Talking with the experts: Teach children to ask questions about advertising and its tactics

Parents should sit down with children and teens to watch advertising together and learn to identify the strategies behind it with questions like: ‘Who is the ad targeting? What tactics did the advertiser use to appeal to me? What information is unrealistic?’ 

On Super Bowl Sunday, people gathered around the television to watch football, but also to watch new commercials released by some of the world’s most recognizable brands. 

Institute of Child Development Associate Professor Gail Ferguson, Ph.D. discusses how advertisements can influence youth behavior and how parents can prepare their children to be savvy media consumers. 

Q: Why is it important to pay attention to the advertisements children and adolescents see?

Prof. Ferguson: As a child clinical psychologist who has worked with youth and parents across different countries, I know 21st century parents are working to create a safe and enriching environment for their children both online and off. However, advertising is a powerful – and increasingly pervasive – daily influence in the lives of children and adolescents that is often underestimated or overlooked. While ads have become shorter – many lasting less than 60 seconds – it’s estimated that we see as many as 20,000 to 50,000 ads and other marketing messages daily. 

Q: How can advertising affect the mental and physical health of children and adolescents? 

Prof. Ferguson: Advertising aims to persuade, which can play on a child or teen’s self-image and influence their thinking or behavior. For example, in my lab, the Culture and Family Life Lab, we focus on the association between food advertising and eating habits for youth and families in different contexts.

My research with collaborators shows that adolescents in Jamaica and South Africa who have strong affinity for U.S. culture through a process called “remote acculturation” watch more hours of U.S. cable on a daily basis and also tend to consume more unhealthy foods and beverages. 

This realization led me and my collaborators to develop and evaluate a global health intervention called JUS Media? Programme. The program teaches adolescents and parents how to question the lifestyle messages embedded in food advertising to make healthier eating choices. 

Q: How has globalization changed advertising and its impact?

Prof. Ferguson: Due to globalization, advertising now has instantaneous global reach.  Advertising for U.S. products is especially pervasive, as the U.S. has the largest media and entertainment industry. It’s responsible for approximately one-third of the world’s media and entertainment expenditures. 

The rapid advancement of technology also plays a role. Ads are now delivered in many forms ranging from billboards and TV commercials to product placements within shows/movies, personalized pop-up advertisements online and advergames. 

For all these reasons, globalization increases the potential influence of advertising on children and adolescents because it can reach more youth much more quickly and consistently. 

Q: What can parents do to encourage media/advertising literacy in their children? 

Prof. Ferguson:For 21st century parents and caregivers, media literacy is crucial, and it’s never too late to start teaching your child how to be a more savvy consumer. I recommend watching media with your children so you can have a conversation about what you see. Ask questions like:

- Who made this ad?

- Why did they make it?

- Who is it targeting?

- What tactics are advertisers using to appeal to me?

- How do I know the claims in this ad are true?

- What information is unrealistic or missing from this ad?

Teaching your children to think critically will enhance their media literacy and internet safety, build social media smarts, and help them to make safe and healthy choices. Knowing how to choose media that will be both fun and healthy is a lifelong skill that they will carry with them into the future. 

Q: What resources are available to parents? 

Prof. Ferguson:Ph.D. student Lauren Eales and I compiled some key resources in this recent tip sheet from our lab: What should I know about my child’s media use? We direct parents to guidelines from the National Association for Media Literacy Education at https://namle.net/publications/a-parents-guide

We also suggest an online tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics where you can create a personalized family media use plan that works for the whole family. Visit www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan.  

GAIL FERGUSON, PH.D., is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Institute of Child Development. Her expertise is to identify and target risk and protective factors in prevention programs that promote the resilience and positive development of youth and families.

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