Selling Our Children: Thinking Outside of the Box

The cold cereal flows with sophisticated 3D animated effects, while the announcer proclaims the multi-colored shapes to be “a part of this good breakfast.” The quick flash of the oversized bowl filled with the star product, sitting prominently in the center of the shot, will likely distract even the sharpest viewer from noticing the glass of juice and hopefully healthy muffin that are included at the corners of the screen.

For the six-year-olds making up the intended audience watching this demonstration of breakfast euphoria, chances are even better the “good breakfast” message will be confined to what’s inside the box.

A recent report from a “Task Force” assembled by the American Psychological Association (APA) examining the effects of advertising on children, attests that more than $12,000,000,000 is spent every year to reach the youth market. Even more astounding is the claim, based on research completed by noted children’s media expert Dr. Dale L. Kunkel (a member of the APA task force), that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year.

At first I found the latter number difficult to believe, until I pulled out my calculator.

Because 30-second commercials have taken a back seat to shorter messages, 15 and even 10-second sales pitches have enabled sponsors to reach a new generation of young viewers—one whose minds are trained to have attention spans shorter than a toy warranty.

That allows for an incredible number of “buy this” moments in an hour of watching. Assuming 24 messages can be crammed into an hour (I’ve counted even more on occasion, especially if you factor in product placements embedded in a program), a four-hour-a-day diet would amount to over 35,000 commercials in a year.

That’s still a little shy of what Dr. Kunkel suggests, but I may be a bit conservative in some of my estimates.

The APA’s task force also poured over a mountain of previously completed research. They determined two important processing tasks are required before any person can achieve a mature understanding of an advertising message: First, can the viewer tell the difference between the commercial and the rest of the program? And, can they comprehend advertising’s sole purpose is to persuade you to buy something—even if it isn’t “good for you.”

Depending on the age of the audience, the answer to both of these questions may be “No.”

Studies conducted over 30 years ago determined children below the age of five are not likely to be able to discern between the cartoon and the commercial. If you recall, it was about the time these results were released that “We’ll be right back after these messages” became the most oft repeated Saturday morning phrase.

Yet even that auditory cue wasn’t enough to trigger the notion in the youngest minds that they had left the television program and entered the land of sell. When commercial introductions (or worse yet, the commercials themselves) used characters from the program they were watching, the line between marketing and entertainment became even fuzzier.

The second task requires even more maturity. While the APA says children are about eight years old before they can recognize the overt bias contained within a sales pitch, I believe some may not achieve this level of critical thinking until early adulthood or even later. (I’ve even found myself convinced by late-night infomercials!)

Children are born with a trusting nature, so they tend to believe what they see and hear. Their innocent demeanors aren’t prepared for the onslaught of “you need this” messages thrown at them with every technological advantage television can afford.

Advertising is an essential part of our market-driven free speech society. There would be little in the way of entertainment or information media without it. But recognizing its impact on consumers is vital. The APA report concludes new policies are necessary to protect our children from succumbing to messages—especially when they motivate them to respond in ways not in their best interest.

As you teach your children about commercials within television programming, make sure you also encourage them to think outside of the cereal box.

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