Steve Gara, owner of Vita Bakes Bakery, makes his living selling vitamin-fortified cupcakes and other treats at North Miami’s Salad Oz. Despite his health consciousness, Gara doesn’t worry much about his kids pestering for unhealthy foods and expensive toys they see on TV commercials. That’s because his 9-year-old twin boys typically don’t even watch those 30-second spots. They’re too busy wrestling each other during the cartoon breaks.
“They have a short attention span,” Gara says, laughing.
Commercial-time wrestling isn’t the only antidote to the marketing magic called “pester power,” which describes an ad’s ability get kids to ask, and ask — and and ask — for candy, toys or other goods until parents give way in desperation. Though it might be maddening, pestering doesn’t have to be a threat to our budgets, according to Australian researchers who have studied the behavior. Even when kids are possessed by the idea of buying a product, a simple dose of media literacy can serve as the perfect exorcism, they say.
Many media experts have expressed skepticism that our wallets stand a chance against a toy on TV that appears to make an 8 year-old’s life worth living. But the University of Melbourne researchers say video cameras placed in eight suburban homes offer proof.
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To study viewer behavior, the cameras filmed more than 1,250 TV program breaks.
The good news, says Mark Ritson, a professor at the University of Melbourne involved with the study, is that children approach commercials much like their parents. “They often ignore ads. They seldom watch them.”
The footage showed that families often used the commercial breaks to discuss the TV program, get some water or even offer each other affection — much like the Gara family. The kids who did concentrate heavily on the commercials were those watching TV by themselves. But — don’t fear — if a mother was close by, say cooking dinner, she could pipe in with some important information about how advertising had a goal of selling products, not helping people, and blunt the ads’ seductive effects.
“It’s pointless to try and stop kids seeing ads,” Ritson said. “The right approach is to use the ads for a basis of discussion about the commercial intent of advertising and why it’s different from program content.”
Uh … no, says Joanne Cantor, the director for the Center for Communications Research at University of Wisconsin in Madison. First of all, kids under about 8 years old don’t have the cognitive ability to rely on past information — such as our parental media literacy speeches — when later watching a commercial for a juicy burger meal that comes with a fun toy, she says. Young kids operate in the immediate moment and typically believe everything they’re told. They can’t yet separate fantasy from reality until they’re older, says Cantor.
“If you try to have an intervention that reduces the impact of advertising,” she says, “it won’t work.”
As for older kids, sure, parental guidance can be helpful, says Cantor. But it’s not long before peer opinion becomes more important to our kids than what we parents say. And even if we could convince them that a particular product won’t make them popular and companies just want their money, it wouldn’t be effective all the time. Remember, even we — as sage adults — fall for many marketing tactics, she says.
“No parenting is so powerful that we can not worry about advertising,” Cantor said. “It’s hard to be as entertaining as a screen with special effects.”
And advertising is hardly limited to TV commercials, points out Dr. Susan Linn, the founding director of Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. Entire TV programs are built around brand products, she says. One example is the Nickelodeon show, Rush Zone. The National Football League sponsors both the show and a school curriculum that promotes fantasy football by awarding prizes that give kids a vested interest in the outcome of actual games.
“It’s important to talk to children about advertising,” Dr. Linn said. “But it’s naïve or disingenuous to think that just talking will wipe out the affects of advertising. Companies should stop targeting children directly. Advertising should be aimed at parents.”
Another problem with the Australian advertising education theory, says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, is that most commercials hit us on a neurological level, not a rational one. We are biologically conditioned to want fat and sugar. So what happens after we see golden pancakes on a screen? Well, studies show that food advertising increases the amount of unhealthy foods kids eat after seeing the delicious-looking images.
“No one knows better than we do about what these companies are trying to accomplish,” Harris said. “And still, after studying food commercials, even we leave here and want to get the Dairy Queen Blizzard.”
This is an occasional column by Miamian Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist who covers how economic forces affect real people. Follow her at @BrettGraff or contact her at email@example.com.
Teaching kids about TV messages
These examples from a Federal Trade Commission report can help parents explain to children that things aren’t always as good as they seem on TV.
▪ A ballerina doll was shown pirouetting on one toe, unassisted on TV, but she could not do this in a playroom.
▪ Toy helicopters were depicted as flying, hovering in mid-air but really, they were suspended by monofilament wires attached to poles and manipulated by unseen people.
▪ A toy horse named Nugget was shown standing on his own but fell over without human assistance.
▪ An ice cream was introduced as 93 percent fat free, but that calculation didn’t include its chocolate coating. Once you factored what any reasonable person would include as — maybe even the best — part of the bar, it was actually 14 percent fat (10 grams per bar), which isn’t particularly low at all.
▪ The FTC challenged a TV ad for a doll with hair that could be washed and dried, but in doing so it showed a girl about 7 years old using an electrical hairdryer next to a bathroom sink filled with water — an unsafe practice.
▪ TV ads with characters like Santa Claus, Popeye and the Easter Bunny encouraged children to call 900 telephone numbers to talk to the characters and receive prices. Yes, it would show up on their parents’ phone bills — $2 for the first minute and 45 cents each additional.
Source: Advertising to Kids and the FTC: A Regulatory Retrospective that Advises the Present.