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Advertising Impact on Children


In 2004, Melissa Dittmann found out that advertisers spend at least $12 billion annually on messages that target children. Consequently, the media channels were flooded with messages that bombarded young audiences with messages that intended to persuade them along with a particular desirable behavior as orchestrated by the advertisers.

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Since 2004 to date, the situation has changed. Specifically, it has been found that children have become a major target audience for advertisers (Kapferer, 2008). Not only are advertisers reaching out to children through TV commercials and the internet, but have also gone a notch higher to sponsor corporate events in schools where such children spend most of their time.

While marketers may find a ready market in children, this paper takes the position that advertising has negative impacts on children. It is important to note that children’s cognitive abilities are not fully developed to make a distinction between the good and bad of what is advertised to them. Additionally, children do not possess the skills necessary to evaluate and interpret an advertisement.

The Medical Offer of Health (2008) found out “many children as old as 10-12 years of age will not use their critical evaluation skills to interpret ads” (p. 5). In other words, children perceive whatever is communicated in the advertisement as the absolute truth. They will, therefore, nag their parents to buy the items for them, especially if a sense of urgency had been created by the advertisement.

Kapferer (2008) captures the effect of advertising on children in clearer terms when he says that children have unequal power relationships with the advertisers. Being more mature, advertisers create advertising messages that are appealing and captivating to children, who in all their credulousness and naivety become captive to the advertising messages.


Consumer behavior among children is arguably different from what is registered among the adult population (Kapferer 2008). Children are easy to influence, while adults are arguably harder to influence since they reason and prioritize before making a purchase decision (Kapferer 2008).

To understand the importance of consumer behavior in marketing that targets children, it is important to define the concept (i.e., consumer behavior) refers to.

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According to the American Marketing Association (cited by Peter & Olson 2010), consumer behavior refers to “the dynamic interaction of effect and cognition, behavior and the environment by which human beings conduct exchange aspects of their lives” (p. 5). The preceding citation can be interpreted to mean that consumer behavior is the result of the interaction between different internal and external aspects in and around the consumer.

One of the major concerns among behavioral scientists is that children under the age of eight years do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the persuasive dimension in most advertisements. Peter and Olson (2010) indicate affective and cognitive responses as two mental responses by consumers to marketing stimuli. Arguably, marketers can overwhelm children with positive affect when advertising a particular product.

In other words, marketers can lead children to rely too much on their feelings. However, children’s cognition is not fully developed, and as such, they may not think about their feelings towards an advertised product or service. As Peter and Olson (2010) notes, cognition affects the “thinking, understanding and interpreting stimuli and events” (p. 21).

Since their cognitive abilities are not fully developed, Kapferer (2008) indicates that children stand the risk of “being wronged during the consumption process” (p. 10). They are wronged through misleading beliefs, values, and assumptions, which are communicated to them through advertisements.

As Peter and Olson (2010) note, consumers make meaning out of a marketing message based on the recognition of a product, comprehension of the message and how easily the messages can be remembered. Arguably, all messages targeting children are easy to remember and comprehend. However, children do not usually possess the cognitive abilities to decipher the messages targeting them.

Consequently, they are at a disadvantage when compared to the adult population, since their purchase decisions are not based on based on a critical analysis of the facts communicated to them by marketers. However, it is also important to note that even adults who possess the cognitive abilities to evaluate whatever is communicated by marketers do not always engage in complex decision-making. The foregoing statement is especially true where simple purchases are made.

Another major negative effect that advertising has on children is that it has shifted the reliance that children had on their parents or guardians as a source of knowledge; instead, children arguably now learn consumer values from the advertisements. The preceding proposition is supported by Livingstone (2004), who argues that advertisements shorten “the period during which parents are the primary socializing forces in the lives of their children” (p.9).

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In France, scholars found out that regardless of the eating habits that parents taught their children, they (children) were still persuaded to consume unhealthy diets by the advertisements they watched (Livingstone, 2009). Harris, Bargh, and Brownell (2009) also discovered that “French young people (aged eight to fourteen) said that the ads they watched made them want to eat or drink” (p. 409). Incidentally, it is not a healthy kind of food that is always advertised.

Rather, most of the food advertised on children’s shows are either high in fats, sugar, and calories (Harris et al., 2009). If children react to advertising stimuli, they consume foods that have negative consequences for their health. It is, therefore, not a surprise that obesity, especially among children, has been partially blamed on advertisements. Peter and Olson (2010) found out that consumers often perceive products as “bundles of benefits” (p. 71).

Arguably, while adult consumers can decipher the functional and psychosocial consequences of a marketed product, children do not possess the same capacity. As indicated above, parents are no longer the primary source of knowledge on matters related to consumer items to their children; this means that consumer knowledge in children is to a large degree shaped by marketing messages.

Considering the earlier argument that children do not have the cognitive competence to separate reality from fiction, it is also possible that some advertisers hoodwink children into thinking that their products are the opposite of what they are. A case in point would be when McDonald’s sponsored children aged between six and 14 years to attend the London Olympic Games in 2012 as indicated in the company’s website (McDonald’s News, 2011). Being a fast food company, McDonald’s is practically not an advocate of healthy eating habits. The Olympic Games, on the other hand, is a place where physically fit athletes compete. The affiliation between the two (i.e., McDonald’s and Olympic Games) could blur children’s senses and affect their self-relevance as indicated by Peter and Olson (2010). It is thus likely that children who are interested in the Olympics would think that the athletes feed on McDonald’s fast food offers to attain the great physical shape that they were in.

Self-relevance is a temporary feeling that is usually a result of social or physical stimuli (Peter & Olson, 2010). McDonald’s would, in this case, be a source of self-relevance to the targeted children. Connotations such as those made by McDonald’s are no doubt misleading to the children. One can thus argue that the effect of such advertising hurts children, first because it misrepresents facts by portraying the fast food as a supporter of healthy living, while in reality, it is not.

Secondly, there is a possibility that children who were sponsored to travel to London Olympic Games by McDonald’s got the impression that fast food cannot be that bad after all, and as such, have included the food into their daily eating habits. From statistics, it is clear that fast food consumption is one of the leading causes of obesity in developed countries such as the US (Harris et al., 2009). It is worth noting that obesity is a predictor of many diseases that include diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and other lifestyle diseases.

Literature has a wealth of research findings that implicate advertising as bad for children (Harris et al., 2009). It is, therefore, hard to find counter-arguments against the same. However, it is important to note that children grow in a society where a considerable percentage of the adult population may want to protect them from the hard realities of the world. Sometimes, however, it becomes inevitable that they (children) will be exposed to the good and the bad aspects of society.

France is one such country that argues that advertisements prepare “children for future life in a consumer society” (Peace Pledge Union (PPU) 2003, para. 1). The argument further implies that there is an educative aspect that children acquire from advertisements (PPU, 2003).

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Quinn (2002) tries to support this argument by stating that children who are shielded from advertisements are more likely to be ill-equipped for the realities of the commercial world when they grow up and that they are also less likely to develop the comprehension needed to decipher commercial communication in their adult years. It is important to note that the assertions made by Quinn (2002) in the foregoing statement are not backed by any scientific evidence.

As such, it is safe to argue that they are just his opinions and nothing more. It is also worth noting that as part of marketing, the sole purpose of advertising is converting as many people into buyers. Arguably, therefore, it is not the advertisers’ role to educate children about the future that awaits them in the consumer society or anything else related to making wise consumer decisions.

The allegation made by France that advertisements prepare “children for future life in a consumer society” (PPU, 2003) can easily be refuted because as has been argued elsewhere in this paper, children do not have the cognitive abilities to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Since some advertisements stretch the truth too far, children may be tricked into thinking that the half-truths are true in the real world. Dittmann (2004) puts it more accurately by stating that children lack the interpretation that adults have.

Consequently, anything presented to them appears truthful, balanced, and fair. The author further notes, “children don’t see the exaggeration or the bias that underlies the claims” made by advertisers (Dittmann, 2004, para. 16). It is rather clear that exaggerated and biased content by the advertisers cannot be educative enough for children.

Dittmann (2004) notes that some advertisements teach children that if they like something, they cannot buy it later; rather, the advertisements create a sense of urgency that implies that children need to get whatever they like immediately. Peter and Olson (2010) have termed such conditioning of consumers by marketers as classical conditioning.

Specifically, the two authors argue that in classical conditioning, marketers intended to appeal to the involuntary responses by consumers hence meaning that the targeted consumers do not consciously choose to purchase a product or service.

Arguably, when a marketing message urges children to buy a product immediately, they are using classical conditioning to appeal to the children to buy a marketed product immediately. There are lessons in the preceding sense of urgency. Unfortunately, the lessons are not reflective of the actual reality.

In the real word, consumers buy goods and services to serve a specific need or preference. Additionally, they buy products or services based on whether they can afford the same. Finally, in reality, all purchases do not have to be made immediately because there are issues that have to be considered. For example, consumers often have to consider which of the many available options they need to give up in order to afford others (i.e., opportunity cost).

A different justification that is often offered for advertising to children is that advertising messages allow children to engage and integrate into the society that they live in (Quinn, 2002). Proponents of this argument state that shielding children from advertising is tantamount to shielding them from reality. By targeting them through advertisements, Quinn (2002) argues that children become aware of forces that shape reality in their societies.

Additionally, advertisements shape the discussions that children have with their parents or guardians since any advertised product that a child demands to acquire can be granted or denied with explanations. What Quinn (2002) implies in his statement is that children become aware of commercialism from advertisements.

Arguably, the foregoing argument is not only misleading, but also force. As O’Barr (2008) notes, advertising does not in any way inform children about commercialism or the dynamics of the consumer society they live in. Rather, it encourages them to take part in commercialism without even considering the undeveloped nature of their cognitive and decision-making capacities.

The theory of reasoned action as cited by Peter and Olson (2010) hypothesizes that consumers choose a product that has the most desirable characteristics. However, the limited cognitive and decision-making capacity in children may limit the applicability of the same theory among children consumers. It is, therefore, erroneous for Quinn (2002) to suggest that commercial messages that target children are part of the normal upbringing of children.

He specifically argues “advertising is a part of a child’s normal environment” (Quinn, 2002, p. 27). In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. O’Barr (2008) argues that what seems normal to some people is not normal to others. To advertisers, targeting children with advertising messages may appear normal. However, some parents who are intent on protecting their children from erroneous views regarding life, do not perceive advertisements that target their children as normal or natural.

Additionally, targeting children who are unable to engage critically with advertising messages should not be interpreted as normal. The negative impact of such messages on children is that it indoctrinates them with beliefs that make consumerism appear as a natural social phenomenon.

A different argument advocating the continued advertisements targeting children indicates that just like adults, children have a right to receive information from different sources and decide what is best for them (J-Rank, 2009). This argument is anchored in the freedom of speech concept, which indicates that people and companies have a right to communicate commercially, so long as their messages are not advertising illegal products, harmful activities or information that is false or misleading (J-Rank, 2009).

To refute the preceding argument and show that advertisements that target children indeed have adverse effects on young people, it is important first to indicate that unlike adults, children do not have the mental capacity to make informed decisions. When advertisers target them, they do not seek to exercise their right to free speech; rather, the advertisers arguably exploit the children’s naivety and brainwash them into embracing consumerism.

Freedom of free speech is enshrined in most constitutions in developed countries; it should not be exercised without considering the moral or ethical implication that such communication will have on children, who happen to be the most innocent and defenseless members of the society.

The society as a whole arguably has a responsibility to shield children from misleading impressions that create the wrong values (e.g., materialism) in children. As O’Barr (2008) notes, advertising creates the impression that the more material possessions that a person has, the happier he, or she will be. The preceding is an unfortunate lesson that children are being taught by advertisements, and which is likely to continue shaping how they relate to material things, money, and other people, going forward.

Another major argument that advocates for advertising that targets children state that funding for most entertaining and educative children programs, is obtained through advertisements (Quinn, 2002). The argument, therefore, suggests that if advertisers stop targeting children with commercial messages, the quality of such programs may be compromised, and some may even stop broadcasting. Quinn (2002) further argues that advertising not only benefits marketers but children too.

He gives the example of children magazines, which are sold at affordable prices, mainly because they are substantially subsidized by advertisers who buy space in the same magazines. The argument further indicates that without such advertisements, magazines would have to sell at higher prices hence limiting the number of people who can afford them.

To counter the preceding argument, it is important to state the negative impact that advertising has on children should not be justified for any reason. The foregoing argument aside, it is worth noting that modern broadcasting can get funding from diverse stakeholders, which include corporate sponsors and government sponsors whose only interest in funding such programs would be to enhance the welfare of children.

Additionally, some modern day broadcasters can obtain funding from subscription fees, and as such restricting advertisements that target children would not occasion major differences in the revenue streams of such broadcasters.

Proponents of advertisements that target children (e.g. Quinn (2002)) make it sound as if broadcasters’ primary revenue stream is from advertisers who target children audiences only.

In reality, though, children are just one consumer segment targeted by marketers. The people who have the purchasing power, and who are ethically capable of making informed consumer decisions are the adults; they are the ideal target audience for advertisers.

From this discussion, it looks like no argument by the proponents of advertising to children can go without being refuted. Arguably, the real reason that marketers advertize to children is that they intend to take advantage of children’s naivety. In this paper, there is no hint of any moral, social, ethical or even spiritual justification to advertize to children.

That notwithstanding, there are other serious issues that indicate the harmful nature of advertising to children. Obesity is just one such harmful effect. Others include commoditization of the human body (especially the female body), excessive materialism and erosion of values, youth violence, and underage substance abuse (O’Brien, 2011). It has also been argued that advertising imprints early on children’s mind the wrong consumer choices and behaviors.

If children are to become responsible adults, such erroneous notions have to be corrected in the children’s teenage years. The foregoing situation creates a wasteful state of resources where wrongs are created and then attempts made to correct them.

Unfortunately, some choices and behaviors are so ingrained in the children’s psyche that no attempt to correct them is successful. In such cases, the child grows up to become a materialistic person mainly because advertisers created that urge to own material possessions in him from an early age.


In conclusion, it is important to note that advertising to children does more harm than good to the same children. None of the arguments supporting advertising to children as indicated in this paper is irrefutable. The argument that advertising has educational content has been shown to be false.

Specifically, children cannot be expected to learn about commercialism from advertisements that advise them to adopt materialism, without expounding the pros and cons of taking up specific consumer behaviors. Additionally, the argument that advertisements provide revenue for the production of children programs has been discounted too. As argued herein, children are just part of the audience that different mediums of the communication target.

Not advertising to them would not, therefore, make a significant difference in the revenues that such media channels earn from marketers. The argument that advertisements help children to engage and integrate with society has also been refuted. This paper has argued that advertisements indoctrinate children into thinking that consumerism and materialism are natural, while in reality, they are not.

Finally, this paper has refuted the argument that advertising to children upholds freedom of speech. The paper has argued that freedoms come with moral and ethical responsibilities, which are lacking whenever children are misled by advertising content whose only intention is to convert them into buyers. Overall, this position paper has demonstrated that the impact of advertising on children is generally negative.

The preceding position has been taken because children’s cognitive abilities are not fully developed to enable them to make a distinction between the good and bad of what is advertised to them. Additionally, children do not possess the skills necessary to evaluate and interpret advertisements. As such, this paper takes the position that advertisers take advantage of children’s naivety and lack of knowledge.


Dittmann, M. (2004). Protecting children from advertising. American Psychological Association, 35(6), 20-58.

Harris, J.L., Bargh, J., & Brownell, K. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404-413.

J-Rank. (2009). Freedom of speech- commercial speech- advertising, amendment, government and misleading speech. 

Kapferer, J.N. (2008). A comparison of TV advertising and mothers’ influence on children’s attitudes and values. In M. Ward, M. Robertson & M. Brown (Eds.), Commercial television and European children (pp. 120-175). London: Gower Press.

Livingstone, S. (2004). Advertising foods to children: understanding promotion in the context of children’s daily lives. A review of Literature Prepared for the Research Department of the Office of Communications (OFCOM). London.

McDonald’s News. (2011). McDonald’s unveils sponsorship plans for the London 2012 Olympic games. Web.

Medical Offer of Health. (2008). Food and beverage marketing to children. Toronto: MOH Publishers.

O’Barr, W. (2008). Children and advertising. Advertising and Society Review, 9(4).

O’Brien, G. (2011). Marketing to children: accepting responsibility. Business Ethics Magazine. 

Peace Pledge Union (PPU). (2003). Children and advertising: the European dimension. Web.

Peter, J.P., &Olson, J.C. (2010). Consumer behavior & marketing strategy (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Quinn, R-B. (2002). Advertising and children. Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, 1-55.

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