Advertising has a profound effect on children. Research regarding behavioral outcomes found television advertising a significant factor in determining the specific items children request. Advertising has directed not only what children think they should want but how they are supposed to look. This has contributed to a large percentage of kids being obese and others anorexic, a dangerous one, two punch.
Studies vary on the exact amount of television children watch per day but it is commonly accepted that it is a large percentage of their lives outside school and sleep. While mesmerized in front of the T.V., children are exposed to many hours of violence, drug use and sex as well as to influential, sophisticated and enticing commercials. The media plays a more than active role in the perception of self for many people. Images depicted on TV relate society’s ideals and a quick glance in the mirror illustrates how these ideals are either being met or not met. In most cases, they are not met. From the time of television’s inception, no one has doubted that this medium would generate its operating revenues from advertising. However, advertising directed specifically toward children was not prevalent until the 1960’s. It was at this time the networks discovered that to remain financially viable, they would have to find additional advertising audience outside of the adult prime-time audiences that the advertisers had previously catered to (Adler, 1980).
Allen Kanner, a psychologist from Berkley University warns, “Advertising to kids is like shooting fish in a barrel” (Cooper, 2004). Kanner is one of 60 psychologists who have voiced their concerns to the American Psychological Association (APA) regarding television advertisements to children. They are not alone in their concern. Several countries have legislated restrictions for the advertising to children. Greece, for example, prohibits toy commercials between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.; Sweden prohibits all television commercials targeted at children younger than 12. Norway, Finland and Denmark do not permit children’s programs to contain commercial advertising. Another example, Canada’s Broadcasting Code “severely restricts children’s advertising, bans ads implying that a product will make a child happier or more popular” (Cooper, 2004).
According to findings in these countries and in studies conducted by the APA, eight-year-old children and younger can’t understand the concept that advertisements serve a different purpose than does other television shows. (Kunkel et al, 2004).
Television commercials promoting foods often misrepresent their products to impressionable children, as well as adults, regarding the product’s nutritional values, or lack of. “Health experts believe that constant promotion of high-calorie food is contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States by encouraging preferences for junk food and contributing to poor eating habits” (Byrd-Bredbenner & Grasso, 2000). To no one’s surprise, a strong association is present between obesity and the amount of time spent watching television.
The widespread problem, known as the ‘couch-potato’ syndrome, is likely caused by the ingestion of snack foods which are high in calories and fat content while watching television. As children watch their favorite shows, they are enticed by yet more types of ‘junk food.’ They then quickly and loudly inform the parents of the new product they ‘must have’ who then, more often than not, buy the product. It’s an endless cycle enabling what has become an epidemic of obese children. Instead of playing outside and burning up calories, children are content to sit and snack. The ‘couch potato’ syndrome is curable however. Studies have shown that obese children lose weight when they are allowed to spend less time in front of the television (Miller, 1999).
When advertisements air promising instant weight loss or easier approaches to attaining the body beautiful, many, especially young teenagers fall into the trap of believing such solutions are possible and are severely disappointed when they don’t work. Rather than placing the blame where it properly belongs, on the product, many women, particularly adolescent girls, tend to blame themselves, contributing to an ever decreasing sense of self-esteem. To illustrate the potentially dangerous effects media advertising of such products might have on adolescent girls, one study investigated how girls responded to such ads. In the study, 42 participants were shown print and television ads for weight loss products and were asked to interpret their responses. “Common factors in girls’ interpretation of weight-loss advertising included responding to texts emotionally by identifying with characters; comparing and contrasting persuasive messages with real-life experiences with family members; using prior knowledge about nutrition management and recognizing obvious deceptive claims like ‘rapid’ or ‘permanent’ weight loss” (Hobbs et al, 2006). However, these same subjects were shown to be not as capable of understanding the deeper persuasive elements of the advertising and economic subtext, again and again falling into the ‘trap’ of the ads.
Advertising to young children takes full advantage of their naiveté, a practice that, in any other context is generally illegal and unquestionably immoral. There are, however, methods by which parents can reduce the negative influence for their children. These steps include setting limits on what and how much television the child watches, viewing with the child so as to explain reality from fantasy and when the child asks for something they have seen on a commercial, informing them that they are meant to sell something that a person might want but doesn’t need. Most importantly, parents should set a good example by restricting their own television viewing habits. Children learn more from simply observing their parents than most realize. Parents who are mesmerized by the television will raise kids who are more likely to be obese and possess a low self-image.
Adler, R.P. “Children’s Television Advertising: History of the Issue.” Children and the Faces of Television: Teaching, Violence, Selling. A. Dorr and E. Palmer (Eds.). New York: Academic Press. (1980).
Byrd-Bredbenner C & Grasso D. “Commercials During 1992 and 1998.” Journal of School Health. Vol. 70. pp. 61-65. (2000). Web.
Cooper, Garry. “TV Advertising is Bad for Children.” Associated Counselors and Therapists. Hermosa Beach, CA. (2004). Web.
Hobbs, Renee; Broder, Sharon; Pope, Holly; Rowe, Jonelle. “How Adolescent Girls Interpret Weight-Loss Advertising.” Health Education Research. Vol. 21, N. 5, (2006): 719-730.
Kunkel, Dale; Wilcox, Brian; Cantor, Joanne; Palmer, Edward; Linn, Susan; & Dowrick, Peter. “Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children Section: Psychological Issues in the Increasing Commercialization of Childhood.” American Psychological Association. (2004). Web.
Miller, Daphne. “Television’s Effects on Kids: It Can be Harmful!” CNN. (1999). Web.