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Story highlights

Commercials are becoming more sophisticated to take advantage of technologies

Helping kids understand how advertising works can protect them from being exploited

Commercials are nothing new. We all grew up with them and can probably sing a dozen or more jingles. What is new is how advertisers have adapted to digital media – especially apps, websites, and social media.

Many of today’s ads – from product placements in movies and on TV to online contests, viral videos, and “chatbots” (robots that send instant messages) – don’t look like ads. And that’s by design.

Adapting to ever more jaded and fickle viewers, marketers have developed ways to integrate ads into entertainment, so it’s hard to tell where the “real” content ends and the ads begin. These techniques also encourage us to interact (click, swipe, play, chat), which gives marketers data about our habits, likes, and preferences.

A few important advertising tricks of the trade have not changed, though. Companies still practice these successful marketing techniques:

  • Expanding a product’s target age to get younger and older kids to buy it (think Dora the Explorer becoming a miniskirted tween).
  • Using a multi-platform approach (web, TV, toys, movies) because the more a kid sees a product, the more likely she will be to buy it later.
  • Building brand loyalty – again, the younger the better – to get kids hooked on certain brands (for example, Levi’s) as early as possible.

Obviously, commercials aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re becoming ever stealthier and more sophisticated to take advantage of new technologies. But kids – especially young kids – are vulnerable to marketing messages. Children are so impressionable that a number of organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, have called for heavy restrictions on advertising to children.

Wanting more and more material things can cause anxiety, depression, and anger. It can make kids judge their self-worth by what they own. Helping kids understand how advertising works can help protect them from being exploited. Use these tips to help your kids develop strong media-literacy skills so they can become informed consumers.

Teach kids how to be news- and media-literate

Tips for parents of preschool kids

  • Keep your children away from advertising as much as possible. Let them watch commercial-free TV or use a DVR to skip through ads.
  • Teach kids the difference between a TV program and a commercial. Point out commercials and use a timer to show your children when a commercial begins and ends. Ask questions to help your kids recognize that the purpose of the commercial is to sell them a product. For example, ask, “What is the commercial selling?”
  • Point out online ads. Use these tips for teaching your kids to understand when something is an ad on the internet.

Games that help kids think critically

Tips for parents of elementary school kids

  • Help kids identify all forms of advertising messages. Watch TV, play a video game, or download an app with your kids and find the products and logos. Have a conversation about how the messages try to get kids to buy products.
  • Tell your kids never to click on an ad or fill out a form without your permission. Contests and promotions are often devious ways for companies to get emails and phone numbers.
  • Build media-literacy skills. Ask your kids if they know who created a particular ad and which words, images, or sounds were used to attract their attention. How did they feel after seeing the ad?
  • Explain “tricks” that advertisers use in commercials. For example, advertisers often use Vaseline to make hamburgers look juicy. Talk with your children about the true purpose behind promotions, downloads, and links from games, websites, and cell phones. Kids need to know that no matter how clever the gimmicks or games, they’re all ads.
  • Talk about celebrity endorsements. Are your kids more likely to want something if their favorite celebrity is in the ad? Help your kids connect the dots so they recognize how they’re being influenced.

Five ways to spot fake news

Tips for parents of middle and high school kids

  • Demystify brands. Brands sell images to kids as much as they sell products. Companies are smart about making brands seem so cool that every kid will want the products. Help your kids know that they are much more than what they own.
  • Talk to kids about alcohol, cigarette, and e-cigarette advertising. Help keep tweens and teens away from marketing for age-inappropriate products. Studies show that alcohol messages to kids are very effective. Discuss all the different ways they see e-cigs marketed (in stores, online, in their social media). Talk about how these methods are designed to target their specific demographic.
  • Discuss smartphone and app ads. Some advertisers get kids to trade personal information for freebies – soda, candy, and the like. Marketers also are able to get information on kids through messaging apps such as Kik and Snapchat and send them text ads.
  • Explain how location-based ads work. Using your phone’s GPS (and other data), companies send targeted texts advertising nearby products and services. You can turn off your phone’s GPS and turn off notifications like this in your apps.
  • Teach them to resist peer pressure. Many ads will count on the fact that kids are especially sensitive to peer pressure. Remind your children that advertisers are counting on this vulnerability to sell things.
  • Strengthen media-literacy skills. Question everything you see online and in apps, as those platforms are not subjected to the same advertising rules as TV. Why was this ad created? What features does it have, and what messages does it send? What information does it include, and what does it leave out?