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Marketing to Kids: The “Born to Buy”: Generation

“It takes a village to raise a child”, I concluded. By this I ended my speech at the parents' convention in Virginia Elementary School . As a child's rights advocate, I spent 20 years of my life voicing children's rights trying to protect them from the veils of marketing. We need a whole community to be involved in the upbringing of a child. Child care should be able to extend beyond the area set by his/her family. This is essentially true, because the children's experiences, beyond their familiar zone of families, neighborhoods and communities can have a dramatic impact and significance on their growth and development. This village raising our children is no longer the same, but rather it underwent a drastic transformation by the commercially driven force and the various electronic media. Diverse marketing efforts are targeted towards children all over the globe directing at them different marketing messages from morning to night not with the purpose of improving their quality of life but rather for the sole purpose of making a sale. The role of marketing does not stop there, but rather it influences the children's both existing and future lifestyles (Linn 2003, 478).

Marketing to children is a main concern to advertisers and consumer groups as they could not easily understand the commercial messages. Advertisers should put into consideration the level of complexity, knowledge and maturity of the people to whom the message is addressed. They have concerns about the children's ability to understand the commercial messages as the children have a restricted ability in assessing the reliability of the data they obtain. Moreover, advertisers should be aware that children are imaginative and that they should not influence their evaluation of the product value or performance by using advertising in a way that children could not discriminate between the actual and the imaginary features of the products. There is anxiety about the effects of the contents of commercials on children as they spend a large amount of time viewing television including commercials (Hawkins et al. 2004, 711). Statistics show that children ranging from 2 to 18 years of age append approximately 40 hours a week outside of school occupied with media like television, radio, video and computer games (Linn 2004, 367).

Children often watch television unattended, in other words no adult is usually around to assist them in processing the marketing messages that they receive. The “latchkey kids” phenomenon; which is basically elementary schools kids left home alone from the time they finished school till their parents came home from work; has also become an opportunity that marketers see in a potential for consuming their products; taking into account how many purchases that these kids control and how much potential they represent(Linn 2004, 368).

Advertising can have an impact on children's values, physical condition and security. The advertisers should convey truthful data in an understandable language. They should also confirm affirmative social behavior among children. There is also a concern about the effect of the contents of the advertisements on children . Television advertising can have a negative effect on children's purchase decision such as tobacco use (Hawkins et al. 2004, 712).

In the US , approximately 1 billion packs of cigarettes are being consumed by minors less than 18 years of age every year. It has been found that the younger an adolescent is at the age that he starts to regularly smoke, the greater the probability of them chronically using it as adults. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 200 million to 300 million of currently alive children and adolescents under the age of 20 years would eventually be killed by tobacco (Pollay et al. 1996, 1).

Spending on advertising and promotion in the cigarette-industry was over $ 6 billion and still growing in the US . The marketing mix for this industry includes not only the controversial element of advertising but many other things including: packaging graphics, sports sponsorship as access to television, product placements in films, distribution near schools and unsupervised vending machines among other things (Pollay et al. 1996, 1).

It was found that health organizations believe that the removal of advertisements and promotion of tobacco products may decrease its consumption among young children. Most of cigarette advertisements displayed are featuring surfers, mountain climbers that the children consider as role models and could affect their perception positively toward smoking (Tye et al. 1987, 498).

Studies have shown that school children who smoke are alert of messages in cigarette advertisements and that advertisement campaigns like sponsorships of sporting events could have a positive connection between the smoking and the thrilling sports they are involved in. In addition to that, the free samples provided by tobacco companies could be a reason to attract younger consumers to use their products. Those samples are mainly distributed in concerts and special events where younger children gatherings occur (Tye et al. 1987, 500).

One of the most controversial recent advertising events employed by the R.J. Reynolds's Camel brand was the “Smooth Character (Joe Camel)”. Reports show that this cartoon character is found to be highly popular by young children. And children were found to be as familiar with the Joe Camel character as Ronald McDonald. Recent surveys have also shown that the choices of brands of adolescent smokers were mostly focused on those brands that had the largest advertising budgets (Pollay et al. 1996, 1- 2, 12).

While television advertising targets mainly children, there are other marketing activities like school commercialism, which became popular as an advertising tool for promoting to different products. Such advertising depend on large companies that position strong messages in educational materials provided by schools in order to attract more children and promote their products. This affects the students negatively as it will divert children from their academic education and will also have an effect on the children's' health as advertisers are encouraging unhealthy food like soft drinks and candy, which could increase obesity among children (Molnar 2003, 371).

Marketing of food high in sugar, fat, salt, and calories to children also raises an important issue with an ethical dimension. Although in the United States , childhood obesity is a chief public health concern, marketing for such food such as TV commercials targeting children remains highly significant. It has been found that children asking for such food products along with their wrong perceptions about nutrition and their increased calorie intake all was related to television advertising (Linn 2004, 367)

The amount of money spent on marketing to kids doubled throughout the 1990's and in 2002 it was about $ 15 billion every year. In 2002, Burger King spent approximately $650 million for which the year before, it spent $ 80 million on advertising that was directed only for kids (Linn 2004, 370).

Another way for marketers to influence brand choices of kids is through product placements which is when companies pay to place their products in the content of the media programs. Examples of which are juice products placed inside Sesame streets, shown to be consumed by the characters inside the show and McDonald's food products were incorporated in the Spy Kids the hit children movie. (Linn 2004, 370-373) .

From the previous studies, we can conclude that marketing is a highly visible and important activity that influences the lives of children, who are mostly affected by it through television ads, sponsorship events, school commercialism and other marketing activities. The process that the message of an ad is conveyed to the children, will affect their purchase decision-making towards any of products. Thereby, advertisers should be aware that children may lack the capability to comprehend the message within the ad. Tobacco use and obesity among children are one of the negative outcomes that could be resulted from advertising.

The American advertising industry maintains a special unit to review the advertising intended to children by issuing rules to improve the level of responsibility in advertising intended to children (Hawkins et al. 2004, 711). Also, parents should be educated about all the potential evils of marketing to children . Experts on child nurturing recommend that parents would “pick their battles” as they are weighed down by the massive number of battles created through commercials that they have to fight. For example if a parent is stern in food, should he also be strict about violent toys and music? Video games? TV time? (Linn 2004, 367)



• Hawkins, D.I, Best, R.J, Coney, K.A. (2004). Consumer Behavior, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., United States .

Linn, S. E. (2004). Food Marketing to Children in the Context of Marketing Maelstorm: Journal of Public Heal, vol. 25, pp. 367-378

Linn, S. (2003). Children and Commercial Culture: Expanding the Advocacy Roles of Professionals in Education, Health, and Human Service. In: Journal of Nergo Education, vol.72, No 4, pp.478-486.

Molnar, A. (2003). School Commercialism Hurts All Children, Ethnic Minority Group Children Most of All. In: Journal of Nergo Edcation, vol. 72, No 4, pp.371- 378.

Pollay, R.W., Siddarth, S., Siegal, M., Haddix, A., Merritt, R.K, Giovino, G.A, Eriksen, M.P. (1996). The Last Straw? Cigarette Advertising and Realized Market Shares among Youths and Adults. In: Journal of Marketing, vol.60, No 2, pp. 1-16.

Tye, J.B., Warner, K.E., Glantz, S.A. (1987). Tobacco Advertising and Consumption: Evidence of a Causal Relationship. In: Journal of Public Health Policy, vol.8, No 4, pp. 492-508.


Miriam Bebawy

Hend Samir

This article was done as basis for class discussion by students. They can be reached at and
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