“I need some Gatorade!”
The demand from Cindy Marie Jenkins’ five-year-old son caught her off guard since he’d never requested the drink before. When she asked why, his response was simple: “If I drink Gatorade, I'll be great at soccer!" Apparently he’d viewed an ad for the sports drink on YouTube, and—as kids tend to do—he took it at face value.
“Seeing commercials within his shows almost broke the fourth wall for him,” she says. “It took a few commercial breaks before his mind caught up with the faster editing and flashier style, and then he was enraptured.”
Advertising has evolved far beyond traditional TV commercials. Those “free shows” on YouTube usually come with multiple pop-up ads throughout the show. Influencers may or may not be getting paid for talking about a product. And “sponsored content” that looks like a real article or video—but has actually been paid for by an advertiser—can be confusing for children.
“They're not predictable,” says Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media “They don't come in a 2.5-minute ad-break during a network TV show, they’re embedded within content in ways that are hard to see, and they're also more uniquely targeted to kids.”
Federal agencies regulate advertisements targeted specifically to children and enforce digital privacy laws for kids younger than 13. But children are consuming so much digital content—and on platforms like YouTube that aren’t required to follow these kid-focused regulations—that they’re exposed to more ads than ever. In fact, a 2020 report by Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Common Sense Media found that advertising on YouTube occurred in 95 percent of the videos that young children were watching.
It’s nearly impossible to shield your child from advertisements. That’s why experts instead recommend that parents start talking to kids about what they’re seeing so that they can be able to identify content as commercials and start thinking critically about the intent. With the holiday buying season in full swing, now’s a great time to get started.
The science behind advertising
In the past decade, researchers have learned a lot about how media production and content, including advertising, can be designed to trigger responses in the brain—without the viewer knowing it. That applies to kids’ advertising, too.
“Smart media producers, including advertising creative teams, have access to scientific research into how certain styles of production and content will resonate with a kid audience, as well as how to create desire for products,” says Paul Bolls, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
Bolls says that children’s advertising often targets two not-quite-developed areas of a child’s brain. One is the limbic system, which controls a lot of our emotional responses. When the brain receives intense sensory input, like loud noises, bright colors, and quick motion—things inherent in many children’s advertisements—the neural pathways send messages that create excitement and joy. That triggers feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. (Those chemicals are also released when a child hangs out with a good friend, a feeling similar to “loving” an influencer or character.) And feeling good when watching an ad creates a strong desire for the product so that the viewer can continue to feel good.
The other targeted brain area is the prefrontal cortex, which helps control cognitive behavior like self-control and decision-making skills. An adult’s prefrontal cortex will help regulate the strong emotions created by advertisements, provide a reality check about the product, and tamp down the desire to purchase. But the prefrontal cortex in children isn’t fully formed until they’re about 25 years old. That’s why kids often interrupt or throw tantrums—and why they’re so susceptible to advertising.
Take, for example, unboxing videos. “Not only are they excited about the process of unboxing, but that joy that they have when they see the product unboxed is carrying over to the product,” says Matthew LaPierre, an associate professor of communication at the University of Arizona who researches media’s impact on children’s health and well-being. “That gets kids excited, and they don't have that ability to override their response and say, ‘Wait. I don't really need this product. Do I want this?’”
Ages and stages
As a child’s brain develops, so too does the ability to tell the difference between advertisements and content. Here’s what media literacy stage your kid might be in right now.
Ages 3 to 6. At this stage, children aren’t developmentally mature enough to tell the difference between advertising and reality. In fact, research shows that kids under the age of seven have a very poor ability to understand persuasive intent, or the concept that someone is trying to influence them to buy something they may not need or even want.
Ages 7 to 11. Kids at this stage can start to understand persuasive intent a bit more—with help from parents. For instance, influencer advertising can be tough for kids to grasp on their own because good influencers build an emotional bond with viewers. “And once you’ve established that bond, it’s easier for them to get kids to want to buy something,” Robb says.
Ages 12 and up. By about age 12, kids can more reasonably identify advertising as well as the fact that somebody is trying to get them to buy something. But that undeveloped prefrontal cortex is still at play, so kids aren’t necessarily able to make the best choices.
Talking to kids about advertising
The bottom line is that children have less lived experience than adults do to critically evaluate advertisements. “They might be less apt to think about the downsides or the likeliness of a claim,” says Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Survive (and Thrive) in Their Digital World. That’s why it’s so vital for parents to have an ongoing conversation about ads, she says.
Start young. Teaching kids to critically question advertisements starts with talking about them. “It’s super important to have conversations with even young kids,” says Michelle Lipkin, executive director for the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “Asking questions like ‘What are they trying to get me to buy?’ or ‘Do you think that toy really does all that?’ is a great way to get kids thinking.”
Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, suggests questions like, Someone created that ad, why do you think they made it? Who is the ad meant for? What do you think the person who wrote it wanted you to feel at the end? What were your thoughts and feelings after watching the ad? Is the ad believable?
“Kids just need to be smart consumers,” Stern says. “And the way you get to be a smart consumer is to ask questions and notice how you feel.”
Express your own feelings. To help children understand that advertisements are meant to evoke emotional responses, vocalize your own feelings about the ads they’re watching.
“This helps kids better understand that we all react to advertisements and to notice that there is intent behind ads,” Stern says. “For example, you might say, ‘I'm watching this and I feel a little pressure now. Do I need to look like that to enjoy that product?’ Or ‘Boy, everybody in that ad looks really happy. I don’t always feel happy when I'm playing with my toys.’”
Reveal the hidden lingo. Ads don’t shove viewers toward products—it’s more like a gentle nudge. Jim Wasserman, co-author of the series Meet Media Literacy: How Teachers Can Bring Economics, Media, and Marketing to Life, advises that parents point out these subtle ad techniques.
• Aspirational buying: Buying a product because someone you admire is buying or using it
• Bandwagon appeal: A message that makes you feel like everybody's doing it, so you should, too
• Bundling: Buying things together in a package, even if you don’t want some of those items
• Eye candy: Anything with popping visuals
• Flattery: A message that says,You deserve the best—you're worth it.
• Hedging: Words like “maybe,” “possibly,” or “might” that signal anything can happen
Once kids can recognize those techniques, Wasserman suggests having kids articulate an ad’s intent in real terms. For instance, if a product has bandwagon appeal, have them think about what that would mean in real life.
“For example, identify an ad whose message says that you'll be cool if you use their product,” he says. “Then say, ‘If one of your friends didn’t use this product, would you not like them?’ That helps them see what the ad is trying to do—and to not feel bad if they don’t use the product.”
Unmask the influencers. Like the cool kids in school, influencers are people kids want to emulate. That’s not necessarily bad. But Robb says by helping kids see that these content creators often aren’t who they seem—just like an actor playing a character in a movie—parents can teach children that these celebrities might be doing more than just making fun videos.
For instance, children usually aren’t aware that an influencer often receives free products or is paid to promote specific brands. To help them understand, Wasserman suggests pointing out when an influencer is drinking a branded beverage in a how-to video or mentioning products while playing a video game. To expand the learning, visit the influencer’s web page with your child and look for language such as “looking for sponsors.” Your child can then search for examples of sponsorships within their favorite influencer’s content.
Spot hidden ads. Online advertisements are usually much harder for kids to identify than TV commercials. So Wasserman suggests treating digital content like a mystery that needs to be solved. “Scooby-Doo it,” he says. “Look for clues as to who profits and how.”
For instance, freeze the scroll at the bottom of a YouTube video and challenge kids to find pop-up or banner ads, or even product placements. Or, find content that seems like a fun video but is actually paid for, and see if kids can figure out how you can tell. For example, it might say (AD) in the video title or have a brief message at the beginning of the video. (Here’s an example from the Nat Geo Kids YouTube channel.)
“If we do this enough,” Wasserman says, “our kids will start to identify hidden ads on their own.”