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Advertising, Our Children, and Consumerism

Where do we American consumers come by the sense of entitlement and consumerism that is reflected in our buy now, pay later attitude toward credit and debt? Many of us were raised on it. And now so are our children.

  • The average American child may view as many as 40,000 television commercials every year (Strasburger, 2001)*
  • Children as young as age three recognize brand logos (Fischer, 1991) with brand loyalty influence starting at age two (McNeal, 1992)
  • Young children are not able to distinguish between commercials and TV programs. They do not recognize that commercials are trying to sell something (Comstock, 1991)
  • In 1997, $1.3 billion was spent on television advertisements directed at children. Counting all media, advertising, and marketing budgets aimed at children approached $12 billion (McNeal, 1999)
  • Children who watch a lot of television want more toys seen in advertisements and eat more advertised food than children who do not watch as much television (Strasburger, 2002)

As early as 1931, a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection encouraged parents to take children shopping to pick out their own things. This exercise was to have the advantage of building personal pride in ownership and to teach the child that the personality can be expressed through things. Really! They thought this was a good thing! Fast forward to today at the grocery check out lane – where you’ll see the result of years of creative ideas, social and economic development, marketing research, and financial resources all focused within one child’s cry of “Please Mommy, I reeeeaaaally want it!”

Advertisements now place themselves and the watching children in a conflict situation between the ‘good and helpful’ product and the “bad” mommies and daddies who say ‘no’. By the time a parent realizes the impact on their child, there is real potential for the parent to have been taken out of the equation of the development of a child’s sense of self, values, and peer relationships. Your child also learns that personal choice is consumerism is personal choice - there is no difference.

If you’ve ever been a child you will remember advertising and merchandising efforts focused on you - the Batman lunchbox, Barbie and GI Joe commercials on Saturday mornings, and who didn’t want a slip-n-slide, hoola hoop, or Big Wheel (some of us are still bitter). Now multiply that and bring it to school with product sponsorship programs and fundraising.

There are many different battlefronts for parents to be aware of today (including smoking, drug usage, staying in school, bullies, sexual predators, and so on) that one begins to wonder just how important an issue consumerism is. However, looking long term we see that more 19 - 24 year olds are filing bankruptcy at a faster rate than any other age group. Many of these young adults did not understand credit and debt, nor did they understand how to respond to the beliefs and assumptions developed through advertising bombardment. If asked, they most likely would deny believing that a specific brand of cosmetics would make them more beautiful or that a certain car would make them more successful. But who among us would admit that the newest electronic gadget would 1) improve our memories 2) make us better communicators 3) organize our fast paced chaotic lives or 4) simply make us look cool. Nevertheless, our behaviors say something different.

So the challenge we face then is this: how to instill in our children the understanding that possessions don’t make the person, that the person with the most toys doesn’t always win, how to develop a sense of self that is not connected to consumerism, while avoiding the disappointed child and guilty parent syndrome.

What you can do:

  • Model the behavior for your child - actions speak louder than words. While children may not ‘get’ the fact that advertisers are trying to sell them something until you explain it, they are not blind and they are not stupid. They see what you do.
  • Cut the number of hours your child watches TV and then watch what your children watch - just as you monitor the choice of programs your children watch, take the time to explain the difference between advertisements and TV programs (programs are to teach or entertain, ads to sell). (Remember our factoids: age 2 or 3 is not too young to begin these explanations). You can make it fun as a game as you and your children attempt to guess what the advertisements are trying to sell.
  • Talk honestly with your kids - as they get older and more advertisement savvy discuss the assumptions advertisements would like you to make - that a pair of tennis shoes will make you play basketball like a professional - a hamburger will make you happy - get a cell phone and have lots of friends to call - a certain brand of jeans makes you a better person than another - and whether or not these assumptions are really true. Share your perceptions as well - how tempting a certain car is because it promises you the open road, not the daily traffic jam commute.

Of course, the holidays are an important time to help your kids set limits on consumerism. Help him or her ‘do’ something nice for someone rather than ‘buy’ something nice. Plan activities with them based on your family’s values, not materialism. Remember, if your feeling overwhelmed with the ‘buy now, buy lots’ holiday spirit, your children probably will be too. Talk to them about it. Discuss value compared to cost. Maybe you’ll both agree there are more important things this year...than just things.

*Statistics collected from the National Institute on Media and the Family website.

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