Stay Tuned: The Exploitation Of Children In Television Advertisements
Across America in the homes of the rich, the not-so-rich, and in poverty-stricken
homes and tenements, as well as in schools and businesses, sits advertisers' mass marketing
tool, the television, usurping freedoms from children and their parents and changing
American culture. Virtually an entire nation has surrendered itself wholesale to a medium
for selling. Advertisers, within the constraints of the law, use their thirty-second
commercials to target America's youth to be the decision-makers, convincing their parents
to buy the advertised toys, foods, drinks, clothes, and other products. Inherent in this
targeting, especially of the very young, are the advertisers; fostering the youth's loyalty to
brands, creating among the children a loss of individuality and self-sufficiency, denying
them the ability to explore and create but instead often encouraging poor health habits. The
children demanding advertiser's products are influencing economic hardships in many
families today. These children, targeted by advertisers, are so vulnerable to trickery, are so
mentally and emotionally unable to understand reality because they lack the cognitive
reasoning skills needed to be skeptical of advertisements. Children spend thousands of
hours captivated by various advertising tactics and do not understand their subtleties.
Though advertisers in America's free enterprise system are regulated because of societal
pressures, they also are protected in their rights under freedom of expression to unfairly
target America's youth in order to sell to their parents, regardless of the very young's
inability to recognize the art of persuasion.
In the free enterprise system, the advertiser's role is to persuade consumers to buy
their products/services. They are given a product/service and are required to use their best
creative effort to make this product desirable to the intended audience (Krugman 37).
Because of this calculated and what many deem as manipulative way of enticing the target
audience, the advertising industry is charged with several ethical breeches, which focus on a
lack of societal responsibility (Treise 59). Child Advocacy groups and concerned parents,
among others, question the ethicality of advertising claims and appeals that are directed
towards vulnerable groups in particular, children (Bush 31).
The fundamental criticism is that children are an unfair market. The Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) regulates the advertising industry to ensure consumers' protection
from false or misleading information. The question many assert is should the government
be allowed to monitor what is legitimate simply because some do not approve (Hernandez
34). This question requires value judgments that can only be answered through constructing
public policy (Kunkel 58). Most people in society recognize that television advertising
directed towards children is excessive, manipulative and takes unfair advantage of children
In a recent survey from the researcher, it was documented that 80% of adults with
children wanted governmental regulation to protect children from television advertising
(See Appendix 1). Research in the social science fields such as psychology and
communication documents how the child interprets a given television advertisement.
Findings indicate for one, the majority of children up to age five "experience difficulty
distinguishing perceptually between programs and commercials" (Kunkel 62). It is noted
that children at this young age tend to treat all television content as a unidimensional type of
message. For instance, child viewers do not begin to discriminate between fantasy or
reality dimensions of television content at the most basic levels until grade school.
Advertisers compound this issue by using perceptual similarities in program content and
commercial content which adds to the difficulty children already have in distinguishing
between the two variables. Secondly, the study substantiates that, "A substantial proportion
of children, particularly those below age eight, express little or no comprehension of the
persuasive intent of commercials" (Kunkel 63). This is a crucial
argument in regards to the legality of unfair advertising. Children eight and younger are an
unfair market, for they do not understand the intent of the advertisement. For the child to
recognize and appreciate the persuasive intent of television advertising, he/she would be
able to identify the following characteristics: "the source of the advertisement has
perspectives and interests other than those of the receiver, the source intends to persuade,
persuasive messages are biased, and biased messages demand different interpretive
strategies than do unbiased messages" (Kunkel 64). Thirdly, research has found "younger
children who are unaware of the persuasive intent of television advertising tend to express
greater belief in commercials and a higher frequency of purchase requests" (Kunkel 64).
Children are an unfair market in this regard because they simply do not understand the
commercial claim may be exaggerated and biased. The child often does not understand that
when he/she gets the product , it may not be as spectacular as it was made out to be in the
advertisement (Kunkel 64).
Popular studies give evidence that children are often mesmerized by television
(Signorielli 34). Children fixate upon television and become hypnotized by watching. The
attention level of young viewers is elevated in the presence of children, eye contact,
puppets, and rapid pacing (Van Eura 23). Television advertisements target younger
audiences by using colorful images and rapid movement often in the form of animation
(Brady). The advertisements primarily directed towards the childrens' market are for toys
and foods (Pediatrics 295). Studies show that children see the images on television as a
window of the world, these images affect their thoughts and ideas (Pingree 253).
Therefore, advertisers are manipulating children by predominantly showing advertisements
that encourage materialism and eating.
Research findings on how children interpret television commercials are not the only
indicator of what constitutes a fair market. Public opinion, along with the observations of
other regarded professionals, observe the exploitation of the children's market. According
to Cynthia Schiebe, assistant professor of psychology at Ithaca College and director of The
Center for Research on the Effects of Television, has the following to say in relation to
children as an unfair market:
"The point is not that advertising is wrong, but it often plays unfair...Children
can't distinguish the persuasive intent of commercials. There is enormous
evidence that young children have various difficulties in understanding the nature
of commercials. They give more credibility to the person speaking than they should,
especially if it's someone like Cap'n Crunch or Ronald McDonald, or someone who is a
Ms. Schiebe, through her work as a psychologist and a researcher, asserts that adults have
the capabilities to detect persuasive strategies where children do not have the same
capabilities. Peggy Charren, leader for 25 years of Action for Children's Television (ACT),
believes that advertising takes advantage of impressionable youngsters. Charren states,
"Children are the only unpaid sales force in the history of America. Advertisers don't
expect kids to buy the product. The kids are being used to sell the product to the parent."
According to James U. McNeal, a Texas A&M University Marketing professor , states,
"What distinguishes children from other viewers is not so much what advertiser's show
them, but how they interpret it. Children are literalists, which makes them more vulnerable
to advertising's message. For them seeing is believing" (Guber).
Though questions of ethicality are denounced extensively, advertising to children
persist on the forefront of American culture. Advertisers continue to focus on the
children's market because children have become a tremendous source of revenue and an
increasingly important commodity for the advertising and marketing industry. In 1993
alone, children between the ages of four and 12 in the United States had a disposable
income of 17 billion dollars. Not only do children have their own money to spend, but
children with two working parents influence their parents to spend annually 155 billion
dollars (Collins 4).
Advertisers do not only see children in terms of immediate discretionary income
that is available to spend, but perhaps even more valuable to the marketer is the brand
loyalty potential. The advertiser's mission is to convince the child to want a particular
brand, to then have a preference and liking for the brand and therefore to purchase the
product again and again which then implies a brand loyalty has been established (Sissors).
Advertisers do not only employ this brand loyalty tactic in commercials aimed at the child,
but they also implicitly target other campaigns to meet the appeals of children. For
example, children surveyed had a particular fondness for the Michelin tire campaign which
features babies. Though these children will not be buying tires for awhile, the implication
that brand loyalty has been established seems great (Wujtas 50). Research has confirmed
that children establish brand loyalty as early as the age of two years old. An older audience
has an awareness of close to 1500 brand names where as a young child has little
preconceived preferences. (Guber) With a combination of money to spend and an open
mind for the potential to create a brand loyal consumer at an early age, children are an
irresistible market to American businesses.
With such tremendous potentiality for revenues and brand loyalty, advertisers target
the children's market with vengeance. Advertisers annually spend close to 471 million
dollars on advertising to children. While the rest of the advertising industry is suffering
from a three year decline, the amount of money spent on children's advertising continues to
increase despite heated controversy over the ethicality of targeting a vulnerable and unfair
market (Wartella 461). Contemporary advertisers flood the marketplace in practically
every outlet daily with their claims and appeals. Advertisements can be found virtually
everywhere. Common media vehicles used for the children's market are, television
commercials with an increase during children's programs, especially Saturday morning
programming, on videotapes, in children's magazines , in malls, and even in the classroom
through television- educational programming (Collins 4). One television outlet that has
received a considerable amount of negative publicity is Channel One. This is a program
where marketers enter the classroom setting by embedding advertisements aimed at
children into segments of a 12 minute newscast that is shown daily in more than 12,000
schools across the country. The appeal to advertisers is to guarantee reaching the intended
target audience (Wartella 451). The result to children is exploitation which is basically
sponsored by the school system via television advertisers.
Many other vehicles are used in the targeting of the children's market, however,
television advertising is perceived as the most effective source in reaching children. The
increase of cable options and the amount of time children spend watching the television
allows the advertiser to make his exposure and frequency appeals more readily than ever
before. Next to sleeping, children spend the majority of their free time watching television
(Lazar 67). By the time a young child graduates from high school, he/she will have seen an
estimated 350,000 commercials (Carlsson-Paige 68). For the average child, the television
set is on in the home for an average of seven hours per day. In a one week time frame the
average preschool-aged child (ages two through five) watches 28 hours of television. The
average school-aged child (ages six to 11) watches 24 hours of television (Kotz 1296).
With such an advent of exposure time the young child is repetitively exposed to the
advertisers persuasive dialogue.
Children are drawn to the mystique and excitement the television set offers. Due to
demographic shifts in the American family it is unlikely that parents will give up the
television's entertaining baby-sitting function. In the last two decades, the number of
working women with young children and the number of single parent families has sharply
risen. In addition statistics recorded in 1990 report, reflect that nearly three-fourths of both
parents in married-couple families with children work on a full or part-time basis.
Therefore, with the current increase of pressures from home, work, and single parenthood
the child becomes attached to the television and all it has to offer, which to a large extent is
a selling medium (Lazar 68). The lack of social policy which supports families and
regulates children's television leaves the child vulnerable and exploited from the
The venues advertisers use to market products to children have widened with
increasing technology, marketing ploys and an increase of child oriented products/services.
Beginning in the middle of the 1970's, the children's television market grew through the
addition of independent television channels and cable networks. The early 1980's
introduced a successful marketing device known as the program-length commercial which
capitalized on taking advantage of an unaware audience (Wartella 449). The program-
length commercial is a television show where the main character is modeled after a toy
product. The entire program is built around demonstrating to children how to play with a
product then encouraging them to buy it. This strategy is extremely successful for many in
the toy industry who usually are the ones funding the marketing and production. Mattel
who was the first to pioneer the program-length commercial in the early eighties doubled
their sales for their He-Man action figure shortly after implementation of the
advertisement (Carlsson-Paige 69). This implies that such advertising manipulates children
through a character they admire and encourages the child to want this product by extending
the exposure so that the child will demand the product. The proliferation of new products
aimed for children increases the number of television commercials as well. Common
categories are videotapes, 900 number information services, a wider range of food
products, including children's TV dinners and other foods that can be prepared by children,
an expanded line of clothing and apparel, and an increase of travel advertisements, such as
Disneyland, which are aimed explicitly for children to influence their parents vacation
choices (Wartella 449).
Children have dominant influence on purchases and consumption rates in American
families for several changing sociological reasons. Children are influencing more
purchases because families today are having only one child, hence the increase of one
parent families forces the child to a do a great extent of his/her own shopping. More
women are delaying childbearing, therefore, when she decides to have a child generally
their is more money open to spend than when she was younger. And in 70% of U.S.
households both parents work , requiring children to become more self-reliant than earlier
generations (Wartella 451).
Besides being an ethical issue, exploiting children creates adverse effects. A study
conducted by the American Dietetic Association reveals that advertisers primarily promote
high fat and/or high sugar foods and drinks to children. The foods being advertised are not
consistent with dietary recommendations. With the extended periods of time contemporary
American children spend watching television, concern has risen on the implications this has
on health attitudes and behaviors of children. By broadcasting the antithesis of a healthful
diet, it may be a significant contributor to obesity in children. Obesity is the result of an
energy imbalance that is created when the diet contains mostly high fat and sugar (Kotz
The American Dietetic Association conducted their study by viewing 52.5 hours of
television during children's programming. In that time 997 commercials were for a product
and a mere 68 were public service announcements. More than half (56.5%) were
advertisements for foods while only 10 of the 68 public service announcements were
nutrition related. On the average of the 19 commercials advertisements per hour 11 were
for food. This means a child views a commercial for food every five minutes (Kotz 1297).
This may be an acceptable practice if the foods advertised were nutritious, however,
predominantly the foods were inconsistent with what constitutes a healthful diet. Of the
564 food advertisements, 43.6% were for foods in the fats, oils and sweets group. 37.5%
were for foods in the breads, cereals, rice and pasta food group, however, 23% of those ads
were for high sugar cereals. In this particular study there was not a single advertisement for
fruits or vegetables (Kotz 1297).
This skewed portrayal of a healthful diet has detrimental consequences not only as a
short term effect but the overall effect will stay with the child throughout his/her life. In
the United States nine out of 10 adults are at an increased risk of diet related chronic
disease. The American Dietetic Association recommends a diet high in vegetables, fruits,
whole grains, legumes and to keep fat intake to a minimal, a diet many Americans are
lacking perhaps due to advertising's neglect. Because dietary patterns of children mirror
those of adults, children too are lacking a healthful diet. Evidence indicates that the
atherosclerotic process begins in early childhood and that preventing or slowing this
process could extend years of healthful living for many Americans (Kotz 1296).
Although it is difficult to distinguish the effect television has on behavioral effects
of children, studies show that the amount of time a child spends watching television directly
correlates with the request , purchase, and consumption of foods advertised on television.
Heavy marketing of high fat and/or sugar foods and not advertising foods with nutritional
value is exploitation; the child does not have the knowledge of what is healthful and is not
able to understand that commercials are designed to sell products (Kotz 1299). This view
is accepted by The American Academy of Pediatrics as well. Their position is stated as the
Parents rather than children should determine what children should eat.
Children are unprepared to make appropriate food choices and do not
understand the relationship of food choices to health maintenance and disease
prevention....Because young children can not understand the relationship
between food choices and chronic nutritional diseases, advertising food
products to children promotes profit rather than health (Kotz 1300).
Profit seems to be the main motivation in the advertising world. The second effect
advertisers promote in young children is materialism coupled often with a loss of self-
sufficiency in their ability to make the best with what they have. Due to advertisers
influential power on children and the advent of the program-length commercial, children
think they have to have certain toys just in order to play. In the past, children created their
own accessories, props and so forth in acting out their play. Today, advertisers convince
children they must have a manufactured accessory and prop to play. Basically, the
advertiser is taking control of the situation and therefore undermining the child's basic
sense of self-sufficiency (Carlsson-Paige 69).
Not only do advertisers dictate how children should play, but they are also creating
an environment where children consistently demand more. Toy manufacturers produce
lines of toys which are correlated with cartoons or other children's programming. This type
of strategy is successful in making the child want it more. The toys being sold in this way
have only one specific function so the child has to get other components to play effectively.
The advertiser is getting the child to think in terms of quantity (Carlsson-Paige 69). This
creates profit for the advertising industry and creates a materialistic view of the world for
Concern of the implications of television has received attention for more than 30
years. Through the pressures of children's advocacy groups, the television market has
received some regulation, though minimal. Many critics argue it is not enough and the
government must intervene to stop the exploitation of children through television
advertising. Current and past regulations imply that the profitability of the market place is
regarded more highly than the welfare of children (Kunkel 57).
The controversy heated up in the late 1960's when children were considered their
own market because of the vast array of commercials directed explicitly to the children's
market. Advertisers used direct hard-sell approaches in attempts to persuade the children's
market to want the product/service. The advertisers focused their approach on exaggerated
claims and showed these commercials often. The public took notice of the repetitiveness
and appeals being used and voiced their concern to the Federal Communications
Commission (Kunkel 59).
In 1970, pressures from a child advocacy group, Action for Children's television
(ACT) presented ample evidence to the FCC on television advertising exploitation of
children. According to findings conducted by the Surgeon Generals Report, advertising is
exploiting children because, one, children the age of five can not distinguish program
content from commercial content and , two, children eight and under do not have the
cognitive skills to identify persuasion (Lazar 69). Therefore children are an unfair market
and the public expects protection on a government level.
ACT petitioned the FCC to ban all advertisements directed towards children eight
and under. Despite receiving more than 100,000 letters in support of ACT's petition, the
FCC did not comply with the request. It took the FCC four years to come up with some
restrictions. The restrictions included: advertiser's must limit advertisement time to 9.5
minutes per hour on weekends when viewing is highest and 12 minutes during the week
(Lazar 70). The FCC believed reducing frequency would offer the child some sort of
protection from exploitation. In order to protect the child five and under who cannot
distinguish program content from advertisers, the FCC required all stations to comply with
the separation principle. This policy was applied in three different areas: One new
requirement was that all television programs adopt a separation device referred to as a
Bumper. This device signals to the child a commercial is about to be broadcast. For
instance, an announcer might say, "And now a word from our sponsor" (Kankel 62). Critics
claim that advertisers have circumvented the rules and they minimize the warnings. For
example when speaking disclaimers such as the one mentioned before, the voice over is
spoken rapidly and is not understood fully by the child viewer (Pediatrics 295). The
second area of regulation prohibited host selling. Host selling is when a character from the
program promoted products either directly or adjacent to their show. For example a Barbie
Doll commercial could not be seen during a Barbie Doll television show. And thirdly,
program-length commercials were prohibited at this time (Kankel 62).
In the early 1980's during the time of the Reagan administration, the advertising
industry basically deregulated itself. Mattel and other toy companies reinstated the
program-length commercial. In 1984, ACT responded to the proliferation of program
length commercials by filing a complaint to the FCC. However, according to the FCC,
"marketplace forces can better determine commercial levels than our own rules" (Lazar
70). Kunkel and Roberts had the following conclusion to make: "When forced to choose at
an extreme level, society(at least in the form of its representative government) valued the
protection of private enterprise, commercial speech, and some degree of the concept of
caveat emptor more than it valued the protection of children in their interaction with these
The government needs to intervene with some form of regulated guidelines because
a child can not be regarded in the same sense as an adult audience. Children are vulnerable
to persuasion and should not forced to succumb to materialism so early in life.
There have been others concerned with this position and freedom of expression in
the free enterprise system has allowed television to become the mass marketing tool.
Advertisers seem unconcerned about ethical obligations. So it has to be individual families
to shield their children from exploitation.
Cynthia Scheibe, psychology professor, and Peggy Charren, founder of ACT, has the
following recommendations to lessen the degree of exploitation of children. The amount
of television watched should be limited in order to decrease its negative effects. Adults
should impress upon youngsters that having more toys or clothes won't always bring
satisfaction. As a parent, one should watch the advertisements with the child and ask the
child such questions as "What is it they're trying to sell?" The parent should also take the
child to the store to see if the desired products are really as exciting in real life as they
appear to be on television. The parent should point out to the child that the objects
surrounding the product are unrealistically big meaning the toy is probably smaller than it
appears. And lastly, get the child to make up his or her own commercial and try to sell a
product to another child to see how difficult it is to sell a product fairly in 30 seconds
Although these suggestions are useful they still are not a remedy for the problem
advertisers create. It is society's responsibility to push for regulation that will protect
America's children from advertisers' exploitation. The first amendment gives all citizens
responsibility along with freedom: the responsibility to protect their vulnerable youth, the
responsibility to limit their excesses, which with the pervasion of advertising has become
next to impossible, and the responsibility to insulate children from a world of adults who
employ unfair tactics just to sell. It is the duty of adults to teach sound ethics to children
rather than to breach all ethical considerations for the purpose of selling, thus brainwashing
our children through commercials and making them feel incomplete, inferior, and
inadequate if they do not purchase various advertised products. It is citizens' responsibility
to nurture children to become self-sufficient, creative, healthy adults who have not a
distorted propensity for materialism. The welfare of America's children is the welfare of
Survey of parents with children between the ages of one and eight years old. The following
questions were answered by the 10 parents who participated in the survey:
1. Do you think children's advertising is manipulative?
10% No opinion
2. Has your child ever asked you to purchase a product they saw advertised?
90% answered Yes
0% answered No
10% did not remember
3. Did the purchased advertised product live up to your child's expectations?
50% answered Yes
40% answered No
10% do not remember
4. Do you think the government should regulate children's advertising?
80% answered Yes
10% answered No
10% had no opinion
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Carlson-Paige, Nancy and Diane E. Lerin. "Saturday Morning Pushers." Utne Reader
Jan. 1992: 68-70.
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