How to Teach Your Kid About Advertising

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How to Teach Your Kid About AdvertisingAs we pulled into the parking lot at the grocery store for our weekly shopping trip recently, my 3-year-old yelled, “Mom! That word says ‘Meijer!’”

Now, my kid is smart, sure, but he isn’t a genius. It just happens that he knows what the logo on the front of the store means … and it isn’t the only retail outlet he recognizes by trademark.

He isn’t alone.

Just ask graphic designer Adam Ladd, who recently recorded his 5-year-old daughter reacting to a series of recognizable brand images. The little girl is remarkably accurate (not to mention adorable) in the viral video, even going so far as to say that McDonald’s golden arches are made out of a french fry.

Kids are bombarded with marketing messages from the day they’re born … literally. Branded merchandise is even making its way into kits given to parents as they leave the hospital with their newborns. Last year, The New York Times reported that the Walt Disney Co. was offering a free baby’s bodysuit–Disney-branded, of course–in 580 maternity wards across the country. Company reps were even sent to visit mom’s bedside to extol the virtues of its product.

How Do You Teach Your Kid About Advertising?

Have you had a conversation with your child about advertising? What tricks do you have for raising a consumer savvy kid?
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If it’s starting in the maternity ward, just imagine what the possibilities are.

The Facts

Zoe Weil, author of multiple books on helping kids become conscientious choice-makers, the most recent of which is “Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and a Meaningful Life,” says parents need to help their kids resist societal pressures, including those from the media. “More children in the U.S. recognize Ronald McDonald than they do the President,” says Weil. “And they influence their parents’ buying decisions.”

Weil’s not off the mark–recent research shows that children are increasingly the target of brand messages. The Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that, between 2008 and 2010, children’s exposure to TV ads for full-calorie soda doubled, while another study released by the journal Pediatrics reported that kids are exposed to more than 40,000 ads per year on TV alone.

What You Can Do

Weil says parents need to understand that their own reactions to brands will influence their kids. “(Especially) with young children, the focus should be on modeling the message we want to convey,” she explains.

In other words, walk the talk. For advice on how to do this, we tapped Michael Robb, the director of research and education at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. Try these tips to guide your own kids through a crowded messaging marketplace.

  • Make it a game. Watch TV with your kids and point out the advertisements. Ask specific questions as you watch, like “Who created this?” and “What might they be telling us?” What you want to do, says Robb, isn’t help them to identify brands, but to teach them to understand that there is a motivation behind an advertisement—i.e. to sell them something.
  • Watch the web. The internet is a tricky place to sort through brand messages, especially for younger kids, since so much of the advertising appears to be part of the website’s content, says Robb. “At least on TV you have a clear commercial break,” he says. “On the web, it’s all mixed together so it’s harder to understand that the ad is something separate.” Spend time educating your kids about what is and isn’t advertising online by showing them what to look for, like the wording advertisers use or the way they present an ad.
  • Explain your purchases. It may seem obvious, but how many of us actually tell our kids why we’re buying a specific product? “Explain to them why you’re making that conscious choice to buy what you’re buying,” Robb says. “It’s likely that (your choices) reflect your values and needs.”
  • Don’t forget your teen. Believe it or not, it’s actually easier to talk about brand messages with younger kids. Robb suggests approaching teens from the perspective that advertisers are in the business of getting them to purchase something they might not need. “Talk to them about why they buy things,” he says, adding that your job is to make them understand the game. “No one wants to feel duped, especially a teenager.” He also recommends watching the PBS/Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool” with them, which outlines exactly how marketers use research to target teens.

Take It From Another Mom

Liz Gumbiner is a Brooklyn, New York mom of two who also just happens to be an advertising executive. She says she doesn’t know any parents in her industry who don’t talk to their children about ads and marketing. “We’re moms and dads first, and we want to raise smart consumers,” she says. “I think in this day and age, it’s just one of those things you teach your kids about early, along with internet safety and and why we don’t have chocolate milk at breakfast.”

Gumbiner adds that the inundation of marketing messages targeting consumers is creating an increasingly cynical and savvy public—kids and parents included.

Just ask Lego, which suffered a backlash recently after introducing a set of toys aimed specifically at girls. The pink and Barbie-like sets drew ire from parents who called the brand out for inserting gender politics into the playroom.

The bottom line, says Gumbiner, is that parents are responsible for guiding their kids through this crowded marketplace.

“I take comfort in the fact that I am the final gatekeeper with my kids,” she says. “Even if they know about Happy Meals and the free toys inside, they can’t actually walk up to a drive-through and order one without my permission.”

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