million in total to its customers.[11]

Children and Psychology

It is well known that children’s brains are not fully developed in comparison to the brains of adults. As a result, children below the ages of 4 to 5 years old cannot make the distinction between entertainment programs and advertisements.[4] Children under 8 years of age lack the ability to recognize that advertisements intend to persuade their viewers[4] and do not fully understand the intent of advertisements until they are at least 11 years old.[2] Evidence has highlighted that judgments and behaviors related to consumption are influenced by implicitly acquired associations rather than through consciously acquired persuasive information, and advertising targeted at children often implicitly persuades in this same way.[12] Instead of using ad space or time to directly promote a product, ads geared towards children will implicitly associate the product with a popular character or fun activity. This is an advertising strategy that spans across age groups and products but is more effective for children consumers.

Social Media Advertising

Another popular technological space that is dominated by advertising is social media. Social media has become increasingly popular with the rise of technology and people are starting to join at younger and younger ages. The advertising that takes place on social media looks very different than in gaming apps, but they are still very capable of taking advantage of younger users. Social media companies actively collect personalized user data to decide what ads to present in an attempt to keep users hooked.[13] This results in more personalized and therefore more enticing advertising for all users. As is the case with all other forms of advertising, the youngest users are the most susceptible. However, these younger users, preteens and teens between 12 and 18, are still much more mature than the children who are being targeted by gaming app ads. This means ads have to be intriguing in some other way, but implicit associations between celebrities and products are still one of the most common methods.[14] These associations are less effective on older audiences, but can still take advantage of the way teenagers process these advertisements. Currently, there are restrictions as to what type of products are allowed to be advertised to different age groups on social media. Social media sites already cannot advertise alcohol or gambling to minors, but parents are calling for more restrictions even for older and more mature consumers.[15]

Effects of Advertising to Children

Children are easily influenced by advertisements, particularly if they involve a celebrity they know, a character from a movie or television show, or an animated promotional character.[16] They are also more likely to select a product if it is sponsored by a celebrity, regardless of if the product is healthy or unhealthy.[17] For example, in a study of 181 children, those who saw ads for potato chips featuring a popular UK sports figure ate far more potato chips after seeing the ad than children who saw advertisements for the same products with no celebrity involved.[18] Furthermore, the children who saw the advertisement with the celebrity specifically ate more of the brand that celebrity was eating. This highlights that children are strongly influenced by commercials, endorsements, and brand-names. Advertisers use this to their advantage and target young children in an effort to establish brand-name preference at an early age.[3] In addition, product preference emerges after only a single exposure to a product advertisement and strengthens with further exposure.[4] These preferences affect a child’s product purchase requests, which lead to influencing a parent’s purchasing decisions. Often, parent-child conflicts occur due to a parent denying their children a product purchase request that was precipitated by advertising.[4]

Food Advertising Effects

Many of the food products advertised on television are unhealthy, and it could link to a child’s long-term health.[18] Research suggests that there are strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and the rates of childhood obesity.[4]. Soon after, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was implemented in 2007 in the U.S. to decrease the amount of advertising of non-nutritious foods and subsequently decrease childhood obesity rates.[19] Candy companies such as Mars, Hershey, Kraft, and Nestle all pledged not to advertise candy to children, but this only applied to channels for children. They ended up still being exposed to these ads on programs that were popular for a wider range of people.[20] McDonald’s was also accused of deceptive marketing practices to children through the lure of toys as an incentive to buy Happy Meals.[21]

Eating Disorders & Mental Health

Advertising is particularly influential in the lives of children and young people in comparison to adults. American advertising uses female models who are very thin and men who are very muscular, which may contribute to the development of distorted body self-image and abnormal eating or exercise behaviors in young children.[3] Furthermore, advertisements lead children to associate the concept of happiness with the act of consuming products or services, which can lead to frustration or even depression in children.[22]

Drugs & Alcohol Advertising Effects

Advertising to children has had an effect on the likelihood that an adolescent smokes, drinks alcohol, or uses drugs. One-third of adolescent smoking can be attributed to tobacco advertisements and promotional materials.[3] Children who are exposed to cigarette ads are more likely to become smokers than those who are not, and several studies have found that there is a substantial relationship between a child’s viewing of tobacco and alcohol ads and having a positive attitude towards the consumption of these products.[4] One reason for this is some commercials have high brand awareness and use promotional characters such as the Budweiser Frogs and Joe Camel. These characters influence children to have positive attitudes towards these brands, and therefore, these types of products, which contribute to youth smoking and drinking.[4]

Ethics of Advertising to Children

Advocates against advertising to children believe that there is no moral, ethical, or social justification for marketing any product to children, regardless if it is a healthy or unhealthy product. They believe that even advertising healthy foods to children is problematic, since children should be able to develop a healthy relationship with food and nutrition on their own and find their own balanced diet. These advocates believe that advertising trains children to choose foods based on celebrity endorsement, product placement, and promotional characters, rather than what is in the product.[23] Furthermore, they believe that it is important to teach children critical thinking skills and help them learn how to distinguish between entertainment and advertisement, including the motives behind advertising. They also believe it is naive and disingenuous to depend on children to protect themselves from advertising[23], especially because children may be deceived by images or messages that likely wouldn’t deceive adults.[24] Advertisers argue that they have a right to advertise products and services to young children without breaking the law, however, whether it is necessarily the right thing to do is another question.[25] At this point in time, there is no evidence that advertising is beneficial for children, or even adults.

Blurring the Line Between Advertisements and Entertainment

This is a commercial aimed at children. The presence of minions can steer the attention of the child to the Go-Gurt product. Image from URL:

As children interact more with different and new types of media, the line between an advertisement and entertainment becomes blurred.[26] Commercials have been increasingly focused on entertaining the child that is watching and hold their interest in the product.[26] Advertisers also make games like puzzles, word searches, or online games in order to advertise their product to a specific age group.[26] Advertisements that are disguised as entertainment can be very influential and harmful. If children are not properly educated in advertising literacy, about three-fourths of them will not be able to recognize advertisements within games.[27] Children could be influenced to be interested in certain products while playing a game and not know they are being persuaded. This leads to ethical concerns, as children are easily manipulated by media.[2] When advertisements are disguised as entertainment, children are at a disadvantage because they are not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between commercials and programs, or the persuasive intentions of commercials.[28] Because children do not tend to recognize advertisements, they are less likely to critically think about the products being advertised and continue to interact with the advertisement as if it were a game or television program.[28]

Due to product placement and embedded advertising across television and streaming sites, the line between an advertisement and actual content has been blurred more than before.[29] This is particularly prevalent with YouTube channels directed at young children, which make up some of the most popular channels on the platform.[29] These channels specifically aimed at children are meant to advertise many products through "unboxings" and tutorials and keep children interested through nursery rhymes and singalongs.[29]

With the increased advancement of technology, the Loyola Consumer Law Review states that children are consuming content at a much higher rate through smartphones, tablets, and computers.[29] The use of personal devices by children to consume content leads to more personalized, and therefore, more persuasive and persistent advertising. Advertisements can be disguised as news and product reviews, which can be harmful if a child thinks they are viewing neutral content.[29]

Child Advertisement Laws

Most countries have restrictions on advertising to children, and some have even banned it completely. In the UK, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium, advertising to children is restricted in some way or another. In Norway and Quebec, advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal.[3] In Greece, advertisements for toys are banned until after 10pm[3]. As of 2009, the European Union has put laws into place restricting advertising to children. These include that programs under 30 minutes cannot have any advertisements, product placement in children’s television shows is prohibited, advertisements cannot exploit minors’ trust in adults, show minors in dangerous situations, encourage minors to persuade parents to purchase goods or services, or exhort minors to buy products or services by exploiting their inexperience or credulity.[30] In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission determined in the 1970s that advertising to children under six years old is unfair and deceptive, however, they did not ban these types of advertisements because it was too impractical to implement.[3] However, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 was put into effect decades later, limiting advertisements to children to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends, and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.[3]

See Also


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  15. Venkataramakrishnan, S. (2020, Sep 17). Social media groups urged to block ads targeting teens.
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